For almost all of the past eleven thousand years, human populations have been miniscule by today’s standards. The global population numbered about seven million by six thousand years ago, the world being almost deserted by today’s standards. There was plenty of room to move away from encroaching seas, even in the most densely populated areas. The rate of sea level rise slowed dramatically about six thousand years ago, just about when the world’s first civilizations came into being in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and South Asia. Now another variable came into play, that of rapidly rising populations after 4000 B.C.E. At least two hundred million people lived on earth by the time of Christ.
The number had reached a billion or so by the time of the Industrial Revolution. With the growth of maritime and river-based trade, more and more people settled in strategic coastal locations near sea level. Now the threat from rising sea levels increased dramatically, partly from the climbing ocean, but also from severe weather events like hurricanes and tropical cyclones with their violent sea surges. Millions have perished as a result of these cataclysmic events, as human vulnerability to rising sea levels has increased exponentially. Today, billions of people living near the world’s ocean are endangered by unpredictable storms, salt contaminated ground water, and encroaching breakers, to the point that environmental refugees are certain to become one of the world’s major policy issues in future decades.
What can we do to rise to the challenge of rising sea levels? Do we wall off the ocean at vast expense, restore coastal wetlands and swamps? Or do we move entire cities to higher ground? The Attacking Sea ends by examining a future where millions of us are under threat and looks at some of the options.
This is a narrative based on the latest scientific research from many academic disciplines, as well as rich historical sources. We visit tiny hunting camps now under the North Sea, also farmers in the Nile Delta and threatened cities in South Asia, and examine the plight of millions of Bangladeshis as they face the attacking ocean.