Posted by: carlsafina | Monday, January 19 09

A Rising Tide Floats All Boats (and Some Backyards)

 My first week in Palau—in the west Pacific several hundred miles east of the Philippines—focused on the recovery of corals. My second week is focused on the effects of sea level rise. Sea level isn’t just rising here; it’s rising worldwide. Near my home on Long Island, east of New York City, beaches have lost yards of dunes this fall to high tides. And the beach nearest my home has dropped about 3 feet in the last 8 years as rising tides sweep sand away. This net erosion is a symptom of sea level rise. If sea level were falling, coasts would be extending, not eroding.

 So, why come all the way here? Because a much larger proportion of the population lives much closer to sea level. Some islands have no land higher than a few feet above sea level. A few islands have already been evacuated. And Pacific islands are forming a coalition called Islands First, with the aim of bringing climate change to the United Nation’s Security Council as a matter of international security. Some of the lowest island countries face total inundation in the foreseeable future. Many of their people would rather die on their islands than live as refugees in a foreign place.

 So there is more at stake here. And that’s why I came.

 Much of Palau is higher than many island countries. But many Palauans live along the shore. And the tides, they all say, are in the last few years coming higher than ever before.

 I’ve seen high tides, stoked-up by the full moon, rising into people’s yards in the low-lying neighborhoods of Palau’s capital, Koror.

Flooded family

Flooded family

 I’ve also seen the tide come over the dock of a popular scuba-diving operator.

Flooded scuba business

Flooded scuba business

 And I’ve seen taro patches (the starchy root that is Palau’s traditional staple food and is still important culturally, ceremonially, and for the poorer elder people here) flooded and rotted by the combination of high tides and torrential rains. Elders say the rains are also abnormal in recent years, and that there is no longer a dry season, and the tide tables no longer work well to predict the time or elevation of tides.

Her taro has rotted

Her taro has rotted


Flooded woman

Flooded woman

 Ultimately most of this problem results from melting land-ice and the expansion of warmer waters worldwide. As climate change continues, the sea will continue rising. The world may shirk off the problems of thousands of Pacific islanders. But what happens when it becomes necessary to move hundreds of millions of people living along the coast of Bangladesh and south Asia? On the other hand, there could be good news: Wall Street in Manhattan might begin flooding soon, too.

Flooded dog

Flooded dog



  1. I am so glad that you wrote this. I had a conversation with a very wise man just the other day, who was saying that he thinks people are putting their energy in the wrong place arguing about whether global warming is happening or not, and how to become greener, and that very few people are actually dealing with what is sure to be the new reality. This post proves his theory right, and I am happy to see that there are some people speaking in a more pragmatic voice.

  2. Ok. So sea level is rising. This we know. This is bad for millions of people around the world. So my question is this, what do we do? How do we fix this problem? What are our options?
    I have only heard of one project that claims to be able to get at a solution, but I do not think that it could be successful. Here is the link to one of there pages:
    Have you heard of other projects being proposed to solve sea level rise

    • I don’t think we can fix the problem. I think we can prevent it from being as bad as it could be by getting off fossil fuels as much and as fast as possible. Major government incentives and new infrastructure projects could create a new green energy econimy that puts the US back in global leadership in new technologies and creates massive new manufacturing in clean sustainable energy.

  3. Carl, admire your thoughts on ocean conservation. But I’ve dropped by to say how very disappointed I was in your article in yesterday’s New York Times trashing Darwin.

    Sure, evolution is a lot more than “Darwinism.” But downgrading the role of a great pioneer in the field is no way to defend evolution from the Know Nothings. The publication of “Origin of Species” was a great event in the history of modern science. That retrograde forces in American society (and really, nowhere else that I am aware of) are still fighting the supposed damage to Christianity is not now, and was not then, Darwin’s fault.

    In this bicentenary year of Darwin’s birth, we are — and should be — celebrating his contributions to advancing human knowledge. Your article was intellectually silly, and socially irresponsible.

    With sincere regret.

    Dear Dale,

    I was not trashing Darwin at all. If you have the time, re-read it.
    I call him a genius twice in the piece, and say how “astonishingly” right he was. And also that he was a genius about far more than his insights on evolution, with 18 books.

    I say that “isms” are beliefs and religions.

    Evolution won’t be accepted by religious people until we stop talking about it as if it’s a religion. That’s the point I’m making.

    Thanks for your thoughts

  4. You’ve got to find hope in least expected places, I suppose. A year ago I was shooting footage on the Tonle Sap in Cambodia and got to see the aquatic villages of Vietnamese who live on the lake. Some of my crew assumed to our guide and translator that they must be living in abject poverty, but he said their lives comparatively are quite good – they have access to protein all year round and their dwellings rise and fall with the tides, and their livelihoods are not as dependent on climate. Whereas the nearby stilt houses were finding water coming higher every year, and whose old fashioned rubbish tips (out the back door) which used to consist of entirely organic material now had pampers plastic packaging. I am terrified but the ingenuity of the boat people was inspiring. Then again, the quality of water they live on is probably their greatest health issue, and this is before industrialization comes.

    Sadly, in my travels, even a right wing cab driver in Australia will admit to you global warming is not up for discussion, although what to do about it might be. In the US we continue to have a noxious debate about whether it’s actually happening while inaction reigns. My basement apartment in Brooklyn near the Gowanus canal has flooded twice in the past year, which my landlord says in twenty years has never happened. I fear that it will only be when the waters rise on Wall Street that we’ll be shaken enough to do something about it…

    And most sad of all is that we will not see the connection between our economic systems that exacerbate the problem, instead news stories being reported about how “going green is a fad and now all anyone cares about is the economy”.

    In regards to the article, I’d have to concur with Safina that he was defending Darwin as a brilliant biologist, but our culture as a whole is drowning in vague ideologies associated with his name that do everyone a disservice. Every week it seems another book appears that applies the idea of brutal natural selection to, say, auto maintenance. I think that an appreciation of evolution does not have to be mutually exclusive from faith in a creator. But the battle lines on that issue have been drawn along cultural, ideological ones. For the worse. Darwin’s individual choice in his own sense of faith even gets tossed into the fray, as if his embrace of the secular was proof that his ideas had no merit. Religious people can accept gravity, and thus if we get away from the cult of personality and describe evolution as a function of life without suppositions as to what it says about morality, maybe then they can embrace it, too.

  5. A really great article, I do not agree with everything, but thank you for the effort.

  6. I live in a coastal area and this really concerns me. I will need to buy a boat and a boat trailer in the next 10 years if the sea level keeps rising!

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