July 17, 2018

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Despite its calming name, Pacific is anything but

The Tacloban city of Leyte in the central  Philippines was devastated by typhoon Haiyan  in late 2013.

BULLIT MARQUEZ / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

The Tacloban city of Leyte in the central Philippines was devastated by typhoon Haiyan in late 2013.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/1/2016 (927 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Celebrated British journalist and author Simon Winchester is well-placed to write a wide-ranging, nuanced "biography" of the mighty Pacific Ocean.

In his 30-plus-year writing career, Winchester has written numerous books on countries and historical events on both sides of the Pacific Rim: China; the former British colony of Hong Kong; India; Korea; the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa; the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; and the growth and development of the modern geological sciences. He also wrote 2010's Atlantic about the ocean of the same name.

In 1520 when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first left the Atlantic Ocean and sailed into what the explorer Balboa in 1513 had called the great southern sea, the waters were calm -- so Magellan named the water Pacific.

However, it's clear from each of Winchester's 10 thought-provoking chapters that the name Pacific is inaccurate in a climatic, geological, historical, political and cultural sense.

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Thank you for supporting the journalism that our community needs!

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/1/2016 (927 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Celebrated British journalist and author Simon Winchester is well-placed to write a wide-ranging, nuanced "biography" of the mighty Pacific Ocean.

In his 30-plus-year writing career, Winchester has written numerous books on countries and historical events on both sides of the Pacific Rim: China; the former British colony of Hong Kong; India; Korea; the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa; the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; and the growth and development of the modern geological sciences. He also wrote 2010's Atlantic about the ocean of the same name.

In 1520 when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first left the Atlantic Ocean and sailed into what the explorer Balboa in 1513 had called the great southern sea, the waters were calm — so Magellan named the water Pacific.

However, it's clear from each of Winchester's 10 thought-provoking chapters that the name Pacific is inaccurate in a climatic, geological, historical, political and cultural sense.

Readers interested in indigenous issues, 21st-century political development, environmental concerns, topics in geology or looking for the simple pleasure of armchair exploring will find something of interest in Winchester's pages.

The ocean named by Magellan is so immense that it's hard to comprehend its enormity. It encompasses more than 162.5 million square kilometres; all the continents could fit into its borders. Its maximum depth is 10,900 metres, and its highest mountains would tower over Mt. Everest.

The Pacific region is also the most ecologically diverse area of the world, and the Earth's planetary weather systems are born in its northern and southern tropical regions (thank the Pacific's El Nino for Winnipeg's relatively mild winter). However, as climate change increasingly warms its waters, Winchester writes, the world can expect more massively destructive super-storms to wreck havoc on Pacific Rim nations — see typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in November 2013.

The aptly named "ring of fire" that encircles the Pacific basin is the most seismically active area where we see the most active tectonic shifting, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and the possibility of tsunamis, such as those that tragically struck Thailand and Japan recently.

When thinking about the Pacific peoples, thoughts often go to the blue lagoons of tropical Polynesian atolls, outriggers, three-masted schooners, hula dancers and surfing. All those are there, but Winchester wants us to have a deeper understanding of the historical exploitation of the islanders and the destruction and appropriation of their culture by Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, German, American and Japanese imperialists over the past centuries. Because of its vastness and low population, the Pacific islands were believed to be empty and essentially valueless to Europeans.

His first chapter, The Thermonuclear Sea, tells the story of what is one the most heinous examples of mindless exploitation of peoples, lands and resources. In the aftermath of the Second World War the U.S., France and Britain tested their nuclear and thermonuclear weapons in the Pacific atolls, leaving irradiated islands and impoverished people in their wake.

From the 1940s onward, western nations gradually gave up colonies and territories in the Pacific region, some peacefully (Hong Kong) and others not so much (Vietnam).

In the late 20th and into the 21st century, eastern Pacific Rim nations — China, Japan, Republic of Korea (South Korea) and even the bizarrely xenophobic Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) — are flexing their economic might and/or military muscle to challenge the west's longtime hegemony.

Will it all end in some type of military confrontation between China and the United States? Both sides are becoming increasingly belligerent over control of the international sea lanes, and Winchester does not predict a happy ending.

If the Pacific region interests you, Winchester's extraordinary synthesis of history, culture and science is one to pick up.

 

Ian Stewart teaches at Cecil Rhodes School in Winnipeg.

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