I used to live by the sea in Brighton. From my house it took 10 minutes to stroll to the seafront, a promenade lined with rusty Victorian railings that forms the backdrop for the revels of holidaying Brits. I often walked by the sea and as I did, I thought about what that stretch of water – sometimes sulky and brown, at other times wildly, almost manically frothed – meant to me. I also thought about what water means to us as inhabitants of this planet, of whose fragility and interconnectedness we are more aware than ever. No matter what the register of my thoughts, I always found it a strangely ambivalent experience. Sometimes I felt close to achieving an almost sublime awareness of the enormity that lies before me. Other times it felt palpably as if the sea rejected me in my neediness and my puniness.
This book is about another way of trying to answer the question of what water means to us, one that doesn’t ignore the personal but which has its own logic and its own history. This is the history of how we have understood the waters of the Earth. And by waters I am not referring merely to the ocean (if one can reasonably use the word mere about such a massive object). I am talking about all the waters of the planet in all their forms: water as ice sheets and glaciers, as surging ocean currents and blooming rainclouds, as the invisible vapour that pervades our atmosphere in tiny amounts that have ridiculously outsized effects – all these wonderful forms of the substance that we, self-centeredly, call life-giving but which is also climate-creating, climate-sustaining and climate-changing. It is to these masses of water that I want to turn my–and your–attention, to tell the story of how we’ve come to understand them scientifically and what that understanding means for the past, present and future of our planet.
Water World: The Story of the Scientists Who Unravelled the Mysteries of Our Seas, Glaciers and Atmosphere–and Made the Planet Whole will be published by the University of Chicago Press and Scribe UK in Summer 2018.