The Saturday Read ‘Pacific’ by Simon Winchester

While the events of the past 24 hours have turned our thoughts to Paris, another headline scrolled across screens last night, warning of a possible tsunami off the coast of Japan.

News stories of the Pacific Ocean and her terrestrial neighbors continue to occupy a significant amount of news coverage: growing concern of El Nino and the bell weather ‘surprise’ of hurricane Patricia, mapping of marine debris that continues to traverse the ocean four years after the Japanese earthquake, and most recently, the expansion of reefs into Chinese military facilities, establishing claims in contested territorial waters.

In advance of President Obama’s trip to Kuala Lumpur next week to attend the Asia summits, the ‘Saturday Read’ this week is  ‘Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers’ by Simon Winchester.

“For all its apparent placidity, the Pacific seems today to be positioned at the leading edge of any number of potential challenges and crises – whether they relate to politics or economics, to geology, to weather, to the supply of food, or to the most basic questions about the number of people that this planet can support.”

What do we know about this vast expanse of water? Stories from veterans of WWll, the Korean War or the Vietnam war? Shared experiences of vacation trips to Hawaii, the South Pacific, Australia or New Zealand? Or, impressions from the novels of  James Michener; ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ and ‘Hawaii’?

Consider the impact of a port strike in LA; container ships lined along the coast filled with a wide range of holiday gifts that may never reach shore in time for Christmas. The Pacific is a vital artery connecting us to the consumer goods of our daily lives.

Winchester begins his narrative aboard United Airlines flight 156 which leaves Honolulu three times a week on the way to Guam, traversing almost six thousand miles, with five stops along the way.

“The ocean beneath is almost unimaginably vast, and illimitably various. It is the oldest of the world’s seas, the relic of the once all-encompassing Panthalassic Ocean that opened up seven hundred fifty million years ago. It is by far the world’s largest body of water – all of the continents could be contained within its borders, and there would be ample room to spare. It is the most biologically diverse, the most seismically active; it sports the planet’s greatest mountains and deepest trenches; its chemistry influences the world; and the planetary weather systems are born within its boundaries.”

The author has structured his story to fit the timeline of the sixty-five years since 1950. He sifted through the lists he prepared to focus on “truly pivotal moments the story of this vast acreage of ocean’ and poses timely questions to emphasize the Pacific’s significance.

“It is the most turbulent ocean in the world, and an expanse of sea that should be central to all our thoughts. Is the ocean to be the place of coming war? Is it to be our eventual savior, a places so beautiful and fragile that its sheer vastness will one day demand that we pause in our careless and foolish behavior in the rest of the world? Or will it be something in between: a pillar of hope and example and good sense poised between East and West, on which, for good or ill, we construct humanity’s future?”

The reader will tour “the great thermonuclear sea” and stamp their virtual passports in Japan, Hong Kong, the Great Barrier Reef, Korea, the Philippines and California. Each chapter reads as a short story, which allows the reader to time travel in small bites. The strength of the book is the geological and meteorological insights. ‘Pacific’ is required reading and Simon Winchester provides a persuasive argument.

“The future, in short, is what the Pacific Ocean is now coming to symbolize. For if one accepts that the Mediterranean was once the inland sea of the Ancient World: and further, that the Atlantic Ocean was, and to some people still remains, the inland sea of the Modern World: then surely it can be argued that the Pacific Ocean is the inland sea of Tomorrow’s World. What transpires across these sixty-four million square miles of ultramarine ocean matters, and to all of us.”

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