Although rarely the topic of mainstream media reports, in many coastal communities planners, engineers and other municipal officials are hard at work on a very particular mission: how to keep the sea out of the city. In many parts of the world, the ocean regularly laps at people’s doors and pushes into the streets during storm events and when the tide is high. If you don’t live on the coasts or visit the beaches regularly, it is hard to grasp-but yes, the sea is rising.
As Jeff Goodell masterfully describes in his 2017 book, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World, people have long sought to live near water, even to the point where we have dredged and filled and engineered our way to new coastal real estate. That this pattern of settlement is on a collision course with the effects of climate warming, particularly the rising of oceans through glacial melt, is the crux of Goodell’s book. This book explores the scientific evidence, looks at communities impacted across the globe, and delves deep into the complex implications climate warming poses to our way of life. This post does not do justice to the breadth of this fantastic book; you will find that each chapter is more engrossing than the next and you will be hard pressed to find a more comprehensive treatment of the subject. This blog gives you a recap of the most shocking elements in this book: the science, the communities that are already underwater, the politics, and the significant innovation and expense that is required to deal with this global predicament.
Dire Indicators in the Arctic and on our Coasts
What gives the phenomenon of climate change a decidedly ominous aspect is the fact that the best climate models so far seem to be off the mark, missing key mechanisms of change. Existing climate models, for example, haven’t predicted so far the rate at which Arctic ice is actually melting or the fact that ice sheets that were projected to still be intact in 2018 are now deteriorating at a rate that no one foresaw. In 2002, the collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf in Anarctica was a jolt that rattled the scientific community. The western coast of Greenland is where the Jakobshavn Glacier has rested immutable for thousands of years. In 2012 a rapid river of ice melt running down the glacier’s face was caught on film, sending ripples of shock around the planet. Within a period of four years, between 2012 and 2016, Greenland lost three times the volume of ice lost in the 1990s.
Goodell spends considerable time with one particular climate scientist, Jason Box, who is investigating additional theories to explain the rapid ice melt. There are countless variables at play; from changing ocean currents that bring warmer water to the poles to the speed and direction of wind, to humidity and cloud cover, to the possibility that ice darkened by ash drifting in from the south could expedite glacial melt. Given the accelerating rate of glacial melt and other indicators of the last few years, scientists now project a sea level rise closer to 10 feet by 2100. Because it is unclear what the primary triggers are and how different phenomena interact, Goodell suggests that the patterns behind climate change seem to share more similarities with chaos theory than anything else.
Highways are now Waterways: The Morning Commute in a Coastal City
The number of communities experiencing flooding right now on a regular basis is worth considering. Goodell moves from the coast of Africa to villages in the Arctic to the Marshall Islands to the ritzy streets of Miami Beach. No community is spared. Goodell gives a snapshot of life in the north where permafrost is melting and several islands in the Arctic are losing up to 60 feet of shoreline every year. In other parts of the world, walls, dikes and other structures continue to be built, but even the Dutch realize these measures are not permanent solutions. Truly innovative projects are proposed as well, ones that visualize new cityscapes with open spaces designed for floodwater retention as well as city recreation. The scramble to adapt in a myriad of different ways to rising sea levels is both a reflection of the socioeconomic group affected as well as a reflection of universal human behavior. Everyone wants to stay dry, but each community has a vastly different set of resources to draw from.
Goodell describes what he calls “real estate roulette” in the rich neighborhoods of Miami. He claims that a lot of residents understand that the city will be under water eventually, but for many the key question is how long to stay. Others think Miami, of all places, has the capital and ingenuity to survive. Updated building codes and a multi-million dollar project designed to elevate streets and shops had mixed results. The water slum known as Makoko, in Nigeria, Africa, demonstrates the ability of people to adapt to fluctuating water levels. We can marvel at the resilience and optimism of this poor community as its residents erect houses on stilts that can be adjusted with rising sea levels. The city of Sweetwater, Florida has a slightly different set of problems. The city’s low position in the landscape, coupled with frequent flooding and failing septic systems, creates an on-going and serious health issue. A corrupt city government adds another layer of difficulty to the city’s struggles; some predict that it is only a matter of time before people begin to leave.
Denial, Patch-Ups and Other Political Sidestepping
The magnitude of the hurricanes that are hitting our coasts and causing billions of dollars in damage are indicative of what our future looks like. Higher seas create massive wave surges, widespread flooding in downtowns and coastal neighborhoods and major coastal damage. Goodell does an excellent job of describing what is happening on the ground in different parts of the world: the discussions in city planning departments and regional conferences on climate change, the federal and state programs that discourage development in high risk zones, but also inadvertently subsidize it; local officials that are not always forthright about contaminated floodwaters; and the recent court case requiring municipalities to make repairs to infrastructure even though the structures are regularly under water. The questions relating to rising seas and the implications for coastal communities around the world are many. Goodell’s book is a riveting essay on a topic that will grow more critical in the coming years.
Goodell, Jeff (2017). The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, New York, New York, Little Brown & Company.