• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


It's About Time and Tide

Popular picture of sea level rise don't tell the real story.

May 22, 2014

There's a set of pictures currently circulating the Web.  Artistically done, they depict "what some classic American city scenes would look like today", given twelve feet of sea level rise (a moderate estimate given the widely anticipated collapse of Antarctic glaciers).  If you're Facebook acquaintances with anyone even softly focused on climate change, you've probably already seen at least one of these 'shopped photos.  And I have absolutely no doubt that many of them will make their way into slide decks for introductory courses on the subject.

What struck me, as I perused the images, was just how peaceful each of them looked.  With the possible exception of the picture of the San Diego Convention Center, the risen seas all look as placid as my farm pond on a sunny day.  They may show how the scenes might look on some idealized version of "today", but they certainly don't show how things would look on a real-world today that features a weather front moving through.  Or daily onshore breezes.  Or nightly offshore same.  Or tides.

More to the point, they don't show the cumulative impacts of all of those factors on buildings, bridges, roadways and the like, over even a fairly brief time.  Nor the impact of oil-fouled saltwater incursion on drinking water supply systems, wastewater treatment plants, the electrical distribution grid, highway networks (major intersections would be permanently flooded), railroad tracks (same, probably even more pervasively), etc.  In real life, it won't be a question of losing the lower floors of a few ocean-front buildings but gaining scenic views reminiscent of Venice, Italy.  It's far more likely to be a case of major coastal cities losing pretty much their entire ability to function, and to support their surrounding regional economies.

I know that creating photorealistic images of what places might look like after even two or three years of a sea level that's twelve feet higher than the one they were designed and built for is too much to ask of any living artist.  After all, Hieronymus Bosch is dead.  As is Edvard Munch.  And, now, even H.R. Giger.  But these images aren't nearly disturbing enough, IMHO.


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