A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World is a monthly column about the future of climate change.
I WAKE IN A FOG AT MY mother-in-law’s house in northern New Jersey. Outside the window I can see the Hudson and that vulnerable city, New York, where we have just spent two days. My groggy mind starts to plan out the trip back south, and then I have the sudden acute sense that I have forgotten something.
Oh right. I have. Our daughter.
Hadley will not be returning south with us. We will be leaving her, a college freshman, in New York City.
How strange to have left her behind. Behind in this big uncertain world.
Over the next week our own lives will be in the shadows. We will live only vicariously, following our child through texts and calls as she goes to her first class, meets her roommates, makes friends, and attends Drag Bingo in Washington Square Park. We will do our best to ignore the news that on the first day of class, a twenty-five-year-old woman is shot and killed in front of University Hall dorm.
Sometimes ignoring is all you have.
NOT LONG BEFORE WE DROPPED her off, Hadley and I went for a swim near our home on Wrightsville Beach. We sat with our toes in the water as the tide swallowed most of the beach at the island’s south end. She pointed at the lapping water.
“My childhood is going underwater,” she said.
On climate change, hurricanes, and oil spills: The Land of the Blue Roofs
MANY YEARS AGO, WHEN I FIRST started studying storms, I paid a visit to the MIT offices of Kerry Emanuel, a professor emeritus of atmospheric science and one of the country’s leading climate authorities. Back then, many thought the jury was still out on whether or not warmer waters would lead to more intense storms. Emanuel assured me that what common sense suggested was true: hotter waters lead to more violent hurricanes.
“We have a heavily subsidized coastline,” he told me then. “Subsidized by a corrupt insurance industry.” He described how the insurance industry allowed people to build next to the shore without taking the financial risk. How someone living inland might pay as much in taxes as someone living on the shore.
Then, as I was leaving, he said something that has stayed with me. He described what he called the historical “natural human ecology” of the coast.
“The natural human ecology of the coastlines tends to be a few castles or mansions built very solidly that will withstand anything nature has to throw. But only a few—everything else is sea shanties. These shanties or cottages are disposable and people don’t put anything of value in them and don’t insure them. Every now and then they get wiped out and that’s to be expected. It’s the same all over the world . . . it’s very democratic.”
Recently I wrote to Emanuel asking him for a prediction for when my daughter was sixty. He wrote back that, in his opinion, “the most dramatic changes one might see by 2063 will be worse flooding by a combination of stronger storm surges and much increased rainfall. We also expect wind speeds in the strongest storm to be up to 20 percent higher.”
He also pointed me to a recent paper that he had coauthored with Avantika Gori, Ning Lin, and Dazhi Xi of Princeton, in which they had created models for the future of the coast. As it happened, one of the cities they had modeled was Wilmington, where I live.
The takeaway of the study was that climate change greatly exacerbates the combined threat of extreme rainfall and storm surge during storms. During Florence, Wilmington had seen thirty inches of rain, and the models suggested that this might be the future for my adopted hometown, with predictions of overall rainfall during storms increasing by 32 percent, and storms lingering longer, just as Florence and Sandy had done. Emanuel and his colleagues used relatively modest sea level projections, but still found that the hazards of sea level rise and increased rain will likely lead to massive coastal flooding. Storm surges that will strafe across the island where Hadley and I were sitting.
What the report described was a climate that felt like the tropical rainforest my home is well on the way to becoming. We already have mosquitoes in February.
ONE DAY DURING MY FIRST YEAR IN North Carolina, I paddled my kayak over to Masonboro Island and looked back at Wrightsville Beach and our new apartment. Hadley was still a baby then and I often walked her up and down the beach strapped to my chest in something called a BabyBjörn and sang a song I’d made up called “Walking by the water with my daughter.”
Masonboro and Wrightsville are essentially twin islands, the difference being that Masonboro is undeveloped. Because of this, Masonboro can handle storms in ways a developed island cannot: sand spilling over the island’s interior, marsh growing behind, the entire island gradually but constantly migrating landward. Because Masonboro had been left alone and undeveloped, most experts point to it as the healthiest North Carolina example of the way a barrier island survives and changes during a storm.
Staring back at Wrightsville from Masonboro’s shore, my new home appeared decidedly fragile. A strange metaphor came to mind. With its flat, treeless land and tall buildings, the island looked like nothing so much as a dinner table full of empty plates and bottles after a party, waiting, I thought, for an angry drunk to come along and sweep it clean with his arm.
IN 2010 I VISITED NEW YORK WITH THE Duke coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey. While Orrin flew up from Durham, I drove up to the town of Edgewater and then took the ferry across the Hudson. That morning, as the ferry streamed through the Hudson’s brown-gray waters, a great blue heron flew with deep, slow wingbeats over the boat, leading us east across the water toward the city. I watched its flight until I was distracted by the buildings that rose up in front of me. This was a view that had launched a thousand metaphors. Some had seen the city as a shining example of human progress and ascension, some as merely hubristic. Those who are environmentally inclined might have once sneered at the city, but more recently many have come around to admitting that it makes sense to cluster our ever burgeoning population in denser concentrations. As always, these visions reflected the preconceptions, and preoccupations, of the viewers.
At that moment, approaching the city by water and thinking as I had been more and more about how water threatened the shore, it wasn’t any of the old dusty metaphors that I dredged up. I thought instead of our apartment on Wrightsville Beach. Though ours was a small barrier island, not a chunk of glaciated bedrock like Manhattan, and was home to three thousand people, not eight million, in that moment the two were the same.
It occurred to me that what I was seeing was similar to the sight I had seen while standing on Masonboro Island looking back toward Wrightsville Beach: the same tall empty bottles stacked up on the same late-night dinner table. Just taller bottles and a whole lot more of them. But still waiting to be swept aside by the angry drunk.
YOU MAY BE SURPRISED TO LEARN that hurricane experts rank New York, despite the relatively low odds of a major storm, as the country’s second most dangerous major city, behind only the hurricane bull’s-eye of Miami and just ahead of New Orleans. This is not based on history but on potential. What a major storm could do to New York.
After I crossed on the ferry, Orrin and I made our way over to the World Trade Center site. Orrin had just finished up writing a book on sea level rise and was eager to share what he had learned.
“If the ice of Antarctica and Greenland continue to melt, we’ll see the most radically changing shoreline in thousands of years,” he said. “The latest IPCC report on sea level is very conservative, saying that we can expect a sea level rise of up to two feet over the next century. But it doesn’t factor in what is going to happen in Antarctica and Greenland, and all indications are that the ice melt is increasing in both of these places. A more realistic assessment comes from the state of Rhode Island, a state that obviously has a lot invested in getting the estimate right. They’re assuming that the rise is going to be between three and six feet.
“I think the rise will be greater,” he added. “I think once the ice starts to melt, things will go fast.”
We reached ground zero—a name that Orrin pointed out would take on a whole new meaning in a hurricane—which, like most of Lower Manhattan, was little more than five feet above sea level, which would soon enough put it, if you accepted Orrin’s math, about two feet under water. Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist with Columbia’s Earth Institute who has played the Orrin Pilkey role in the New York sea level debate, calls Lower Manhattan “the Bathtub.”
We climbed the stairs and stood on the overlook above the Trade Center site. Orrin seemed impressed by the size of the project, but I was actually a little disappointed for him. When I had visited a few months before, the site looked like nothing so much as a vast archaeological dig, a hidden city being unearthed. I regretted that Orrin had not been there that day because he, as a geologist, would have appreciated the revealed bedrock and the thousands of unearthed cobblestones that had once scraped across and formed the island 20,000 years ago. That day I’d been in awe of the sheer size of the hole in the heart of the city, with dozens of cranes and hundreds of orange-vested and hard-hatted men and women working far below the streets in a gap that must have been a couple of football fields deep. Down below, a bridge spanned the gap, like the mines of Moria in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Maybe the 9/11 site should have been like church, where only solemn thoughts are allowed, but staring down at that hole and realizing just how close I was to the confluence of two rivers and the sea, and that where I stood was less than my own height above sea level, I pictured the great gaping hole as the world’s largest and deepest swimming pool.
We walked toward the Hudson as Orrin described the particular dynamics of the river, how if the tides and winds were right, it could back up over the wall at Battery Park, how its waters would naturally seek out the low ground of downtown. He pointed out the straight streets crossing the island, explaining that though they were good for finding your way in the city, they were bad for flooding because they ushered in the water, almost exactly the same mistake made on barrier islands where streets were often built straight from ocean to sound. He told me that in Bangkok, the stairs to subways were required to go down, then up again, before finally descending, so that stairways would not turn into waterfalls. With Orrin as my guide, New York became a more elemental city.
“These people don’t seem to understand they are living on an island in a time of rising seas,” he said. “The truth is that as sea levels rise, it won’t even take a hurricane to flood Lower Manhattan. A strong enough nor’easter will do the trick.”
He described how the river could become backed up from winds and tides. He opened my eyes to the vulnerability of the place: millions of people on a low-lying island. He described just what a big storm might do to such a place.
Two and a half years later, Hurricane Sandy more or less followed Orrin’s instructions.
FOUR MONTHS AFTER HURRICANE SANDY, Orrin and I returned to New York. The idea of the trip was to follow the hurricane’s path. To perform a postmortem on Sandy.
Once we reached New York, we parked in a garage near Battery Park and walked along Water Street, which fully earned its name during the storm. It was a street that, if Orrin’s predictions were right, would be underwater by the end of the century.
We talked to everyone we saw, starting with the guy at the parking garage, who told us the water was waist deep in the garage, taking us to the lowest level to show us a deserted, sea-encrusted car. A friend who lives in Manhattan said that the lesson learned from the storm was New York’s remarkable “permeability.” She was amazed at how the whole place was soaked through and was up and running a few weeks later. And it was true that downtown looked pretty good at first.
But if you looked a little closer, you saw obvious signs, starting with the rectangular yellow ones, notices of evacuation and closing and condemnation, in the windows of buildings. And as we walked south, descending almost to sea level, Orrin pointed out the watermarks on the side of the buildings, five or six feet up. I remembered that the city’s fourteen wastewater plants all sat at water’s edge and had outfall pipes at sea level. During storms those outfalls quickly became infalls, sending sewage backward into the pipes, guaranteeing not just deadly disasters but also smelly ones. Where we were now walking was briefly a lake during Sandy, though a lake made up not only of water but also of millions of gallons of sewage and fuel, and everything else the sea swept up. We stopped and talked to a store owner who confirmed this, describing how he watched Abercrombie & Fitch mannequins bob in the water.
We climbed John Street, gaining what will one day be seen as precious elevation, and decided to eat at a place called the Open Door Gastropub. We sat down, ready to feast, but then on a hunch, I went up to the bar and struck up a conversation with a man who turned out to be the owner. “You gotta see this,” John Ronaghan said, and so we abandoned our table and descended the narrow stairs to a cramped cellar where the water had flowed in. I imagined the cellar on the night of the storm: to get an olive jar, you would have to swim underwater like Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure. When the water had receded, they began to deal with the lesser plagues that struck the neighborhood: rot, mold, flood insurance.
“Everything ruined,” he said, adding: “And this is nothing.”
He wanted us to see his other restaurant, the Paris Café, which was down on the waterfront near the old fish market. He was due at a meeting, but his co-owner, Peter O’Connell, agreed to give us a tour of the Paris. Thirty minutes later, we were walking through the restaurant. Workers had been going strong for weeks but it was still in ruins; during the storm the water had risen above the heads of where customers usually sat.
So much effort had been put into just trying to get back to where they had been. I asked Peter the obvious question: What if it happens again? “What if?” he echoed, thinking it over.
“We’re taking a shot,” he said finally.
This was one of the more realistic sentiments I’d heard voiced during our whole trip. It contained no illusions about building walls or defending or controlling the uncontrollable. He was not saying they would fly a flag and defeat the ocean. He was saying he would roll the dice and see what came up. Not a desperate craving for certainty where none existed. But a realistic assessment. A gambler’s assessment.
AT THE END OF A DAY VISITING Hadley at school in October, my phone will tell me we have, without trying, hiked twelve miles up and down the island. It will be a great day really, seeking out vegan restaurants, lounging in Washington Square Park, and ending the night watching Book of Mormon on Broadway.
We are not there to contemplate the angry drunk. We are there to think about her future, not the world’s, and during my visit I will happily keep the two in separate boxes. In fact, if I am honest, I will spend approximately zero minutes while we are there worrying about coming storms.
We are always of two minds. At least. We all slide between multiple lives, sometimes incongruously and awkwardly, sometimes easily. Several jolts that have little to do with worldwide crises had begun to run like tremors through my small life. A recent blood clot in my leg made me more anxious than any melting glacier.
I have no conclusions to offer. I can’t pretend I know exactly where we are going. Like everyone else, I am caught in the amber of my own life.
Hadley is out in the world now. I hope she takes care. And I hope we take care of the world, so that the planet she finds as she grows older is not the one of the most dire predictions.