Beach Books

Man Against an ‘Attacking Ocean’

The Beachcomber
Aug 22, 2013

“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean – roll!

Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain.

Man marks the earth with ruin – his control

Stops with the Shore.”

— Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” (1812-1818)


Peter, the little Dutch boy who saved his country by putting his finger in the dike and keeping it there until help came, is the stuff of legend. But the Netherlands’ fight against the rising sea is real, and dates back over seven centuries.

As early as the 14th century, Dutch ingenuity started land reclamation projects by constructing a ring of dikes. Two centuries later, such devices came into widespread use and ushered in the modern era of coastal sea defenses. (Some dikes built in 1440 were still in use in the 19th century.)

It is this battle between humans and the encroaching ocean, so epitomized by Holland, that Brian Fagan narrates in The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present, and Future of Rising Sea Levels (Bloomsbury Press, 2013). It is a broad and accessible survey of the interaction between the ocean and the people living next to it, and documents extreme weather events over many thousands of years.

The author takes a world view, and starts with “Doggerland” in Western Europe, the ancient land which joined Northern Europe to England in prehistoric times, and which became the North Sea and English Channel after the first Ice Age melt flooded the land. An unexpected benefit of North Sea undersea oil exploration was the discovery of relics of sunken civilizations; the oil companies offered their data to archeologists.

Fagan moves from The Netherlands around the globe to locations most vulnerable to the rising sea: Venice and the Egyptian delta in the Mediterranean Sea; Bangladesh and Southeast Asia; China, and especially Shanghai, built at sea level and already heavily barricaded; Japan, so susceptible to tsunamis (the word means “wave in the harbor”); Northern Alaska; the Mississippi floodplain; and small islands perched in the middle of the oceans with no land to which the population can retreat as the sea level rises. And certain cities in Florida.

The Attacking Ocean starts off with a chapter about Hurricane Sandy – added, I suppose, after the bulk of the book was finished – and a well-timed example of Fagan’s main theme: “The storm was an epochal demonstration of the power of an attacking ocean to destroy and kill in a world where tens of millions of people live on coastlines close to sea level.”

Fagan takes us back to other extreme weather events and explores how extended families and tribes living by the sea reacted and saved themselves – or didn’t. Using research-based imagination, the author creates vignettes of prehistoric people living in small communities at the edge of the sea, and shows how easily they could pick up and move to higher ground when threatened by storms and rising seas. He then enumerates the casualties wrought by recorded natural cataclysms, which rose dramatically with the founding of the first cities thousands of years ago.

In 1634 a cataclysmic storm surge killed almost 15,000 people along the coast of Northern Germany. The chronicler wrote of “many different dead beasts, beams of houses, smashed wagons … many a human body who had drowned… great ships were standing on the dike.” An engraving of the event looks much like a storm photograph taken on LBI in the past 75 years – overturned boats washed into homes, water up to the second floor of homes, and rowboats filled with residents escaping to higher ground. (The Attacking Ocean has helpful maps and illustrations.)

The thorough research that went into the writing of this book is evident. A skilled and accomplished science writer, Fagan has transformed the minutiae of history into an articulate narrative. Both weather buffs and lovers of littoral, historical detail will savor it. And for Island residents – who have no dike into which they can stick a finger – The Attacking Ocean will be an eye-opener.

Governor Christie should read this book.

For a good visual look at the world’s most threatened cities, go to

— Margaret Buchholz

Margaret Buchholz is the former owner of this newspaper and author of Josephine: From Washington Working Girl to Fisherman's Wife, Shore Chronicles, New Jersey Shipwrecks, Island Album and co-author of Great Storms of the Jersey Shore, all available at local stores. Send comments to

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