The Working Waterfront

Wet feet in problematic places

Jeff Goodell makes it clear we’re in for a lot of soul searching

David Platt
Posted 2018-03-27
Last Modified 2018-03-27

The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World

By Jeff Goodell

Reviewed by David Platt

We live on a tidal river in southern Maine, on the western side of the Gulf of Maine. We rebuilt our dock a decade ago, raising it a few inches to account for what we assumed was some sinking of its underlying pilings. Now it’s in need of another raising: twice a month or more frequently these days, the water covers the dock entirely, at the highest tides leaving it submerged by a foot or more.

Sea level rise? Not entirely, of course—high tides have always covered the dock from time to time; I’m not suggesting the Gulf of Maine is up by a foot over the past ten years, and I’m sure the posts have sunk some—but we still get a periodic reminder of that’s going on out there.

We visited Venice a year ago, where similar things have been happening for centuries. Venice, we all know, is a city built entirely on pilings and fill over what were marshy islands in the Adriatic Sea in the Middle Ages. Sea level there has risen—and the buildings have been sinking—ever since, and today Venice is known worldwide for its efforts to save itself and its magnificent heritage from slow destruction.

I haven’t been to Miami for a long time, but I probably should go—as the sea rises there, the city’s in serious danger of disappearing. Why banks and developers persist in financing and building projects there and the rest of south Florida is a mystery to many, explained only by misplaced faith that climate change and sea level rise are either hoaxes or mere engineering problems.

And now that we have an Administration in Washington that removes serious climate science from its websites, it’s clear that we’ve got a problem.

It’s not a simple problem but it’s pretty straightforward. We burn fossil fuels, putting carbon dioxide into the air, which in turn traps heat in the atmosphere. Warmer temperatures cause a lot of changes, including melting Arctic ice and new current regimes in Earth’s oceans. Seas, warmed and added-to by the meltwater, begin to rise.

Cities next to seas in North America (think New York and Miami) and elsewhere (think Bangladesh and Italy) begin to experience flooding in their streets. When a big storm blows through New York it floods subways, sewers, and the underground parts of the power grid. In Houston and Puerto Rico last fall, hurricanes did more damage than usual. Streets already flood regularly in Venice and Miami, and on we go.

In The Water Will Come, Jeff Goodell makes it clear that we’re in for a lot of soul searching.

Much of Miami lies on a coastal barrier island, and its residents and businesses—unless they’d prefer living in an underwater theme park—are going to have to get comfortable with raising their streets and bridges, building to new codes, or simply moving out. Venice (where we saw raised boardwalks ready for “aqua alta” or high water) has moved ahead on huge, expensive tidal barriers that are supposed hold back the Adriatic.

One of Goodell’s best chapters focuses on Norfolk, Virginia, where the U.S. Navy houses its Atlantic fleet. Naval Station Norfolk floods more frequently than many places because sea levels there are rising at twice the global average. The Navy has already spent millions on new piers at Norfolk, but faces far bigger expenditures in the next 20 to 50 years.

And there’s the rub: Goodell points out, with considerable documentation, that Virginia is a “climate denial hotspot” where the state legislature has “effectively banned the discussion of climate change.” What the legislature thinks is very important to the Navy because so much of the civilian infrastructure surrounding the Norfolk base—roads, housing, schools, sewers, the electrical grid—depends on funding that doesn’t come from the Pentagon, but is vital to Naval Station Norfolk’s existence nonetheless.

“The inundation of a modern coastal city is not something humans have ever witnessed before,” Goodell writes. “We’ve seen floods and storms, but this will be nothing like what’s to come. Even if it happens fast, it will seem to happen slowly… in some distant future, someone, or some humanlike machines, may explore the sunken city and find bowling balls, stainless steel knives, gold wedding bands, and ceramic tiles. They may wonder about the people who lived there, what their lives were like, and what they were thinking as their world went under.”

Time to fix the dock again!

David D. Platt is a former editor of The Working Waterfront.