According to the journal Nature, the world is getting wetter: In two-thirds of the data-covered regions of the Northern Hemisphere, global warming has contributed to the “observed intensification of heavy precipitation.” But warming air also brings on the more insidious problem of melting ice and rising seas. Arctic sea ice continues to diminish – 2014 marked its sixth lowest level on record. Melting land ice and the thermal expansion of warming oceans are causing sea levels to continue to rise, nearly 8 inches (20 centimeters) since 1900, covering islands and threatening coastal cities, like Miami, Melbourne and Dakar.
As human development paves over an otherwise absorbent earth, the force of water has become more familiar. Our media has introduced terms like “cresting” and “storm surge” and the motif of flooded cars on flooded streets. But the impact remains beyond the image. Right now, New York is like so many cities, deciding which tens-of-billions-of-dollars scheme will best protect its hundreds of miles of coastline from the rising seas and future storms.
While climate change is arguably the most democratic phenomenon from which no human is immune, it displays some of its starkest polarities through water distribution. To say that “World War III” will be fought over water is almost cliché now. The dammed rivers of China and the desalination plants of Egypt aside, we have so much to think about in this country. No one talks about it, but the levels of the Great Lakes have been dropping continuously since 1998, reaching record lows in places.
In many ways, these Water images were the hardest to capture. I found myself relying on local lore, hearing that “somewhere underneath this water, there was a school … there used to be a road.” But all I could see were the tops of utility poles or cement blocks of a school that existed before the sea level had risen. I imagine this is how archeologists feel when they stumble upon an ancient civilization, except that the people who told me about them were still alive.
Blowhole (#1) Nuku’alofa, Tonga, 2012
Sea levels around the world are rising due to the melting of land ice and the expansion of ocean water as the earth’s temperature warms up. Low-lying island nations, such as The Kingdom of Tonga, are especially at risk. These blowholes currently appear only during high tides when waves meet the coastline forcing water through holes in the volcanic rock. I worry that rising seas will eventually eliminate this mesmerizing and magical experience once the Pacific Ocean covers over the rocks.
Coconut trees decimated by rising seas, Lifuka Island, Tonga, 2012
Coconut trees, often a symbol of idyllic island life, are dying on this island from the salty sea water inundating them during storm surges and high tides damaging their root systems.
Hospital with sand bags in front of it to prevent flooding during high tides and storms, Lifuka Island, Tonga, 2012
In January 2014, two years after I visited Tonga, Cyclone Ian swept across the Ha’apai islands of Tonga severely damaging this hospital and over 1,100 other buildings including 400 homes. With winds up to 287 kilometers (178 miles per hour), it is miraculous that only one person was killed, but unfortunately approximately 2,300 people were left homeless.
Burial mound with hand-crafted quilts, Lifuka Island, Tonga, 2012
In Tonga, as with other low-lying nations and cities, residents have to bury their dead above ground. Even though 2014’s Cyclone Ian did not cause significant flooding on Lifuka, I imagine these gravesites were damaged by the wrath of the category-5 storm.
Falling Trees, Uoleva Island, Tonga, 2012
When I asked Sonny, the owner of Captain Cook’s Hideaway resort, about sea level rise, he told me there used to be a bench next to these trees to where one could sit to watch the sunset. One day he came out and the bench was gone: “The sea had just taken it away.” Since Cyclone Ian’s strong winds damaged over 80% of the Ha’apai islands, I doubt these trees, or many others, survived.
Sea barrier pillars, Khun Samut Chin, Thailand, 2012
The residents of this small fishing village, just an hour away from Bangkok, have been forced to move inland at least four times in the last fifty years due to rising sea levels and resulting erosion. On the left in the distance, the utility poles that used to run along one of the village’s main roads can be seen, inundated by the Bay of Bangkok’s waters.
Temple of Ban Khun Samut Chin, Thailand, 2012
Although Khun Samut Chin’s school and many homes have been moved inland to avoid rising seas, the monks that live there have refused to move their sacred temple. Damage from storm surges can be seen even on the side of the temple that faces away from the Bay of Bangkok. In order to keep using the temple, the floor has been elevated several feet off the ground.
Sutanit looking at posters documenting the effects of sea level rise, Khun Samut Chin, Thailand, 2012
Since climate change is affecting the fishing industry and income of many of these Thai residents, the village is now courting tourists as a means of bringing in more income and also as a way to educate the general public about their plight.
Poster showing aerial views of “The Temple in the Sea,” Khun Samut Chin, Thailand, 2012
These aerial views of Khun Samut Chin show the amount of sea level rise over a four-decade period. The photo on the left was taken in the early 1970’s, the middle one around 1996, and the one on the right in 2009. The red square represents the village’s Buddhist temple, which the monks refuse to relocate due to its sacred nature.
Remnants of wooden walkway visible at low tide, Khun Samut Chin, Thailand, 2012
The villagers have had to build more durable concrete walkways to replace these older wooden ones that were destroyed by rising seas. Mangrove trees have been planted at the edges of the village to try to reduce the erosion that is eating away their land.
Hanging vines, Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica, 2011
The Monteverde Cloud Forest is home to over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds and over 2,500 varieties of plants. This magical forest is in danger of losing its vital mist as warming temperatures are pushing its namesake clouds, which would linger among the trees, further into the atmosphere, disturbing the forest’s hydrological cycle. “Our cloud forest is becoming a rain forest,” said Rowan Eisner, a local avid birder and environmentalist. With several species already extinct or on the decline, her advice to “see it while you can,” should be heeded.
Rio Negro, Amazon, Brazil, 2012
Despite vast swaths of deforested areas in the Amazon, there are still no major roads connecting villages. Thus boat travel along rivers like the Rio Negro (Black River) is still the primary means of transportation for most Indians. In 2010 and again in 2015, The Amazon experienced severe drought causing sections of the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões to dry up, disrupting boat traffic in the busy port city of Manaus where the two rivers meet to form the Amazon River.
Sea barriers, Byron Bay, Australia, 2012
The laid-back vibe of this bohemian community is not enough to keep sea levels from invading this seaside town in New South Wales. In order to draw attention to the climate crisis, in 2015, Sportsbet, an online Australian betting agency, started taking odds on which Australian beach will disappear first. Palm Cove in Queensland is ranked first with Byron Bay coming in close behind it.
Unhealthy coral reef, Great Barrier Reef, Australia, 2012
In the Great Barrier Reef, an increase of coral-eating crown-of-thorn starfish are responsible for nearly 50% of coral loss. Scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science discovered that a 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degrees F) increase in ocean temperatures more than triples the survival rate of the starfish larvae, giving them an advantage over already stressed coral populations.
White-Spotted Jellyfish (Phyllorhiza punctata), Waikiki Aquarium, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA, 2012
Native to Oceana, and Asia, these jellyfish have recently invaded areas of the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Caribbean. Increasing ocean temperatures and acidification are contributing to large blooms of many types of jellyfish around the world. It is not just their stings that we should be worried about: In 2007 a massive jellyfish invasion wiped out a salmon farm in Ireland and in 2013, a thick swarm of jellyfish was responsible for plugging the cooling pipes of a Swedish nuclear reactor, forcing it to shut down.
Test tubes of oyster larvae at Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, Tillamook, Oregon, USA, 2011
In the mid-2000s, hatcheries like Whiskey Creek started noticing a large die-off of their oyster larvae. At first it was thought it was due to a bacteria (vibrio tubiashii) that had caused other recent die-offs, but Richard Feely a NOAA scientist (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) proved that ocean acidification was the culprit.
Oyster hatching tanks, Whiskey Creek Fish Hatchery, Tillamook, Oregon, USA, 2011
The oceans absorb about 30 percent of all carbon dioxide that humans put into the atmosphere causing the water to become more acidic. This lack of pH balance affects many forms of marine life including oysters whose shells have a difficult time forming in water that has too much bicarbonate and not enough carbonate ions. Oyster production for hatcheries like Whiskey Creek declined 80 percent in 2009 due to ocean acidification.
Oyster beds, Nahcotta Tidelands, Willapa Bay, Washington, USA, 2011
With some state and federal funding, six monitoring stations at hatcheries along the Pacific Northwest coast were established in 2011 to try to aid workers at the hatcheries in the recovery of oyster populations. By monitoring the pH level, local hatcheries can pull in ocean water when the carbonate ions are high and add sodium carbonate to the water to increase the concentration of carbonate ions at other times.
Fisherman opening fresh oyster, Nahcotta Tidelands, Willapa Bay, Washington, USA, 2011
Although the ocean acidification monitoring stations have helped the oyster production rebound, most who work in the industry know that they are using temporary workarounds. As atmospheric CO2 concentrations continue to increase, the window of favorable days for oyster spawning is on the decline, going from about 50 percent of the time to only one quarter of the time.
Fisherman on Lake Victoria, Kisumu, Kenya, 2012
As atmospheric temperatures rise, so too does the temperature of Lake Victoria. The World Wildlife Fund predicts this increase will likely lead to a change in nutrient levels in the lake affecting fish production and thus impacting the many residents that are dependent on the lake for water, food and income.
Tree by the shore of Lake Erie, Cleveland, Ohio, USA, 2010
Warming global temperatures mean less ice in winter and more evaporation in summer on the Great Lakes. The result is declining water levels, a problem for communities who rely on the lakes for fishing, shipping, hydroelectric power, and groundwater resources. Along the shores of Lake Erie in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, this “witness tree” stands sentinel, a bare and fragile beauty threatened by the seemingly maleficent figure rising behind it. This has become a signature image for my project, a symbol of nature’s fragility in the face of devastating climate change.
Algae bloom on Lake Erie, Maumee Bay State Park, Oregon, Ohio, USA 2014
In the summer of 2014, a toxic algae bloom forced a water ban in nearby Toledo, Ohio. The shallowest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is more susceptible to the warmer temperatures that are a key component of algae blooms of Microcystis bacteria. Intense summer storms have also aided the bloom by supplying the lake with run-off of nitrogen and phosphorous from leaking septic tanks and farm fertilizers. Scientist Timothy Davis of NOAA notes that some of the global increase in harmful algae blooms can be attributed to climate change.
Rough surf and pier, Palm Beach, Florida, USA, 2013
A 2014 article in Florida’s Sun Sentinel newspaper noted that since Palm Beach County stands 15 feet above sea level, it might avoid the worst impacts of impending sea level rise. A one-foot rise might bring permanent flooding to less than one square mile of Palm Beach’s barrier islands, but according to Dr. Hal Wanless, chairman of the Geological Sciences Department of the University of Miami, “It would turn Broward County [to the south] into a wetland.” During storm surges and “king-tides” Palm Beach can already get a feel for what might also be in store for them.
Red mangroves, Everglades National Park, Florida, USA, 2012
Sea level rise has been changing the natural freshwater flow of the Everglades into a brackish water system in which red mangroves profligate, reducing the number of white and black mangroves.
Aerial view of damaged mangroves, Everglades, Florida, USA, 2012
Saline intrusion into the interior sections of many of the Everglade’s Ten Thousand Islands is causing white and black mangroves to die-off. The delicate balance of this ecosystem, a primary location for migratory birds, has been upset. Recent hurricanes and storm surges have also posed a threat to the floral and fauna of this World Heritage Site.
Damage to Tom Nevers Road, Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA, 2014
According to Dr. Sarah Oktay, former director of the Nantucket Field Station, shifting shoals are often responsible for different areas of Nantucket sometimes being protected and sometimes getting damaged by rough surf and storm surges. With sea levels rising – which they are more rapidly on the East Coast than many locations in the world – the damage to all shorelines could get worse. Like other streets on the island, the ocean has claimed the end of this road.
Sand barriers on ‘Sconset Bluff, Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA, 2014
Located on the eastern side of the island, the “Sconset” bluff has gotten hit hard during recent severe storms. The northern end of the bluff has lost three-four feet annually due to erosion. Local homeowners, determined to protect their million dollar homes, are taking measures to reinforce the bluff despite objections by the Nantucket Land Council, the Nantucket Conservation Commission, and many residents that say the planned actions disrupt the natural flow of the sand to other beaches. Homeowners funded and arranged to have large jute sandbags and extra sand placed on the bluff to shore it up.
Erosion damage at Montauk Point State Park, Montauk, New York, USA, 2014
Hurricane Sandy and other severe winter storms have taken a toll on the coastline around this popular stretch of Long Island. There used to be 300 feet in front of the historic lighthouse located in the park, but now there is less than 100 feet. In late 2015 local residents protested the Army Corps of Engineers plans to build a new artificial dune (composed of sandbags) along beaches in downtown Montauk citing that it will take away the current bathing beach and won’t provide lasting protection.
Trees killed by salt water intrusion, Botany Bay Preserve, Edisto, South Carolina, USA, 2014
According to an April 2013 article by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources initially suppressed a 2011 climate report about the local impacts of climate change. One issue in the report addressed the loss of beachfront as a “serious problem” for the nesting grounds of loggerhead sea turtles. The state also faces the likelihood of more “dead zones” in the ocean off the coast which could also affect the already-threatened turtles.
Tree in the sea (# 2), Botany Bay Preserve, Edisto, South Carolina, USA, 2014
Other climate concerns mentioned in the now-public DNR report include an average temperature rise of as much as nine degrees Fahrenheit over the next 70 years, increased flooding on beaches and marshes, and salt water intrusion into coastal rivers and freshwater aquifers that will impact some bird and fish species and potentially affect drinking-water supplies.
Homes along Edisto Bay at high tide, Edisto, South Carolina, USA, 2014
The 2011 DNR climate report does not just focus on the threat to flora and fauna. It states that even a 2-foot (.6 meter) rise in sea level would result in “a potential intrusion boundary of 39-197 feet (12- 60 m) – clearly placing much of current beach development in South Carolina in jeopardy.”