Nessebar, Bulgaria. Photo by Sergey Galyonkin.
Regular readers know that I often question why we can’t more rationally discuss the risks of, and responses to, climate change. Scientists may have found my answer at the bottom of the Black Sea off Bulgaria.
There, near the ancient town of Nessebar – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – oceanographers recently discovered the world’s oldest known intact shipwreck, a Greek trading vessel around 2,400 years old, according to the BBC. It lies in a field of some 60 ancient shipwrecks, scattered near a city wall built by the Thracians and submerged by rising water centuries ago. Farther south along the Black Sea coast, off Turkey, researchers have discovered the ruins of cities as far as 12 miles from modern shorelines.
From the biblical story of Noah’s flood to the legend of Atlantis and the disappearance of the Bering Land Bridge that brought Homo sapiens from the Old World to the New, history – written, oral and perhaps by now instinctual – is full of examples of nature reshaping the human world. The dirt on which we construct our lives can change, sometimes instantly. Through the ages, we have been able to do little, often nothing, to stop it. Such vulnerability is terrifying; we like to be in control. So if we perceive ourselves to be the cause of such calamity, no matter how remote the risk, it follows that our emotional reaction is to stop it at all costs.
The oceans reached roughly their modern level, despite often-overlooked but significant fluctuations, somewhere between 3,000 years ago and 2,000 years ago, following the last ice age. According to one unproven theory, the Black Sea was a small inland lake until post-glacial ocean rises abruptly connected it to the Mediterranean through the Bosporus strait roughly 7,600 years ago, creating the great flood that gave rise to many local legends, including the enduring story of Noah and his ark.
The earliest human civilization arose 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, when global ocean levels were much lower than they are today. The Mesopotamians were followed in antiquity by the Egyptians, the Mayans, the Harappans of the Indian subcontinent, and the Norte Chico of Peru, while other cultures were growing up across Asia and in corners as remote as Australia. More familiar to many Americans are the Greek and Roman civilizations, which developed early enough for their people to experience a fast-changing coastal landscape. Legends and fears of a great flood are practically universal because such events have been a practically universal human experience.
The catastrophic tsunami of 2004 scoured the silt and pulled the waters off Mahabalipuram, India far offshore, exposing the ruins of an ancient city previously thought to be a local fishermen’s legend. Archaeologists are now beginning to explore those ruins, a mere 15 or 20 feet below today’s waves.
Some 20 miles northeast of modern Alexandria, Egypt, the city of Thonis (known as “Heracleion” to the Greeks) was a major trading point and melting pot of Egyptian and Greek culture in the sixth through fourth centuries B.C. before being superseded by Alexandria. Around the year 800 A.D., the city abruptly collapsed into the Mediterranean, probably after being battered by flooding and earthquakes that liquefied its soil. A British Royal Air Force pilot spotted the ruins in 1933 while flying over the bay that now covers the city, but the actual location was not marked and explored until the beginning of this century, by the French-Italian archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team. Not far away, Alexandria’s Portus Magnus and the opulent city of Canopus disappeared beneath the water at about the same time – the era of the Vikings, some 1,200 years ago.
A tsunami washed the Roman city of Neapolis in Tunisia out to sea about 1,700 years ago. On the eastern shore of Crete, sinking land and rising water doomed the city of Olous, according to some sources, in the fourth century A.D. Pavlopetri, a Greek city founded 5,000 years ago, is thought to have been abruptly submerged by an earthquake around 1000 B.C.; its well-preserved layout is visible today in about 13 feet of water off the modern town of the same name.
Similar calamities have struck populations far from ocean shores, too. National Geographic reported two years ago on a discovery in Turkey’s inland Lake Van – which has no outlet to the ocean – of an ancient fortress believed to be part of the 3,000-year-old lost city of Urartu, or the Kingdom of Van. Another lost city, whose cultural origins are still undetermined, has been discovered in Fuxian Lake in China’s southwestern Yunnan province.
Much closer to us in time and place, an earthquake struck the den of iniquity known as Port Royal, Jamaica on June 7, 1692. The soil liquefied and a tsunami poured in. When it was all over, 2,000 people were dead and 33 acres of the city – infamous for its population of pirates and other shady characters – lay beneath the water.
So do humans have an instinctive, visceral fear of seeing ourselves and all we have built swallowed by the waters that already rule approximately 71% of the Earth’s surface? I would guess we do – and not without reason.