THE oceans hold so many secrets within them, secrets that the man-made technology is only beginning to fathom. What is the connection between microscopic and seemingly insignificant sea creatures called planktons and the Indian monsoon? How, by measuring their presence or absence can scientists understand and predict the seasons and the changes in weather? And why does a storm in the Pacific Ocean affect our rains? These seem absolutely unrelated at first, till a scientist in oceanography like Arnold H Taylor explains to us the intricate network in which all of us are involved, across continents and oceans.
Taylor’s book The Dance of Air & Sea: How oceans, weather, & life link together is an extremely fascinating account of the way life on earth is an inter-looped chain of action-reaction and counter action. And in this beautiful dance, Man is striking the jarring note.
“Weather patterns remain at the root of why most eco-systems fluctuate, and they are coupled together in a global interlinked network. Since a classic investigation carried out at the Indian Meteorological Department in the early 1900s, it has been known that this global system oscillates in a set of massive seesaws, each spanning an ocean basin. One of these, the North Atlantic Oscillation, is fundamentally involved in the link between the Gulf Stream and the plankton over the other side of the ocean, not to mention many other changes over the region.” This is a part of the sum up of the ocean system.
Taylor, who has worked for 30 years in oceanographic research at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, says, “A dynamic network of interconnections” link weather patterns across the globe. “However, a complication in understanding all these processes is that the weather systems and ecosystems are non-linear, that is they do not necessarily react in a straightforward way to anything occurs.”
The book explains such terms as chaos and turbulence in the scientific contexts – they are phenomena that occur within the oceanic system. These are such complicated occurrences that Nobel winning physicist Werner Heisenberg is reported to have said that when he died he planned to ask two questions to god: “Why relativity” and “Why turbulence?”
The Indian monsoon begins nearly six months before it arrives, thousands of kilometers away. One of the factors that affect the rains here is El Nino Southern Oscillation. Studying the Indian famine of the late 19th century, Sir Gilbert Walker discovered that “there is a swaying of pressure on a big scale backwards and forwards between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean.” Taylor adds: “This atmospheric cycle showed great promise for forecasting the variability of the monsoons – in particular, during the drought years 1877 and 1878, there was a strong pressure reversal over the equatorial Pacific. Subsequent observations have confirmed that, although weak monsoons occur in these years, pressure reversals in the Pacific are invariably associated with weak or low Indian rainfall.”
Global warming and climate change are discussed as necessary corollary to the oceanic system. Quoting scientists Taylor points out that “the ecological disruption wrought by climate change is generally slower than that caused by other human activities such as change in land use, pollution, the invasion of the ecosystems by alien plants and animals, and the direct effects of increased levels of carbon dioxide on plant growth.”
In a serious warning he says “Global warming will change the tempo of the intricate dance between atmosphere and oceans, and this will leave footprints in the planet’s ecosystems. Only by systematically observing the world’s biota can these tracks be uncovered. Such a task is vital for mankind, for these footsteps will determine how the world’s living resources will look in the future.”
The book is fascinating. Taylor keeps the rhythm of the dance in his narration. With minimal academic jargons, it is a work anyone can relate to, read and enjoy. A recommended read.
(Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX2 6DP)