Understanding the Anthropocene

Understanding the Anthropocene: The Level of the Sea


Photo of the Alicante automated tide gauge (mareographe), published in Verhandlungen der vom 5. bis 10. October 1976 in Brüsselvereinigten Permanenten Commission der Europaeischen Gradmessung, C. Bruhns and A. Hirsch (eds.), Berlin: Verlag von Georg Reimer, 1877. Public Domain

The level of the sea is nowadays a trope of environmental discourse, used widely to symbolise current and future changes to the environment. These modifications are inherently global and are already having revolutionary impacts. The scientific and technological means used to measure and interpret these changes have however a history that spans a much longer period than that covered by the actual awareness of the role of humans in modifying the Earth’s environment. The measurement of the level of the sea and its adoption as a geodetical datum are, in fact, also elements of a broader development towards the reform and unification of reference points and metrics that has taken place since early modernity. Reference points like the mean sea-level, for instance, are eminently social and historical constructs, developed in the outlook for a better understanding of the space surrounding us through its transformation in discrete elements. Elements like these have become ubiquitous in the modern world leading us to forget to question where they came from, what they serve, and if they still correspond to current needs.


This project looks thus in detail at the history of an understudied topic: how has mean sea level, a geodetic reference point developed as part of the study of tides, over time become the powerful symbol of the Anthropocene it is now. The fact that the sea is rising due to human influence is fairly recent. The awareness of this fact even more so. I am interested, in particular, in how this concept originated within cultural, social, and scientific agendas that were radically different from current ones. Central here is obviously also the question of standardization and of how “scientific objects” come into being.


Among the questions, themes, and issues the project explores in detail, there are:

- how the level of the sea has been conceptualised theoretically as a vertical datum since early modern times;

- how place and space have influenced the historical development of reference systems;

- how scientific diplomacy has contributed to defining the frameworks used to interpret nature;

- how sea level changes have been theorised since the rise in importance of the Ice Age theory;

- how new instruments and technologies have affected the ways in which the level of the sea is measured and understood;

- how was environmental value attributed to this metric.