THE PACIFIC - THE GREAT OCEAN
On the face of the planet there lies, assembled into one immense and complicated but always inter-connected body, a quantity of some 329 million cubic miles of water - the sea. This body, because it contains fifty thousand million million tons of sodium chloride and similarly massive quantities of other dissolved salts, is undrinkable by most living creatures, but in scores of other ways is central - vital, indeed - to the existence of all life.
What might at first seem an enormous volume of fluid accounts in fact for a mere one million million millionth of the total volume of the planet. (A trifling proportion, perhaps - though students of the trivial are usually intrigued to learn that all the dissolved salts in the sea, were they to be dried out, would be enough to cover the entire land surface of the planet to a depth of 150 feet.) To better appreciate the size of the sea, one can perhaps imagine it heaped up into a cube. Each side would be 690 miles long - about the distance from London to Inverness, or Washington to Atlanta.
But of course the water is not heaped up into a cube and so it is perhaps more appropriate, though less convenient, to think of this mass of salt water in its actual context - as a veneer-thin skin which lurks in those troughs and valleys which fall below the mean circumference of the earth's planetary spheroid. If the earth is though of as a billiard ball, then the water upon its face is like hammered gold leaf, adhering to some imperfections in the ball more tightly than to others, and in yet others not adhering at all. It is held there and is permitted (or forced) to move only very slightly to and fro - though in very complicated ways - by the influences, sometimes combine, sometimes separate, of that variety of proximate gravities exerted by the sun, the moon and the nearer planets.
Thanks to the condition of the atmosphere above it this body of water may appear, at closer quarters, either tranquil or chaotic, storm-swept or calm. Depending on its latitude and the season, it may be a deep warm blue or an ugly, tepid green - or its surface may be frozen hard and white into ice, on which creatures may walk. Depending on the geology, the tectonics and thus the topography of the earth's surface beneath it, it may be many miles deep or some few fathoms shallow. It invariably supports an unimaginably vast quantity of living creatures, from submicroscopic unicellular beings via countless varieties of fish and plants and crustaceans to the mightiest whales - and thus the mightiest living creatures - that are known to exist. The sea is statistically a very much more impressive body than the land it surrounds. For a start it is far larger - 71 per cent of the earth's surface is sea, only 20 per cent dry land. Only in a very few latitudinal bands is there more land than sea thanks to Europe and Asia, that stretching from 45 deg.N to 70 deg.N is dominated by land, as is that (because of Antarctica) between 70 deg.S and the South Pole. Elsewhere, and particularly south of the equator, the sea rules: north of 84 degrees there is no land at all, and between 45 deg.S and the Antarctic Circle there is to all intents and purposes none either (just the bluffs in New Zealand, a silver of Patagonia and a few islands, unshakable feet - much deeper than the average height of the land, a mere 2,760 feet. And the sea's greatest known depth of 36,200 feet exceeds by more than a mile the height of Mount Everest.
From mankind's point of view the varying configurations of these 329 million cubic miles present a variety of conveniences and opportunities. It is a body that simultaneously defines the continents and divides them from each other; at the same time it knits together some of their distant and improbably linked civilizations, as well as their anthropologies and histories. The water can be both a barrier to our travel and a pathway for our commerce. In displays an endless variety of moods: lonely, majestic, dangerous, fickle and serene. It is always powerful. Perhaps not always as immediately dramatic as an exploding volcano, devastating earthquake nor a hurricane-force wind - but in terms of a sustained exertion of strength, it is probably the most powerful earth-borne entity known.
The sea is the primal source of all living things on earth. It is an immense graveyard, thought by some as a sacred and unspoiled resource. It is used by others - by far too many - as a unspoiled resource. It is used by others - by far too many - as a dumping-ground for the unwanted, the unsung, the unspeakable. For many it is the way home; for others the way from home, medium that encourages escape, change, exchange and exile. Accordingly, and because of its vast size, the sea inspires the greatest emotional responses of loving and loathing among those who occupy their business upon its surface. It can be the focus of inconsolable grief; it inspires poetry and literature, symphonies and songs. To any visitors from another planet, it would be the most obvious and most dominant feature of this one. But only lately have we come to think of it as one body, however, large and interconnected it may be. Not long ago geographers were wont to divide it into its most impressive component bodies, and to call them the Seven Seas. (These were the Arctic and Antarctic, the North and South Atlantic, the North and South Pacific, and the Indian Oceans. Other impressive bodies of water - the Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Black, the Baltic - were not included in the list.) Slowly, as geography became a more refined and philosophical diversion, so this way of subdividing the sea evolved into the simpler concept of just Five Oceans: the northerly and southerly subdivisions of the Atlantic and Pacific dropped, we were left with the uncomplicated vastnesses of the Oceans Arctic, Antarctic, Atlantic, Pacific and Indian.
Then again, at the turn of the century, a geographer named Otto Krummell decided that both Seven and Five were too many, and that there should be only the Three. The Arctic and Antarctic Oceans, Krummell decreed, were simply polar integrands of those oceans which had equatorial legitimacy: only these latter - the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian - were, in his scheme of things, true oceans.
The progressive simplification continues. Today even more reduction has taken place: now the more pedantically-mined geographers dispense with talk of any subdivisions, perhaps hesitating to diminish so mighty a feature of the globe by paring it apart and apportioning its sections hither and yon. They now call it what an extra planetary visitor -- a being unmoved by tales of historical discovery, disinterested in the results of political argument and unaffected by the predicted consequences of commercial trends - would probably call it himself. They remind themselves that it is all linked, one body of water, one mass of 329 million cubic miles of brine, and with unaffected simplicity they call it the World Ocean.
Taken alone the Pacific Ocean can be, like any other, defined in a variety of ways, depending on whether the observer is a geographer, geologist, cardiographer, military strategist or fashionably up-to-date economist. Sometimes, the definitions can border on the eccentric: the American admiral who commands all his country's ships, airmen, soldiers and marines in what the Pentagon regards as 'the Pacific' - as in the admiral's official title CINCPAC, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific - holds sway over an ocean which has its westerly shores off Mombasa, and is arbitrarily cut off along a line running due south from the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Thus 'the Pacific', as seen from the Pentagon's decidedly Atlantic eye in Arlington, Virginia, includes all the Indian Ocean, yet excludes that 10 per cent of the true Pacific which abuts the coast of South America (and, even more surreal, is actually administered from the office of the commander-in-chief, Atlantic, in Norfolk, Virginia).
The genesis of this particular definition, which we might call 'the military pacific', has more to do with American imperial history than with logic. But in recent years a more rigorously scientific approach has unwittingly given some credibility to it - at least to the Pentagon's arbitrary gift of an eastern frontier for the Ocean. It is all to do with satellites. This is simple enough to test by observation. An international satellite dish one might see in Vancouver or Los Angeles will point towards its "bird", low on the western horizon - the Pacific satellite. A dish in any pacific city east of the longitude of Mexico city - Lima, say, or Quito, or Santiago - will be cranked down in the direction of an equally low point on the eastern horizon - for just as American naval vessels involved in exercises off the Pacific coasts of Peru, Ecuador or Chile are regarded as being part of the US Atlantic fleet, so communicators, for reasons of pure geometry, think of these countries' capital cities as part of the Atlantic communications network.
Balboa and Magellan might have found the classification very droll, but the fact remains that for purposes of cartographic, organizational and now administrative convenience, the Pacific Ocean is simply far too big. There are, however, more conventional definitions of the Ocean's limits.
To a geologist, for instance, the Pacific Ocean is a very sharply defined depression of the earth's surface which has been formed as a result of the complicated processes of plate tectonics. Out another way, the area which can properly be called the 'tectonic Pacific' is one of relatively low altitude that is bounded by a ring of islands and mountains which have been - and are still being - formed by the geological processes that occur when one tectonic plate bumps into and grinds against another. The main and more or less stable plate that dominates the area is known, hardly surprisingly, as the Pacific Place; surrounding it are a number of equally large, or smaller plates such as the Australian, the Nazca, the North American and the Cocos Plate. Were one to define the Pacific in terms of its tectonics alone, then it would be a sea considerably shrunk from that to which we are accustomed. Its boundary - the boundary of the Pacific Place - would follow the west of North America, but it would then turn sharply south and pass to the seaward, as it were, of both the Galapagos archipelago and Easter Island, before curving to the south of New Zealand, along the spine of South Island and emerging back into the sea near the hot mud springs of Rotorua. The Pacific boundary-line would then pass to the seaward to Tonga and Fiji, curve back westwards to New Guinea, head north and east through Guam and Iwo Jima, pass off the eastern shores of the Japanese chain, head up to Kamchatka and rejoin the North American continent off the Aleutians.
This supposed boundary of the Pacific Plate almost exactly parallels what was once called the andesite line: a zone surrounding the Pacific, on the outer edge of which are found rocks of andesitic - acid - variety, and within which nearly all the rocks are of a more basic kind, using the word in its chemical sense. In excessively crude shorthand: there are light-coloured rocks that form themselves into sharp peaks and very explosive volcanoes (Mount St Helens, Krakatoa) on the outside of the Line; while there are dark-coloured rocks that give rise to rounded hills from which flow copious amounts of benign lavas (Mauna Loa) within it. When Line was adduced, the science of place tectonics was unknown; the mechanics are better understood today. The geologists' definition is sufficient: the tectonic Pacific is a body that is only about 70 per cent of the area of the conventionally accepted Ocean, and omits the coasts of all the South American and most of the South-East-Asian countries. This is a definition which, while perhaps satisfying the intellectual appetites of a few myopic geophysicists, and considerably more satisfying than that of the Pentagon, still bears little relation to reality.
Yet neither does what we might call 'the economists' Pacific'. This, though, is probably the most popular modern vision of the Pacific - a vision of a place of unbridled growth, vigour and wealth, one that has helped to spawn modish concepts like the Pacific rim, the Pacific Basin and the Pacific community (each of which will be considered in detail later). But the 'Pacific' which has led to such thinking is a very different place from that dreamed up by soldiers or geologists, and once again is some way removed from the real, warts-and-all Pacific to which later Web pages will be devoted. It is a collection of those countries which generally have two things in common: they are about on to the ocean, and they are in some positive - always positive - way economically or politically vibrant. Japan is a good example, invariably on every list, as is the other side of that particular economic equation, the United States; South Korea is always there too; Taiwan invariably; Hong Kong and Singapore usually; the Philippines on occasion. Some countries - Australia, Fiji, New Guinea, Mexico - are included in some definitions, omitted from others. And a whole host of other countries - North Korea, Chile, the Solomon Islands, Colombia - hardly ever get counted by the practitioners of the dismal science, despite their admirably pacific qualities. So a Pacific as defined by such minds might fall within the appropriate longitudes and latitudes, but it would be riddled with holes, a discontinuous mess, a collection of connected pieces of sea and land established principally to prove an argument about an entity of which they make up only a fraction.
The geographers and the oceanographers, politically disinterested a corps d'elite as they are, offer us two uncomplicated versions of the Pacific. The first is what we might call the 'technical pacific' - that immense body of water lying to the seaward of all the island arcs and groups within the Ocean's obvious continental margins. It is in places almost congruent with the tectonic Pacific; its outline follows the Andesite Line along the western margin of the Pacific Plate, from Kamchatka to Christchurch. But on the eastern margin it keeps its own counsel: instead of heading out to sea to follow the line of the Easter Island Ridge, this Pacific Ocean boundary stretches (with only three minor hiccups) directly down the American coasts, from Attu Island in the Aleutians to Diego Ramirez Island off Cape Horn. This is thus the most nearly recognizable of all the Pacifics we have considered so far.
However, it is the next and last version which can most reasonably be regarded as the true Pacific. This uses the technically-defined Ocean as above, except that all the hiccups that interrupt the passage of its boundary have been removed by the relatively simple process of granting to it all the so-called 'marginal seas' to which logic (and political reality) suggest it can lay claim. The three hiccups on the American coast are the Gulf of Alaska, the vast and confusing mess of nameless bays and inlets and fiords between Skagway and Vancouver, and the Gulf of California. Excluded from the technical Pacific, these are now part of the real Pacific. Would that the other coasts were so simple! To perform the same task on the other side of the world, the following eleven major seas - all on the continental side of the Andesite Line, all secure on their own tectonic Plates - need to be included (we are proceeding northwards and clockwise, from a point somewhere south of New Zealand): the Tasman, Solomons, Coral, Bismarck, Philippines, South China, East China and Yellow Seas, the Seas of Japan and of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea. There are lesser seas which must also be included, in particular the fifteen around the islands of the East Indian archipelago: the Sulu, Celebes and Molucca Seas, the Gulf of Tomini, the Halmahera, Ceram, Banda, Arafura (which may or may not contain the Gulf of Carpentaria, depending on which atlas is sued), Timor and Flores Seas, the Gulf of Boni, the Bali Sea. The Makassar Strait, the Java and Savu Seas; and there is the Gulf of Thailand, the Strait of Malacca, the Singapore Strait and Inland Sea of Japan.
Add to this the Great Australian Bight and the Bass Strait - for if we did not, it would be difficult to regard Australia as a Pacific nation, which would indeed be a foolish error -and we have arrived at what seems the most appropriate and comprehensive definition of our goal: one oceanic bloc, twenty-four marginal Seas (of which one is designated Inland), five Gulfs, four Straits, one Canadian confusion and One Australia Bight. All told that is some 69,370,000 square miles (and 173,700,000 cubic miles) of sea (though the Scottish mapmakers Bartholomew omit all the waters south of Australia, as well as the Timor and the Savu Seas, and come up with a total of 67 million square miles). Whatever the precise total, it is through these waters - found north and south of the 13,235 uninterrupted miles separating Malaysia from Colombia, and east and west of the 9,600 miles lying between big Diomede Island in the Bering Strait and the Cape Adare in Antarctica - that the axis of the world, some would have us believe, is now turning. The Ocean thus defined is almost immeasurably vast, its size only imaginable in terms of other immensities. Its area takes up fully one third of the entire earth's surface; it makes up half of the world Ocean. Twice as large as the Atlantic and getting on for three times the size of the Indian Ocean, it is bigger than all the land surface of the earth, including Antarctica, and with Africa counted twice. It has the deepest sea known - 36,200 feet, nearly seven miles. Not unexpectedly, perhaps, it contains that spot on the world's surface that is most distant from land - where the longitude 118 deg. 30 deg.W intersects 47 deg.30 deg,S is an equal 12,560 miles from the nearest coasts of Chile, Peter Island in Antarctica and an uninhabited British colonial possession, a member of the Pitcairn group called Ducie Island.
Moreover it is, as so vastly important a body of water perhaps should be, the original ocean of the world, the so-called Panthalassa. If one accepts the theory of continental drift propounded by Alfred Wegener*, then the present configuration of the planet derives from the break-up of a single super-continent which he called Pangea, which comprised two lesser continents called Gondwanaland and Laurasia, and a shallow marginal sea named the Tethys. Some then inexplicable process forced the supercontinents to break into immense component parts which became (in the case of Gondwanaland) Africa, South America, India, Antarctica and Australia and (in the case of Laurasia), North America, Europe and continental Asia. The slow fission of Gondwanaland produced two oceans - the Indian, where Africa, India and Antarctica were hauled away from each other; and the southern portion of the Atlantic, where South America and its clearly closely-fitting neighbour Africa (which possessed an uncanny coastal match first noted by Francis Bacon) sprang apart.
Laurasia's similar explosion gave rise to the North Atlantic, and the Tethys was widened to produce the Mediterranean and all the other shallow seas that decorate the central parts of Asia and southern Russia. But Panthalassa, as Wegnener called it, had already been born. The events that he suggested (his theory fell out of favour in the Twenties, and has only been revived since the study of paleomagnetism indicated the strong likelihood that the continents had drifted, and in continuous directions at regular velocities) were supposed to have started to take place 600 million years ago. The Panthalassic sea that supposedly surrounded the proto-continents is thus at least that old. Australia drifted up and into it (and it still drifting northwards, at an infinitesimal rate); but very little else. The immense, landless mass of Pacific water is more or less as it always has been.
Its size and its stability have come about largely because, unlike the other oceans, the Pacific is made essentially of one tectonic plate - one of the eight* plates that cover the surface of the earth. Plate tectonics appears to be the device, unexplained in Wegener's day, that permits the continents to drift: it is a process whereby the rigid, relatively cool plates that over the earth's hot and partially plastic asthenosphere, forty miles down, shift slowly about, colliding and separating from the other plates by turn. The processes that occur when these plates meet is now thought to form the basis of all the planet's tectonic processes - from the formation of continents and mountain chains to the making of ocean deeps, island arcs, volcanoes and earthquakes. The structure of the Pacific - its enormous, landless centre, its contorted and congested peripheries - is due entirely to the plates of which it is constructed and the manner in which they have moved in relation to each other. The Ocean's enormity and stability derives from the dominant presence of one place - the Pacific Plate. The top of the 'head' - the northern boundary of the plate - runs from the Alaskan coast near Seward, along the line of the Aleutian Islands to the Komandorskiye Islands off Kamchatka. The top of the 'face' then runs along the Kuril Islands to Japan, staying always on the ocean side of these chains - down through the Marianas - Saipan, Guam, Palau - to a point just east of the Spice Islands, which played so large a part in the saga of Magellan and his attempted circumnavigation.
Then Pac-Man's 'mouth' begins - a jaw that turns inward, eastward, along the northern coast of New Guinea, through New Britain, the Solomon Islands, the Torres Strait Islands, the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and New Caledonia. Next the upper jaw ends, the lower begins, the outline turning back south-westwards through Samoa, Tonga and the Kermadec Islands to the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand (where, in a typical display of tectonic activity, there was a major earthquake with considerable damage and injury in 1987). The lower jawbone continues through both the North and South Islands of New Zealand until it reaches the 'chin', then begins a slow doubling back along an unseen series of mid-oceanic ridges that curve through the roaring forties, become the back of Pac-Man's skull and turn back up towards warmer water, surfacing briefly at Easter Island and the pinnacles of Sala y Gomez, and joining the scalp and the hairline at the Mexican coast, Baja California and the west coasts of America, Canada and, finally, Alaska once more. This great plate - adorned with a few 'hot spots', where plumes of magna have spurted to the surface randomly to form such agglomerations of islands as the Hawaiian chain, the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, the Tubuais and that tiny British possession the Pitcairn group - is almost universally deep, has a floor covered with siliceous oozes and red clays* and is dotted with millions of volcanic abyssal hills discovered by the trailing of arrays of echo-sounders. Most important, though, is the fact that the Pacific Plate is moving. It is floating, propelled by convection currents deep in the mantle, at between six and sixteen centimetres a year, towards the north-west.
The movement, which though tiny in real time is immense in the aeons of geological time, is wholly responsible for the other dramatic features of the Pacific. For there are other plates surrounding the Pacific Plate and they jostle and crash against each other, like ice floes at break-up time; and as they jostle so they ride up against each other, pushing each other deeper, cracking and bending as they do so - only on a global scale, and with extraordinary consequences. There are essentially two processes at work, one to be seen at the western edge of the Pacific and the other towards the east. In the west, Pacific Plate meets two other major plates, the Eurasian and the Indo-Australian. The collision is slow, mighty and spectacular. What is believed to happen (and plate tectonics is still only a matter of intelligent conjecture, not amenable to the kind of proof most sciences demand) is that the Pacific Plate, being composed of heavier, oceanic rocks hits the continental Plate and is forced down beneath it - 'subducted', and propelled hundreds of kilometres downwards, towards the region of the mantle where it melts and becomes the stuff of volcanoes once again. It takes a little of the continental Plate with it, producing a rare and exotic melt of rock; and as it goes down and melts, and as its volume changes and its physical chemistry alters, so this deep-diving mess of ocean rock contorts and winces, and deep-seated earthquakes and violent eruptions occur.
The subduction takes place at an angle - the Pacific Plate is being forced down, but forced onwards too, so the line of its descent is a gentle plane inclined at perhaps 30 deg.C. The eruptions, however, occur directly above the point of strain in the asthenosphere where they happen - meaning that a line of volcanoes and volcanic islands occurs to the landward side of the colliding plates. Between the islands and the edge of the two plates is one further feature - series of ultra-deep trenches in the sea-bed, where the Pacific Plate is being forded down to meet its original maker. The order, then, is always the same: Pacific Plate, trench, volcanic island, earthquake zone, continental Plate. And it is repeated time and again around the Ocean's western margin. Take, for instance, the North Pacific. As one progresses outward from the sea, there is the classic order: the Japan trench; the Japanese Islands; Fuji-san; the great Kansei earthquake zone; the Sea of Japan; the Asian continent; Siberia. Or again, further south, in the true west Pacific, the order once more: the New Guinea trench; New Guinea; the volcanoes of Manam, Kaul and Long Islands; deep-seated earthquakes; the stable continental mountain ranges of Central New Guinea; the continent of Australia. *
The line of trenches indicates precisely where the Pacific subduction zone begins, exactly where the Pacific Plate collides with its neighbours. The Aleutian trench is thus where it hits the North American Plate; the trenches of Kurlin, Japan, Bonin, Mariana (the deepest in the world, with a hole of 3,210 feet), Yap, Palau and Manus indicate its collision with the Eurasian Plate; the Mussau, Solomon, Vitiaz, Torres and New Hebrides (Vanuatu) trenches show where the Pacific Plate overrides the subducted Indo-Australian Plate; and the Tonga, Kermadec, Hikurangi, Hjort, Iselin and Balleny trenches demonstrate the effect of bumping into the same Indo-Australian Plate and passing beneath it. And on the landward side of all the trenches (except those between the Solomons and the New Hebrides, where they are on the seaward side) are the island chains - Japan to New Zealand - whose birth is in whole or in part a consequence of all that colliding and jostling beneath the blue horizons.
The reverse is happening in the eastern part of the Ocean. Here the Pacific Plate, bowed, stretched and strained by its westward movement, is moving away from its neighbour - in this case a relatively small fragment of lithosphere known as the Nazca Plate. And the very opposite processes obtain: instead of cold rock being forced down, hot rock springs up to fill the void between the two separating plates. A line of oozing volcanic vents - a sharp, steep ridge below the sea surface - runs from San Diego, via Easter Island south-westwards. Along this line new ocean floor is being generated: the material lost by being subducted into the mantle is being replaced by black coils of basalt easing their way out of cracks and fissures on the sea-bottom. This sea-floor spreading, as the phenomenon is known, is happening at an impressive rate: near the Galapagos Islands the sea-floor is expanding at eight inches a year; down by Easter Island, by nine inches. It is a process of oceanic generation and destruction - generation in the middle, destruction at the outer edges - that is peculiar to the Pacific Ocean. (The Atlantic, though dominated by an enormous mid-ocean ridge where new sea-floor is being created at a most rate of about an inch a year, is home to only two very small subduction zones, with volcanoes and trenches, in the Caribbean and the south Sandwich Islands, and therefore is not being destroyed at its edges as rapidly as it is being created in the middle; the Indian Ocean is similarly undramatic - a mid-ocean ridge once again, but a single subduction zone where its eastern plate collides with the Eurasian Plate and produces the volcanoes that - like Krakatoa - line the southern side of the islands of Java, Sumatra and Timor.)
There is, finally, one other possible relationship that mobile plates can enjoy: those which neither collide nor diverge may simply slip past each other, rotating in relation to one another around some imagined pole. This is happening right now in the eastern Pacific - the Pacific Plate is sliding north-westwards, while the north American Plate is sliding north-westwards, and the two strain and rub as they do so. Enormous tension can build up along the margin of the two plates and occasionally explodes into immense earthquakes which can, if they strike inhabited portions of the land surface, wreak terrible damage. One such place where the two plates re edging past each other is at the San Andreas Fault in Northern California: the consequences of a major release of tension along that line are too well-known, and too horrific, to bear repeating here. The earthquake of October 1989 reminded San Franciscans of the awesome power of the thing. In summary, the Pacific is not simply the biggest and the deepest quarter of the world ocean. It is the most active and most geologically interesting - a test-bed, an ever-mobile demonstration of all the major forces and processes that shape the great structures of the planet. Vulcanologists and headline-writers talk about the 'Ring of Fire', the 'Halo of Energy' that surrounds and encloses the Pacific; there are 336 active volcanoes surrounding the Pacific, as against a mere 94 in all the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The phrases have become metaphors, some writers suggest, for all the zest and excitement that drives the Pacific's inhabitants ever onward. And they are indeed appropriate metaphors - for this, geophysically-speaking, is where the planet's action really is, the axis of the earth's creativity, the centre of its growth.
The eponymous notion of Ferdinand Magellan's men that the Mar del Sur was a pacific sea, blessed by fine weather and pleasant breezes, was more or less correct - at least, for that region of the ocean through which they first sailed and where their optimism was at its height. But elsewhere - particularly to the west of the Date Line, and north of the 40th parallel - the Pacific can be anything but pacific, and may be as savagely destructive as any stretch of water known. The general weather system of the Pacific is determined by the emptiness and uninterrupted smoothness of the Ocean - of the area above which, as all over the planet, air pressures build and wind patterns develop. No vast islands with walls of rock or ice stand to disrupt the progress of the wind. There are no sand deserts or snowfields or rain forests to lift or deflect the breezes, or raise or lower the temperature. So the climate conforms almost totally - to the east of the Date Line - to what is called the planetary weather system, the theoretical system of winds and pressures that would exist if the earth was a near-perfect spheroid unencumbered with continents, mountain chains and other complicating nuisances. Winds blow as they should. In the directions that physics tells us they should, at the right speed and in the proper season. The steadiness of the breezes is quite remarkable: nowhere else on earth is the weather to stable.
Not so perfect. In the region of the trades - the south-easterlies (between the equator and Capricorn) and the north-easterlies (to the north of the equator, up to the Tropic of Cancer) - one can count on endless days and weeks of steady, 13-knot winds, a delightful lack of high humidity and temperature, and skies that are either cloudless or decorated with small white patches of flat-bottomed cumulus cloud, always poised a third of a mile above the sea. It is perfect sailing weather: a yacht can cast off from San Diego in January, coast southwards poised a third of a mile above the sea. It is perfect sailing weather: a yacht fan cast off from San Diego in January, cast southwards before a good southerly blow and then catch the trades which will take her almost clear across to the Philippine Islands without the need for a single sail change. There will never be more than a stray shower; the waves will never be more than three feet high, with a scattering of white horses when the breeze runs into double figures. No sailor who has ever crossed the tropical Pacific at the right season will forget the idyll of the passage. However, the weather is very different to the west of a sinuous line that curved down from a point off the east coast of Japan and then very roughly parallels, a thousand miles out, the outline of Asia - curving in towards Borneo, out over New Guinea, down around the Solomons. The simplicity and pleasing symmetry of the trades is suddenly quite destroyed by the influence of the Asian landmass and its monsoonal - seasonal - climate. The immense summer heat of the Asian deserts, the low pressures they generate above them, the consequently varying winds - all these features dominate the weather of the western Pacific (and much more so in the northern hemisphere, where the ocean is overshadowed by two immense land masses, compared with the relatively landless margins south of the equator).
However unpleasant monsoonal conditions can on occasion be, they are as nothing compared with the fearsome storms that hurl themselves on the Pacific with terrible regularity. The Atlantic and the Indian Oceans receive their due share of tropical cyclonic storms too, but in the Pacific, because of its vastness, they are visitations of destruction and tragedy like nowhere else in the world.
The storms have different names, depending on where they are generated and where they hit. In the north-east Pacific, they are known as hurricanes; in the south-west, as cyclones. In a long stretch of vulnerable Asian land between Vietnam and Japan they are typhoons - the Chinese words for 'big wind'; in the Philippines, which suffer each summer from the most dreadful storms, they are baguios; on the west coasts of Mexico and Central America, condonazos; and in north-western Australia, willy-willies. Officially, in the neutral world of the meteorologists, they are known as tropical revolving storms - the most energetic and destructive of all the planet's natural surface phenomena.*The storms seem to be formed in the strangely disturbed band of atmosphere that lies athwart the equator between the two trade wind regions, and is known as the intertropical convergence zone. How and why they form is still not known; all that can be said with certainty is that winds begin to twirl anti-clockwise around a fixed point of steadily diminishing atmospheric pressure, and this circulating system then begins to move, invariably in a westerly direction, its internal pressure steadily falling and the gales inside it picking up speed as it does so. By the time the storm is fully formed it may be as much as 400 miles wide, moving at perhaps 20 miles an hour, and with winds near its core raging at well over 100 miles an hour. If this beast then hits land, there can be destruction on a titanic scale - floods, ruined houses, uprooted trees, broken bridges, the ruin of crops and the death of livestock, and loss of human life. In the less well-developed countries, where warnings of impending storms are poor and precautions minimal, whole tracts of countryside can be inundated, entire villages swept away, vast communities decimated. India suffers terribly; the Philippines too; and the low-lying parts of eastern China. In Hong Kong, where there is a well-oiled storm warning machine piloted by the staff of the ancient royal Observatory, the entire community becomes rather gaily caught up in the summertime ritual of typhoon watch. Idle - or perhaps not so idle - mention may be made on the radio news of a distant tropical depression known to be forming somewhere close to an exotic and encouragingly far away island - Yap, maybe, or Truk (Chuuk), or the Northern Marianas. The colony pricks up its ears.
The circulating system wanders a little closer, deepens, its classified under a new title - a moderate tropical storm - and is given a name, Agnes perhaps, or Bob, an innocent, unassuming, rather cosy, old-fashioned sort of name that makes no connection in anybody's mind with a swirling mass of warm air and piled clouds that is bearing down on the coast, thunder and lightning flickering from its belly, the waves beneath it being whipped up into fury. Across in Hong Kong the marine department raises a single beacon on a flagpole on Green island, the No. 1 signal: all Hong Kong is now formally aware that a typhoon may be forming within 500 miles. Next day Agnes (if that is what the storm is called) keeps to a westerly track, hurrying a little more, deepening a little more. Now it has been upgraded still further to a severe tropical storm: winds at the centre, measured by radar and by American air force planes dispatched from the big bases in Japan and the Philippines, are gusting to eighty miles an hour. Shipping is advised to keep well clear, and masters begin to make the complicated storm-avoidance manouvres well known to those familiar with these waters in this summer season. In Hong Kong the No. 3 warning is hosted: a little coloured blip appears at the bottom left of the colony's television screens, a constant reminder that typhoon alert may soon be declared and the emergency drills so well practised in the territory brought into force.
And already the thin strands of cloud, the outer rings of the immense, whirling storm, begin to drift over the southern islands - Po Toi, Sung Kong, Waglan Island, the Ninepions - and the wind and the waves begin to bustle about in the harbours. The junks start to roll heavily in the swell. Fishermen on the distant banks beat for home. The old sampan-ladies begin to tie up their wares, wrapping everything in layers of black plastic and hessian sacking. The typhoon shelters at Aberdeen and Mong Kok start to fill with craft, their prudent masters and owners looking uneasily at the eastern sky as it blackens and darkness, and as the wind begins to sing in the telephone wires, the insecured edges of roofs begin to flap and creak, and the streets are bushy with flying litter, and dust. And then, shortly before noon next day the Observatory announces that Typhoon Agnes will strike Hong Kong, head on, imminently. The No. 8 signal is raised and the colony goes into its well-known emergency rituals. Schools empty. Shops shut down. All businesses, factories, financial markets, the airports - everything - are declared closed. The entire colony scurries home. The Star Ferry keeps on going, its little green ships bucking across the harbour in the growing swell until the last stragglers from Kowloon have made it to Hong Kong, and those bound north from the island have reached their goal. And then, for ten, twenty, forty hours or so the millions sit back to watch the show as the huge tropical storm lashes and bursts and howls its way around the islands, shaking, shuddering and drenching the place as if it held all the concentrated fury of nature and had decided to unleash it upon this one unfortunate spot.