Life in the Oxford Valley

The Bosphorus is the narrow strait connecting the cold, vast, and shallow Black Sea to the much warmer and more saline Mediterranean Sea.  Straddled by the city of Istanbul and its 11 million inhabitants, the Bosphorus (from the Greek “ox-ford”) is a tight squeeze.  The strait’s average depth along its 17 nautical mile length is just 213 feet.

Geologists and archaeologists almost universally agree that the Black Sea was once an isolated inland sea with no connection to the Mediterranean or the Atlantic Ocean beyond.  Back then, the Bosphorus was a fragile isthmus serving as a thin land route between Europe and the Middle East.  But, perhaps as recently as 5,000-6,000 years ago, either due to a rise in sea levels or structural weaknesses in the ancient Bosphorus isthmus, land gave way and transformed the Bosphorus into the waterway it is today.

Except it’s rising.  As geologic forces inexorably force the Middle East and Africa closer to Europe, the shallow seafloor of the Bosphorus Strait is slowly rising, making this narrow but economically critical waterway more and more difficult to navigate.  At some point, the passage may become too narrow for large vessels to move through.  The seafloor of the Bosphorus may even emerge from the sea altogether.  If the latter scenario occurred, the Black Sea would again be cut off from the Mediterranean.  A new, muddy valley would unite Istanbul’s European and Asian halves.

When the levee returns?
The Bosphorus, connecting the Black Sea (upper) with the Sea of Marmara (an inlet of the Mediterranean Sea). The city of Istanbul straddles the strait.

In a beautiful and haunting essay for New City Reader, Turkish author, academic, and Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk fathoms a re-emerged Bosphorus isthmus, the new narrow valley that would separate two seas and join two continents.  Resplendent with fresh shantytowns spreading among the decayed corpses Byzantine shipwrecks, and wreathed with vestigial boat docks and bridges, Pamuk’s land bridge is dismal, mesmerizing, and surely fuel for a longer exposition exploring how modern society would adapt to the slow and often imperceptible changes in the world around us.

Both climactically and geologically, his essay illustrates many of the problems we face in an age where billions of humans have filled the globe, spread nearly everywhere, and connected with one another after an unprecedented century of technological innovation, commerce, and warfare.  What do we do, in this new age, with our technological capabilities and our reliance on global commerce, when climate change or natural geological processes make a change as superficially insipid but paradigm-shifting as transforming a narrow waterway into a narrow land bridge?  Thousands of years of human civilization straddle the Bosphorus.  International shipping and commerce (not to mention the Russian Black Sea fleet and a good number of oil and liquefied natural gas tankers) rely on this waterway.  How will our civilization adjust to the Bosphorus when it rises from the sea?

The reality that Pamuk’s essay misses is that we would never let it reach such a point.  If the Bosphorus did show signs of drying up, governments and private companies alike would scream and scramble to deepen it.  Even as geologic forces push to make the waterway more shallow and narrow, we would dig to deepen it.  After all, we’ve made similar moves before.  The Dutch have kept the sea at bay for centuries with levee, dike, and canal construction projects.  They’ve even reclaimed land taken by the ocean.  United States taxpayers have chosen to pour billions of dollars into massive engineering efforts to keep the Mississippi River from forming a new delta far west of the port cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.  In our age, with our technological achievements, we can level mountains, dam rivers, and deepen waterways.  We’ve bisected Panama and Egypt with canals.  I’ve no doubt we’ll even come up with ways to stop the land around Chesapeake Bay from sinking (due in part to an asteroid impact some 35 million years ago, and some fallout from ice sheet retreats at the end of the last ice age).  Deepening the Bosphorus would be child’s play by comparison.

I’m not boasting about the brilliance of humanity, or the genius of our technological advances.  But, I’m simply placing the Bosphorus question within the context of our collective powers and the history of our decision-making abilities.  When geologic or climactic forces have struck at an economically or culturally vital pressure point, we have shown time and again that we will move mountains to protect our interests.  For better or for worse, our global technological achievements have made this possible on a grand scale.  Inwardly I often weep that we choose to wield such power haphazardly and indiscriminately.  Pamuk’s essay is a literary feast, but our new reality is somewhat different.  We live in the Anthropocene, a time when we have profound and irreversible effects on this planet and its fragile ecosystems.  And when Earth strikes, we often choose to push back.

Further reading:

Image credit: Sagredo.

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About James Urton

I went to school to become a molecular biologist.  At some point in this long education, I discovered that I love communicating science to the general public: talks, writing, at a pub, on the street corner...  Whatever venue will let me hold your attention for a few moments.  Unfortunately, I can't do this for a living, since no one will pay me.  So, I have a job as a molecular biologist at the University of Washington, where I get to work with great scientists on some really awesome projects, and I'll blog about science here at Muller's Ratchet in my spare time. Why should the general public want to know anything about science? Here's my explanation (which also explains why I chose the name Muller's Ratchet for this site). Briefly as a graduate student (before I had to devote all of my time to graduating), I blogged at Adaptive Radiation.
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