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East coast climate change and sea level rise – Motts Creek NJ, Ocracoke NC and Chincoteague VA

I live 18 miles from the beach in NJ. I’ve kept an eye on sea level rise for a long time, having rented a home on Brigantine Island for two years (1976 to 1978) and lived here in the Pinelands coastal plain for forty years, since 1978. I would have evacuated once from Brigantine, but the storm came through when I was out of town. What I remember in the aftermath was the salt hay all over the streets and lawns, and a population explosion of crickets. My current residence is more than 40 feet above sea level.

What do I think is going to happen along the East Coast as sea level rises?

Let’s start with a very small community. You won’t find Motts Creek listed as a municipality in New Jersey. It’s a neighborhood Galloway Township. I’m sure most Galloway residents never heard of it. Two friends of mine lived there in the past, both in rentals. A single road juts out into the salt marsh, and leads to Motts Creek Inn. The Inn thrives on being accessible by boat. On my recent visit, in November, the Inn was open but very quiet. A septic pumping truck sat in the parking lot. We passed about two dozen homes on the way in. Some have been elevated on pilings, and others appear to have been abandoned after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. I estimate the year round population to be less than 100. I believe new construction along Motts Creek Road stopped around 30 years ago, when NJ wetlands were protected. Motts Creek properties are desirable for their boat docks, fine view and bird watching potential and undesirable for mosquitos, flies and flooding. I believe the area is unsewered and served by septic tanks. What does the future hold? I assume federal flood insurance still protects property owners. It’s hard to imagine Galloway Township and New Jersey going to great lengths to protect Motts Creek. I expect it will be lost to sea level rise before too many decades pass.

Ocracoke is on my mind because I just returned from spending Thanksgiving week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in the town of Nags Head in a rented beachfront property. Ocracoke is a barrier island south of Nags Head. It’s reachable only by (car) ferry. I found population figures of 948 in 2010 and 591 in 2014 (both from Wikipedia). Ocracoke is unincorporated, but the federal government grants it the status of a “census-designated place”. (I have no idea what this means.) It does suggest Ocracoke has a little more “official” status than Motts Creek. Ocracoke was first permanently settled in 1750, has had a varied economy (shipping, fishing, tourism) and was home to a distinct dialect (accent?) sometimes referred to as High Tider. My point? Ocracoke has a culture. Something substantive will be lost if it is abandoned. (This can be said of many places, up to and including New Orleans.)

On September 6 of this year, Ocracoke was savaged by Hurricane Dorian. The storm surge was 2.5 feet higher than any previous storm, and the water rose fast. Some residents had evacuated, and all those who remained managed to survive. I picked up a copy of the Ocracoke Observer when I was in Nags Head, wanting to see what the community had to say about itself, since I couldn’t go and visit it.

Ocracoke was CLOSED. That’s an advantage of recovery on an island! Officials can shut the door. The island reopened to the public on December 5. Some observations:

  • The concept of post-storm planning has been around for years, but it really hasn’t been implemented anywhere. So Ocracoke is making its recovery up as it goes along.
  • Ocracoke is re-building. This is a point of pride and determination. But how much of whose money should be invested in restoring a place that’s in the crosshairs? Should a house be rebuilt more than once?
  • How different can a place be before it’s a new place? How do we value a “community” with little or no year-round population? Is a house on Ocracoke a “home” or an “investment”?
  • Some people and businesses are doing better (8 weeks out) than they initially expected. Others are finding that the damage was far worse than they thought.
  • Why, in a community with low population, where everyone knows each other, was it necessary to impose a curfew and alcohol sales ban? Hmmm…
  • Ocracoke got lots of help from various efficient and hard working non-profit volunteers, and the community is grateful.
  • If Ocracoke had to depend on its “own” resources, I don’t think it would survive. With state and federal help, I expect it will.

Regardless of how Ocracoke moves ahead, the whole Outer Banks (and New Jersey’s barrier islands) need some rethinking. How long will we continue to build and rebuild upon sand? Nags Head and Kitty Hawk are CRAMMED with businesses and rental properties. To me, evacuation looks like a major challenge. Nice place to visit. I wouldn’t want to own there.

On to Chincoteague. Of the three areas discussed here, this is the one to which I feel most emotionally attached. Yes, I read Misty of Chincoteague as a child. I first visited in the 1970s, going back almost every year since, always in the off season, usually October or November.

We went, initially, to enjoy nature at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge during the fall bird migration. What a wonderful place! I’ve walked the beach and bicycled around the ponds and hiked the trails. Sometimes butterflies are abundant. We see turtles and the rare Delmarva fox squirrel.

Chincoteague is a “real place”, a municipality in Accomack County, Virginia. The population peaked at 4317 in 2000 and dropped to 2941 in 2010. The US Census thinks it dropped a little more as of 2018. Many residents leave in winter. Oddly, the name Chincoteague wasn’t attached to the community until 1943 (Wikipedia).

Chincoteague has numerous assets – the federal Wildlife Refuge, a small fishing fleet, extensive ecotourism, and the famous (and controversial) wild ponies. Yes, a place to value and, perhaps, preserve. But it’s isolated, with a single long causeway. And it is excruciatingly LOW. It has no “high ground”. Wikipedia lists its elevation at 3 feet. Yes, just one meter.

Chincoteague already rebuilt once, after the 1962 northeaster called the Ash Wednesday Storm by which it was completely submerged. I believe that every house from before 1962 was elevated by several courses of cinderblock. A smaller community on Assateague Island, to the east, was abandoned, with a few houses being floated across to Chincoteague on barges.

I’ve studied Chincoteague carefully on my many bike rides up and down the narrow island. Most interesting to me is the fact the very highest land in Chincoteague is occupied, not by housing, but by graveyards. Old graveyards, perched on the long sand dunes that run north/south along the island.

In Chincoteague, plans for the future are being laid. Most conspicuous (and occasionally contentious) are plans for the federal land. The Refuge visitor center has been rebuilt. The bridge on the main access road to the island has been rebuilt, much higher. My last visit was in 2017. I was impressed by a new farmers market and a cultural society. The City has a Mayor and a website. Chincoteague may struggle, but I think it’s here to stay. Keeping my fingers crossed!

My point? It won’t be possible to save every house and every community as the sea level rises. We need to think and talk about future decisions NOW, and the conversational net should be cast as widely as possible.

“Enchantress of Numbers” by Jennifer Chiaverini

Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace

This work of historical fiction is subtitled “A Novel of Ada Lovelace”. The long version of the protagonist’s name is Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace. Her mother was Annabella Milbanke Byron, wife of the stunningly famous Romantic era poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. The marriage of Milbanke and Byron was short – Byron was unpredictable, promiscuous and moody. (That’s putting it mildly.) Byron left England, and Ada never had the opportunity to know her father.

Ada’s childhood was lonely, but she always had access to tutors and her intellectual life blossomed. She was passionately attracted to mathematics and science, and met many of the leading scholars of her age. Her name is often mentioned in connection with early “calculation machines” which preceded the invention of computers. She died at age 36, of uterine cancer.

It’s hard to read this book without applying contemporary standards of social judgement. Jennifer Chiaverini deserves high praise for staying within the cultural and social context experienced by Ada Lovelace.

Jennifer Chiaverini has published many books, including a series of TWENTY volumes called The Elm Creek Quilts Novels. I would rather start with her other six volumes of historical fiction. The only series of such magnitude I ever attempted was Patrick O’Brien’s wonderful Aubrey/Maturin saga.

Having now read a little about Lord Byron, I should read some of his poetry, which is considered the height of the Romantic era verse. Poetry is not my strong suit. I hope I can persist.

“The Ice at the End of the World – An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and our Perilous Future” by Jon Gertner, Part II

Scott 1107- International Geophysical Year- MNH 3c 1958- unused mint stamp

This post honors the International Geophysical Year. The wonderful IGY “Planet Earth” documentary series made me decide (at age 13) to become a scientist. My work never resembled that of the IGY, but the inspiration was invaluable.

(See October 14 for review of Part I.)

Part II of The Ice at the End of the World is entitled “Investigations”. It begins in 1949, the year I was born. I grew up in the Fifties, with the Cold War looming. As geophysical research (interrupted by the Depression and World War II) resumed, it was driven (or at least financed) by the perceived military need to guard against aggression from Russia across the frozen North Pole.

So much had changed during the almost 20-year hiatus in research enforced by the Depression and World War II. Airplanes and helicopters enabled access to remote sites. Better shelters and protective clothing were available.

After WWII, some scientists were still assuming that earth might soon enter a new Ice Age (including “deadly glaciers”), and that cooling might threaten civilization.

A non-scientist reading this account needs to remember that, if you are looking for stability, NEGATIVE feedback is good, and positive feedback is troublesome. An example of climate related positive feedback is the reflectivity of ice. If ice melts, the (less reflective) underlying material absorbs more solar radiation, making the area warmer, so more ice melts. This is the kind of feedback loop that worries climate scientists.

One of the early findings (based on ice core analysis) of the Postwar era was that climate (or at least temperatures) could change SUDDENLY. Some changes shown by ice cores were so abrupt that initially it was thought the data was in error, due to faulty equipment or recording mistakes. Comparisons of multiple cores made it clear that really erratic behavior did happen. Climate scientist James White says “When it comes to climate change, speed kills”. About his early work on climate change, he commented “…I naively thought society would latch onto this and do something about it.”

We’ve known about climate change for a long time. Gertner lists the many scientists and publications that warned of the danger we face.

I, like many scientists of my generation, are now facing the issue translating what we know into public policy. This requires us to learn new ways of acting in society.

Recently, I’ve been asked (as a scientist) whether we are doomed. “Worst case” doomed means the end of life on earth. Sometimes I worry about that. At other times, I think life is highly resilient, and we may make it to a future.

Why haven’t I spoken out, agitated, demonstrated? I really don’t have an answer.

“Inside the Five-Sided Box – Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon” by Ash Carter, PART 2. Reflections, and a RANT.

Inside the Five-Sided Box: Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon

I spent so long reading this book (5 weeks?) that I forgot my INITIAL reaction… I was browsing around, uncertain if this was a “start at the beginning and read every page” book for me. I ran into something that almost caused me to throw the book across the room.

I turned to the last chapter, entitled “The Troops Deserve the Truth”, and turned to the next to last section, “Addressing the Consequences”. Carter describes his heart rending visits to injured soldiers, and ends with this:

The head of medicine at BAMC (Brooke Army Medical Center) once told me that when he first arrived…he would try to provice precise answers to questions like, “Will I be able to run again?…to hunt?…to surf?” But now, he told me, he’d witnessed so many instances of fearless courage and odds-defying recoveries that he simply answers, “You will if you want to.”

This makes me furious. If an injured person doesn’t heal, does that mean he or she didn’t want it enough? Really? Would you have said this to FDR?

Stricken by polio is 1921, the 32nd President of the United States had every advantage in his battle to walk again – strength, (overall) health, the best available medical care and rehabilitation, determination, and, yes, hope. But he didn’t walk.

My frame of reference on this terrible subject is based on personal experience with brain injury. I watched a family member claw his way back after a severe head injury. Recovery after a brain injury is never certain.

I’m all for positivity, both in patient and supporters, but reality can get in your way.

Today my Facebook feed, which was heavy on Veteran’s Day posts and links, brought me to an article in New York magazine about Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger injured in October of 2009, ten years ago. His life has been irreparably changed. His parents act as his full time caregivers. He has seizures and balance problems and suffers from disinhibition, which means his judgement is impaired. He has PTSD. He self medicates with alcohol and is emotionally unstable.

The official, widely publicized and well intentioned story of “slow, steady progress” has unraveled. Cory Remsburg is at high risk for suicide and dementia. He still cannot accomplish routine hygiene unassisted.

Is any of this because he “didn’t want to”? The fact that Cory Remsburg is hanging onto life, and regards himself as a “work in progress” is a great tribute to HIM. He deserves respect, and the dismissive remark about “wanting to” quoted above is unfair and unkind.

The rest of Ash Carter’s book seems to be thoughtful and nuanced, but I hope he doesn’t mean what he said on page 418.

End of RANT.

“Inside the Five-Sided Box – Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon” by Ash Carter

434 pages, published 2019. Includes notes and index.

Today is Veterans Day, a good time to think about the American armed forces, the Pentagon, and the military veterans among our friends and family.

Why did I choose this book from the recent arrivals shelf? And why did I keep reading, given its length and density?

  • First, I thought of it as an opportunity to understand war and militarism, facets of American life and culture which disturb me terribly. I am deeply opposed to war, and can only gain from understanding it better.
  • Second, I’m a citizen and a taxpayer, so the Pentagon acts in my name and spends my tax dollar. Again, I want to know what’s going on.
  • Finally, I’m curious about leadership. It’s a term so freely bandied about. Who is a good leader? How should leaders be selected? Trained? Deployed? I feel that I’ve witnessed and experienced both good and bad leadership, but sometimes I’m not sure who belongs in which category. I have only attempted leadership in very small settings…what’s it like in the major leagues?

As Secretary of Defense (2015 to 2017) under President Obama, Carter presided over the world’s largest organization, the United States of America Department of Defense. The Pentagon oversees both the armed forces and all the civilians that support them, and also provides advice to the President about all aspects of national security.

At Yale University, Carter studied physics and medieval history. The connection between physics and military science (in the nuclear age) is fairly obvious, but what about medieval history? Carter said he was simply following his own curiosity when he studied it, but he feels that it explains how Europe worked its way through the creation of “civilization”, finding ways so its population could live in relative comfort and order.

Carter is a clear and careful (and prolific) writer , and this is a thoughtful book. Carter divides leadership into two categories.

  • One, which he calls “reinforcement”, is finding the best in your underlings and supporting them with training, encouragement and responsibility.
  • The second, more challenging aspect is leading an organization in a new direction which is unfamiliar and unpopular. Consider the following:

Carter will be remembered as the Secretary of Defense who opened all military jobs to all service members, female as well as male.

  • First, he did his homework. He argues strenuously that his decision was based on data, research and the overwhelming importance military preparedness, NOT on political correctness or a desire for social experimentation.
  • He developed extensive plans for implementation of the new policy before it was announced, attempting to consider every possible problem and concern that could be raised.
  • He was open about the fact that the Marine Corps had wanted to maintain “male only” status for certain certain jobs, but asserted his larger responsibility to the President to chart the best possible course for the military.
  • Ultimately, his announcement was crafted and timed to minimize unproductive “second guessing”.

The process isn’t finished, but Carter set it onto a clear path.

Carter placed a high value on oral, written and media based communication, giving it an entire chapter in his book. He discusses “message” and “story” and the value of consistent repetition. He has used social media to communicate with American soldiers, and poses for selfies with soldiers in combat zones.

In his chapter about the defeat of ISIS, Carter uses a very obscure word, “deconfliction”. He uses it to describe our interactions with Russia during the fight against ISIS. Russia was not an ally, hence we were not “cooperating” with them. But both sides knew it was important to prevent accidental armed contact from leading to hostilities between the US and Russia. Hence, “deconfliction” provided patterns of unofficial communication to meet that goal. The word can be found at dictionary.com and its first reported use is listed as 1970. (Upon first reading, I thought Carter made it up!)

Carter makes clear the high value he places on diplomacy, including what he calls “coercive diplomacy”. It’s the “carrot and stick” approach, with high stakes. He feels that President Trump should have refused to meet the North Korean President Kim Jong-un until North Korea took very substantial, verifiable steps toward de-nuclearization. Kim Jong-un was “rewarded” without making any measurable change in support of American interests.  Carter recognizes the high value of symbolic gestures, like a visit from the President of the United States.

Speaking about current unstable geopolitical “hot spots”, Carter says the US will never invade and occupy Iran, as it would be ungovernable. He does not say the same about North Korea, though he states that war in the Korean peninsula would bring calamitous suffering to our South Korean allies.

This book is well worth reading. Even re-reading, but right now I’m looking for something lighter.

Death Cafe and reflections on attitude

I attended a Death Cafe at Stockton University last week, and was lucky enough to be seated with four students and another community member. Here are some thoughts…

Dear Students,

I was so happy join you at Stockton’s Death Café! Your willingness to do something different on a Friday afternoon warmed my heart. I feel worried, however, about some of the advice you were getting, namely all the messages about the importance of attitude and your ability to accomplish ANYTHING.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for determination, a good attitude and hard work. But how are you going to feel, ten years down the road, if things aren’t going so well? Are you going to blame…yourself? Not constructive, and IMHO, not correct.

Some barriers you will face are outside of your control. Some are institutional and deeply entrenched. Certain aspects of American life are getting worse, due to institutional changes. Consider the student loan system, coupled with the very rapid increase in the cost of higher education.

Here’s a book I recommend:

Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

What about our discussion of death? I hope the freedom to talk about it helped you to feel less anxious. Life is full of mysteries, but we’re all in this together. I wish each of you a healthy life and a satisfying career!

The Synge Festival – Quintessence Theatre Group, October 2019

John Millington Synge.jpg

Last weekend I attended The Synge Festival at Quintessence Theatre Group. In one day, I saw all of John Millington Synge’s plays, with the exception of the unfinished Diedre of the Sorrows. Synge died at age 37, having published five plays and some poetry. Synge was so controversial that riots broke out after some early performances. In Philadelphia, authorities arrested actors and served an injunction against Playboy of the Western World in 1912, after Synge was dead.

Why was Synge controversial? Many of his characters are immoral or at least conniving, but Synge portrays them as comical and often sympathetic, not necessarily detestable. And Synge was wildly anti-clerical. His priests are clownish. Catholics and others found this offensive.

Synge’s best known work is Playboy of the Western World. It’s a sardonic comedy. The young farmer Christopher Mahon assaults his father and leaves him for dead. After more than a week on the run, he stops in a tavern, begging for shelter. The locals (especially the young women) are impressed and begin to compete for Christopher’s attention. Suddenly, his father turns up, unexpectedly alive, complicating the action. Soon father and son flee the outraged community.

The other plays were also comedy, except for Riders to the Sea, one of his first dramas. It is a snapshot of loss and grief, as if someone had told Synge to write the saddest play he could imagine. An old woman loses her last surviving son to the violent ocean. It’s a brief one-act play. Perhaps it would have engaged me more if we learned more about the characters, especially the sons.

Synge set his works in rural Ireland and wrote in an old fashioned rural northern Irish dialect which is almost incomprehensible to the modern, English speaking ear. The theatre program contained an extensive glossary of terms, but it’s helpful to follow a printed script if possible or to see each play more than once.

Synge loved the unrefined language of rural Ireland. In the theatre program he is quoted as follows:

When I was writing The Shadow of the Glen…I got more aid than any learning could have given me from a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen.

Listening to Synge is a challenge, but, like listening to Shakespear, it’s well worth the effort.