The Power of The Sea

On June 6th, 1944, some 160,000 soldiers aboard about 5,000 boats of diverse design crossed the English Channel and carried out the Invasion of Normandy, one of the more important events in recent history. Many of the soldiers were so sick from choppy seas that leaving the boats and walking or running into German gunfire seemed like a good idea. The invasion was originally planned for the 45h of June, but a very precise weather forecast told the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, to wait until the next day. The forecast for the 6th of June, integrated with the logistical features of the operation, had the landing craft arriving on the German-held beaches just as wave heights were reducing from a level unacceptable for this operation to something that could be managed by most (but not all) vessels.

If you've seen "The Longest Day" or any of the other classic semi-documentary dramatizations of D-Day, you may recognize the name Captain James Stagg. Stagg was the meteorologist on Eisenhower's staff, and as such he was the conduit and translator for the information that came from the meteorology group. That, in turn, was a combination of American and British scientists with very different methods and backgrounds, but both using data and analyses that involves a large number of individuals making observations and crunching numbers, from teams at Scripts Institute in California who developed the primary predictive models in use to British Coast Guard observers making observations at sea several times a day.

The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves, and Our Quest to Predict Disasters by Bruce Parker elucidates the science behind this historic moment in great detail in one of several riveting chapters about the ocean, and stuff the ocean does. Parker is a former chief scientist of the National Ocean Service so he knows something about waves, storms, tides, tsunamis, storm surges, and the like. This book is a nice combination of primer on meteorology ala the ocean and weather-related adventure stories. Throughout the book I kept running into things that I had always wanted to know about ... like how exactly did that one huge ship I've seen so many times off the Cape Peninsula in South Africa sink? (The ocean did it!), what really was the story behind Stagg's predictions (as discussed) and what is a future with greater storm surges and rising sea going to look like?

I recommend this book for non-experts who need to know all about ocean related science, who need to better understand the effects and dynamics of storms like Sandy, Tsunamis, and similar events. Parker does not hold back on the science and the detail. This is a very enjoyable way to elevate one's self to the level of armchair oceanic meteorologist in a few evenings of enjoyable reading!

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The Germans had to rely on their U-Boats to get weather forecasts coming in from the North Atlantic. We had much better coverage. They missed the small high pressure system (I think) that gave the Allies that small window of relatively good weather to make the assault on June 6th. That was one reason they weren't expecting an attack on that day.

By Richard Chapman (not verified) on 16 Dec 2012 #permalink

During the Second World War, my father served in the Army Air Corps as an aerial photographer on bombing and reconnaissance missions. When he received his shipping orders, transferring him from a naval port in the northeastern U.S. to the The Firth of Clyde in Scotland, he begged and manipulated the system in order to procure hoped-for air transport across the Atlantic; he was much more frightened of being sunk by a U-Boat than of being shot down. Naturally his efforts failed, and so he endured 2 weeks of pure hell on choppy North Atlantic seas. (Ordinarily the voyage would last 4 days, but his convoy zigged and zagged precisely in order to reduce risk of attack by the German subs.) By the end of the first week he was SO sea-sick that he would lie in his bunk, between non-stop severe vomiting bouts, praying for that erstwhile dreaded torpedo to end his misery!

As for me, my only (puny) experience with "the power of the sea" occurred when hitch-hiking passage on a medium-size Taiwanese boat from Tai-tung to Lan-yu (Orchid Island) while on a malacological collecting trip [think Darwin or Wallace writ very, VERY small]. Whereas the mostly Japanese tourists traveling with me spent their 6 scenic hours projecting their stomach contents over the deck rails, I prided myself -- as the stalwart young scientist I imagined myself to be -- on mastering my seasickness just enough to hold in my puke, never mind my heartburn and reflux. Much to my pride I managed to succeed.

Nice book review, Greg.

By Joseph A. Marcus (not verified) on 16 Dec 2012 #permalink

Richard, and thanks to those U-boats, we got to "crack" Enigma for a while, by capturing one or two of them when they came up to take readings and transmit data.

I am prone to sea sickness, which is why I study freshwater fish which live in shallow water. On a couple of occasions, out in the ocean in a small boat, I have started to get sea sick. I put on mask, snorkel, and flippers and went over the side. My feelings of sea sickness immediately went away, although I was being bounced around floating at the surface.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 16 Dec 2012 #permalink

Are there any studies of how prone people are to sea sickness and what triggers it? I know the mechanism -- your semicircular canals give signals that conflict with what your eyes tell you and people get nauseous. But I am still cuious about some things.

When I go on boats I never get particularly seasick. I've been in rough seas before, and I might have felt a bit queasy, but after eating I felt better. So I am nit sure if it was the motion or just wanting to eat.

I'm one of those people who can read on a bus, though. I thank the NYT crossword puzzle for making many a ride pleasant.

So I wonder if anyone ever did a detailed study of what makes people seasick or more prone to it or not. Is there some mechanism or structure in the semicircular canals that in some people is just more sensitive? Is there a correlation between balancing ability and how prone you are to seasickness?

How fast you get your "sea legs" would, intuitively, say to me that your brain is more or less plastic in that particular area).

And why do people get motion sick in cars and buses, but not on the NYC subway, which rocks back and forth a lot? (That motion seems to put people to sleep if you are lucky enough to sit at rush hour!) Is it the frequency of the motion? Or some relation between amplitude and frequency that falls in a certain range?