Tag Archives: sea level rise

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.

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

The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland's Buried Past and Our Perilous Future

300 pages plus notes, sources, bibliography and index. Some photos and maps.

Part One (Explorations) of this excellent and highly readable book covers the years 1888 to 1931, when wanderlust and scientific curiosity led a handful of explorers to climb up onto the Greenland ice sheet. It was a land so little known that people fantasized about finding an ice free tropical oasis in the middle. Greenland had a small indigenous population that had been there fewer than 1000 years, and was visited by the occasional trader seeking furs and tusks. The first “explorer” was Fridtjof Nansen. Looking at his photo, you see either an intense intellect or a totally fanatic lunatic. Both those attributes were necessary in an explorer of the far arctic.

The indigenous Greenlanders lived around the edges of the island, successfully exploiting natural resources including those of the ocean. Others (outsiders) went there at their peril, learned from the indigenous residents only slowly, and often died, even if they stayed off the mighty ice sheet.

Part 1 of this book ends with the Wegener expedition of 1931. The intention was to establish a research base on the ice, in a central location. The project was dogged by misfortune and ended in the deaths of two scientists. Amazingly, data collected was used to estimate how much worldwide sea levels would rise if the Greenland ice sheet should melt entirely. The answer turned out to be remarkably close to what contemporary scientists now conclude – around 24 feet.

After 1931, the Great Depression and World War II shut down scientific exploration almost entirely, except for strategic military concerns.

Part 1 is the easy part. Part 2, entitled “Investigations”, covers the years 1949 to 2018. I expect this to be frightening. Much as I love science, I think it’s going to be difficult for me to read.

“New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson

You have to admire an author who stands an academic/cultural trope on its head. We’ve all heard of The Tragedy of the Commons, right? Heavy. Very heavy. Robinson brings us…the COMEDY of the Commons! I love it. Among other fancies, he produces a new Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn duo, Stefan and Roberto, a pair of “water rats” who live by luck and their wits in a stolen Zodiac in the drowned city of Lower Manhattan.

This book reminds me of The Martian by Andy Weir. In The Martian, one man fights a planet for survival. In New York 2140 Robinson creates a crowd of lovable eccentrics and follows their struggles on the hard-to-recognize landscape of New York after sea level rise.

Robinson treats himself to a “chorus”, the presence of a non-participant (identified as “citizen” or “the city smartass”) who comments on the setting (the New York bight) and sometimes addresses the reader, as in the following rant:

“Because life is robust,

Because life is bigger than equations, stronger than money, stronger than guns and poison and bad zoning policy, stronger than capitalism,

Because Mother Nature bats last, and Mother Ocean is strong, and we live inside our mothers forever, and Life is tenacious and you can never kill it, you can never buy it,

So Life is going to dive down into your dark pools, Life is going to explode the enclosures and bring back the commons,

O you dark pools of money and law and quanitudinal(sic) stupidity, you over simple algorithms of greed, you desperate simpletons hoping for a story you can understand,

Hoping for safety, hoping for cessation of uncertainty, hoping for ownership of volatility, O you poor fearful jerks,

Life! Life! Life! Life is going to kick your ass!”

Robinson is channeling Walt Whitman here. (Whether I believe this or not is a question for another day.)

The basic scenario of New York 2140 is that sea level rise, happening in two “pulses” rather than slowly, has transpired and a great deal of land has been abandoned. But New York City is just too valuable, so it evolves into three zones – dry land in northern Manhattan, an “intertidal” zone and a marginally occupied, heavily damaged Lower Manhattan. The book takes place in the intertidal zone, which is starting to “gentrify”.

Robinson quotes a number of sources throughout the book, mostly at chapter headings. Robert Moses, for example, who ruthlessly imposed his vision on the New York infrastructure. Additionally, H L Mencken, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, and assorted scientists and commentators. Some are worth checking out.

Robinson makes a “character” out of an existing building, the Met Life Tower on Madison Avenue. It is portrayed as having “personality”. In 2140, it is occupied by a housing cooperative. New York is very crowded, so successful professionals pay dearly for even a tiny bit of space, like a bunk in a dormitory.

Characters in New York 2140 make occasional reference to Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the 21st Century has been attracting attention recently. Piketty is a French academic who has studied the history of the distribution of wealth. Both Piketty and K S Robinson are asking how capitalism can be structured to benefit the citizens of a democratic nation. Believe it or not, there’s a copy of Piketty’s book in my livingroom. I plan to read at least some of it. Stay tuned!

I dashed excitedly through New York 2140 in a few days, and I’ve written this without consulting reviews. After I do that, I may learn that, one way or another, I’ve entirely missed the point.

 

“Windfall – the Booming Business of Global Warming” by McKenzie Funk

This book (another grab from the “new arrivals” shelf) overwhelmed me. I am woefully ignorant about business and finance, and my ignorance increases with scale. Most of what Funk discusses is global in scope.

Funk is a journalist, and it is harder for me to evaluate his work than, for example, that of a scientist like Richard Primack (author of Walden Warming, see this blog, June 23, 2014). I feel like I need to enlist my local cast of experts about this book, and worry that in some subject areas, I don’t know anyone.

If you decide not to read this book, you should at least look at the seven-page epilogue, entitled “MAGICAL THINKING”. Towards the end, Funk states, “Climate change is often framed as a scientific or economic or environmental issue, not often enough as an issue of human justice.” Good point.

Funk divides climate impacts into three categories – melting (problems of the Arctic), drought and sea level rise. Four chapters are devoted to each of these subjects.

The warming of the arctic puts Canada in a position of incredible strategic importance. Canada will “benefit” in many ways (longer growing season, open Northwest Passage, etc) but I put “benefit” into quotes because so many complications can be foreseen. One is sovereignty. Will Canada become the 51st state of the US? What will happen if our perceived interests diverge? Will the US “let” Canada chart an independent course?

And what about Greenland? I was barely aware of it as a country. I thought I was doing well to have some acquaintance with Iceland! Will Greenland become an agricultural state? A major source of strategic minerals? A tourist Mecca? We can safely assume it will emerge from obscurity.

On the subject of drought, I found Funk’s chapter on the Sahara most interesting, because he considers both desertification and human migration. Are the Africans currently trying to get to Europe “climate refugees”? Under what circumstances will the countries of Europe decide to admit “climate refugees”, and how will they be integrated? Will the richer Northern countries help their poorer, more southerly neighbors (like, say, Malta) that often receive the largest number of undocumented refugees? Can workers from Africa fill important needs in the US or northern Europe?

Many questions, few answers…

In his chapters on “the deluge”, aka sea level rise, Funk considers some technological fixes that might allow adaptation to climate change. One is genetic engineering of insects (starting with the mosquito) to inhibit malaria and dengue, and keep the tropics livable. Most surprising (to me) and actually, maybe somewhat feasible is the introduction of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to mimic the cooling impact of volcanic eruptions. This is referred to as the “Mount Pinatubo” proposal, because of the cooling which followed Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption.

I recommend this book because most of us need to think and act “bigger” on climate change.

“The Path Between the Seas – The Creation of the Panama Canal 1879-1914” by David McCullough

I spent weeks reading this book (with a few fiction side trips) and it was well worth it. It took me a while to realize McCullough was the author of the wonderful book on the Brooklyn Bridge I read fifteen years ago. That was way before anyone talked about “creative non-fiction”, a genre I’m not clear about. Seems to mean non-fiction that is not serious enough for an academic journal. I read LOTS of it.

McCullough is at the head of the class in creative non-fiction. His mixes history, science and technology with wonderful clarity. In his book on the Brooklyn Bridge, he explained “the bends”, an illness that previously had me baffled. He included plenty of medical science in Path Between the Seas. 

I’ve put the Panama Canal on my bucket list. My father took our family to see the newly opened Saint Lawrence Seaway when I was nine. Fascination with “big engineering” is in my blood.

Takeaway messages:

  • Sometimes people and governments can get together on a big project that isn’t a war. Easy to forget in these troubled days. (I am talking about ISIS and Ebola.)
  • Even when people work together on something positive, bad things happen along the way. Racism and exploitation of labor were “business as usual” during the construction of the Canal.
  • You don’t always have to know where you are going in order to get there.
  • Yes, you get unexpected benefits from forcing technology.

McCullough is especially interesting when he writes about scientific facts that are known but not applied. Most of the “science” necessary to prevent “the bends” was available at the time the Brooklyn Bridge was built, but it wasn’t applied to what was then called “caisson sickness” and people suffered and died unnecessarily. Applying knowledge of mosquito biology, etc., to control malaria wasn’t easily accomplished.

Most interesting oddball fact? McCullough says that banks of the Culebra Cut, where the Canal passed through the highest mountain peak, had not found their “angle of repose” when he wrote the book in 1978. In other words, that part of the Canal still suffered from landslides! I wonder what has happened since.

Now that we are facing accelerated sea level rise (due to global warming), what engineering projects will we decide to undertake? In the developed world, we can pick and choose. The city of Boston (I learned at a recent conference) intends to sit right there in the path of disaster, hardening their infrastructure and maybe imposing minor zoning changes. They’ve got lots of engineering expertise (MIT? Harvard?) and lots of money. I expect Boston to survive, but what surprises may happen along the way?

What will happen to my other favorite sea level town, tiny Chincoteague, Virginia? They already withdrew once – some of the houses there were moved from Assateague Island, which was de-developed/depopulated after a major storm in the 1940s. What will it take to save Chincoteague? Stay tuned. I plan to visit there shortly.

What will happen in the developing world? What will be saved? We are already hearing of “climate refugees”. Some of them will not be able to return to their now unsafe flood ravaged communities. I read that India is reinforcing its border with Bangladesh to keep out illegal immigrants. For now, I’m categorizing this as a nasty rumor…

I ramble…

Who else writes creative non-fiction really well? Jon Krakauer comes to mind.

I recommend Path Between the Seas.