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Commodore Odakkal Johnson, Director, Maritime History Society: OCEANS AND THE CALM CYCLE OF TURBULENCE
By Sea and Coast | 05/06/2021
Commodore Odakkal Johnson has been a professional seafarer and maritime expert for 39 years with experience of mercantile marine, Indian Navy and academic research. He has two MSc degrees, an MPhil and a PhD in subjects related to the maritime dimension. He has authored “Timeless Wake – The Legacy of Royal Indian Navy in World War II” in addition to many scholarly works. An acknowledged Speaker, Coach and Research Supervisor, Cmde Johnson is currently Director, Maritime History Society.
Ancient of Days
A birthday or celebration signifies commemoration of maybe the most significant calendar point in the life cycle of the celebrant. On World Ocean Day 2021 it has evolved into a reflective gaze into the life cycle of perhaps the highest entity of significance on the planet. The celebrant is the occupant of 95% of the biosphere we humans inhabit and claiming a territoriality of 70.8% of the planet’s surface. It is indeed time to pause and catch up with a short collage of narratives of the ocean itself.
Recorded scientific data on the oceans date just around five centuries to observations by later medieval global voyagers like Bartholomew Dias (1487–1488), Christopher Columbus (1492–1494), Vasco da Gama (1497–1499), Ferdinand Magellan (1519–1522), and many others. What such a thought misses are that there are alternative evidences of oceanic crossings by the Polynesians (4000 BCE), Indians and Sumerians (2500 BCE or earlier), Greeks (300 BCE or so) and Arabs (300 CE onwards). The methodology of data collation and recording makes an objective reverse voyage through time challenging. While scientific oceanography is recognized from Edmund Halley’s work on wind systems and currents in 1685, formal enunciations are traced to end of 19th century to the observations of the Challenger Expeditions. Paleobiology and Biological Oceanography reveal a very long voyage of the ocean ecosystem, all the way to some 3.8 billion years ago. It is now realized that during the emission of water vapour and other gases from the molten rocks of the earth’s interior into the atmosphere of a cooling planet the process of ocean formation began. Obviously marking a specific birthday would be difficult, even if we could gauge the age of our sea scape of today.
Significant Maritime Voyage
One oceanic voyage is of special significance in the context of the academic span of enquiry at Maritime History Society. Formed by Late Vice Admiral MP Awati this significant national institution has in 43 years traversed countless intellectual voyages of multi-dimensional nature into the maritime domain. In a very treasured narration by a long time Chief Patron,
the Late Admiral JG Nadkarni, Indian maritime voyage started some 120 million years ago as it broke off from Gondwana in Southern Hemisphere and sailed North at a speed of 2 inches per year and in about 40 million years raced up to three times that pace! The Indian landmass may claim the fastest tectonic shift and crashing into the Eurasian plate created Geographical India around 50 million years ago.
As scientists continue to theorise on the enhanced pace of the continental drifts, the result of that geological occurrence, created the most dominating feature in the map of the Indian Ocean. Its significance is well understood by archaeological findings that confirm cross oceanic human interactions originating and culminating on the Indian coast. Oceanographic and climatological assessment confirm that the two-monsoon pattern in the North Indian Ocean is certainly understood by Indians at least two to three millennia ago. The ancient voyage of the landmass of many million years seemed to have spawned a wind and current driven venture across the seas.
Ocean Crossing and Changes
The sea voyages on both the West Coast and on the East Coast clearly connected ports that indicated oceanic crossings rather than a easier coastal passage. Evidence of early use of monsoon winds in the Arabian Sea are relatively circumstantial. Yet the Red Sea – Muziris connectivity and the Kutch – East Africal sea relations are best explained by use of the inbound and retreating monsoons. On the East Coast the recreated climatological assessment-based study does indicate the oceanic voyages between Kalinga
and Bali in Indonesia. The importance of these connections is the oceanographical knowledge and application into the sea lanes of that era.
By the early medieval era, oceanic voyages of significant time duration had become a seasonal activity across Bay of Bengal and Arabian Seas. It is fascinating as Prof Lakshmi Subramanian explains in her works that Boudhayana Dharma Sutra prohibited the Brahmana from crossing the seas, many Brahmanas actually crossed the oceans and carried the Indian culture and beliefs across to South East Asia and in later centuries to as far as Oceania.
The cycle of maritime activities was evolving. The increasing Arab seafaring venture enabled them to reach the Malay and Indonesian Archipelagoes and the Malabar region became the medieval confluence and transhipment hub. The Chinese seafarers of the Ming Voyages and Zheng He fame formed the other arm of the Malabar confluence. In the Indian environment the sea trade initiative started coalescing into select communities and established merchant guilds. This was with the affirmation of the sovereign and at the same time with the venture capital infusion from temple treasuries and associated guilds. That explains the position of India as the leading GDP statistic of the world.
Maritime Resurgence and New Threats
As we race forward in time to the turn to the twenty-first century, the Indian Ocean and now the Indo-Pacific region has witnessed a maritime resurgence with terminologies such as Blue Economy, Sagarmala and Collaborative Maritime Competence becoming part of the Oceanic and Strategic vocabulary. Without delving into geopolitics or geoeconomics it is important amidst a pandemic to draw focus on long oceanic cycles as clear reflection of life itself, having originated from the oceans.
One would be forgiven to casually treat the oceans as a large mass of salt water and we will look at salinity also. A recent social media visual depicted the world’s sea space as seen by any aquatic organism as just one ocean. Oceanographers have divided it into Arctic, Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. A special attempt by some countries to designate a Southern Ocean has not been officially recognized to date. Encyclopedic and National Geographic writings reiterate, that the oceans tend to remain a mystery, with 80% of the ocean yet unmapped or unexplored. Interestingly, we have better data on the Moon or even Mars than much of the Earth’s ocean floor!
A few figures may be note-worthy. The deepest points in the ocean are Mariana Trench (36,201 feet) and Philippine Trench (34,580 feet) and either could immerse Mt Everest (29, 031 feet above sea level). With around 90% ocean species undiscovered, we are aware of 226,000 species in our seas.
There is today a brewing turbulence, in the maritime dimension, that needs to be taken heed of, lest it spiral out of control. It is not as simple as a security dilemma that occupies nation states in a geo-political framework. Certainly, maritime terrorism, IUU Fishing, Human Traficking and other security threats are important. Yet, the greater threat to many nations are natural disasters, with a common thread of their origin in the oceanic space. A typical case is the cycle of cyclones in the vicinity or across the Indian Coast. Sailing Directions, publications that give information of importance to mariners on specific regions, indicate that in North Indian Ocean most storms occurred in the September to November period and threatening the East Coast of India in addition to Bangladesh and Myanmar. In the past decade the steady rain cycle from the monsoons on the West Coast of India have been disrupted with regular cyclones. These have been typically just before and after the usual South West Monsoon period.
Despite the growing factor of natural disasters, the very articulation of the concept of Blue Economy has veered away from the original sustainable livelihood from the oceanic aspect. Any document, paper or study on Blue Economy gives higher attention to development of Ports, Maritime Infrastructure, Shipping, Mineral Extraction and the like. The UN Sustainable Development Goals related to Blue Economy are highlighted by insufficient attention. It is important to give heed on World Ocean Day (Month!) to select Oceanographic aspects.
Climate Cycle and Ocean Acidification
Environmental awareness, in particular over the maritime domain has show-cased the need for greater attention to impact on oceans as the largest thermal reservoir. The concern raised by environmental protection agencies world wide is on the growing acidification of the oceans. This is attributed to higher level of carbon dioxide and the resulting increase in its dissolution in water. pH values have been measured to have altered. In understanding this may we remember that the oceans have had a carbon sink balance of almost 40,000 Gigatons (GtC) and form the primary reservoir of CO2. The balance is already disturbed and if left unchecked has the potential to be catastrophic.
There are two factors of concern to oceanographers. One is thermohaline circulation and the second is stratification. There are associated elements of salinity and he inter-relations with climate change and human activity. The oceanic current circulation and the balance of warm and cold currents maintains climate balance and seasonal activity that the planet has experienced for many millennia. Salinity is a complex data and at the core of stratification in the oceans. The contrast between colder waters in the depths and warmer waters near the surface causes layers or stratification of the oceans. This impacts ocean intra-movement. There is a resultant deep circulation which has unbelievable cycles of movement and periodicity ranging from decades to centuries and maybe even a millennium. This
thermohaline circulation is one among many keys to understand dissolved CO2 in the oceans and associated sea level rise and sea-surface temperature changes. Beyond the obvious acidification, this alters the ability of the oceans to act as the carbon sink.
Oceans are the Life Source
As one more World Ocean Day would come and go, it is important to recognize that philosophically, scientifically and probably naturally oceans are both the source and stability of life. Despite the dominant component of the earth’s biosphere, the oceanic space is paper thin and fragile as compared to the depth of the planet’s core. It is not an easy balance to easily comprehend and that may have in the past invited the idea of “Samudrollanghana” for crossing the unknown and domain of the demons of the deep. Unexplored the oceans maybe, they are not a strange factor in our ecosystem.
The best tribute or commemoration to the Oceans as the majority stakeholder of planet surface is not mere reverence. That is admirable as seeking auspiciousness of Lord Varuna or Lord Neptune. The true devotion would be to study them, sail on them, search within them and serve in its canvas. Maritime History Society is set to enhance influence for greater maritime consciousness through its academic and outreach projects. It remains committed to comprehensive academic enquiry and seeks support through interest, involvement and inputs. Do support and promote by visiting our website and various media handles. Let Heritage Awaken our Maritime Consciousness. Happy World Ocean Day 2021!
(The views expressed in the article are personal views and do not reflect the official position of the Indian Navy or the Govtment of India.)
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