Approaching The Ledge
“…seas swept by, flooding inexorable up and up as the earth sank away imperceptible beneath them” –Lawrence Sargent Hall, The Ledge
The citizens of Tuvalu, a low-lying island nation in the central pacific, are comfortable. Their island is safe and their lives are simple. Recently their very existence has been challenged, not by criminals or corruption or unrest, but by the very thing they depend on: the ocean.
According to data from the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Weather Channel, 2015 will end as the hottest year in recorded history. With a .21 degree increase (.12 Celsius) over the previous winner (2014), 2015 caps the long-term trend of warming, consistent throughout the past 35 years.
What does this really mean? Warmer temperatures don’t seem all that daunting. Think milder winters, mid-day siestas in the blazing high noon heat, tropical climates. Seems like a convenient price to pay. Unfortunately, the warming of the globe does not actually translate to warmer temperatures. In many ways, it only contributes to more violent and erratic weather. Just ask the folks from Chennai, India who, over the past few weeks, have seen their city submerged by unrelenting deluge. Or citizens of the Lake District of Britain, where the heaviest 24-hour rain fall ever, turned village streets into makeshift canals. The world’s water appears to be nipping at the heels of civilization, with plans for ascension.
For Tuvalu, the warming of the globe means obliteration. As temperatures rise, two phenomena occur. First, glaciers and polar ice melt. This will significantly increase the amount of water on the globe, most of which will end up in the ocean. This will cause the ocean level to rise. Also, the warmer temperatures will cause the old, and new water of the oceans to expand. This will cause the ocean level to rise again. Tuvalu, only 4 meters above sea-level at its highest point, cannot afford for the ocean to rise. Unfortunately, it already has. As many citizens of the island have noticed, high tide is much higher than it used to be. In the past decade, the King Tides, an annual tidal event at the beginning of each calendar year, has become more and more severe. In 2006, the tides reached an apocalyptic level, submerging the entire island for weeks, leaving an entire culture virtually afloat at sea.
And this is only the beginning. Conservative estimates of sea-level rise are around 2 meters. This increase will make low-lying islands and coastal habitats unlivable. Tuvalu won’t just be subject to seasonal floods; its citizens would live in knee level water. Some scientists suggest that a 2 meter rise is an underestimate, and that the ocean level could rise as much as 7 meters, roughly 23 feet. Never mind Tuvala, at 23 feet the entire city of London will be under water.
“The waves would come on and on; he could not visualize how many tossing reinforcements lurked in the night beyond — inexhaustible numbers, and he wept in supernatural fury at each because it was higher, till he transcended hate and took them, swaying like a convert, one by one as they lunged against him and away aimlessly into their own undisputed wild realm” –Lawrence Sargent Hall, The Ledge
As long as the climate is warming, the ocean will rise. Low lying islands will disappear. Coastal cities and towns will suffer unquantifiable infrastructural and social damage. Even areas well above sea level have the potential to suffer as rising ocean levels could contaminate natural and artificial aquifers, further diminishing fresh water reserves on earth. Euphemistically, the rise of the ocean has the potential to radically change life on earth.
Perhaps the climate does not have to keep warming. Although temperatures have warmed and cooled naturally for millions of years, the dramatic increase in the past century is not a natural phenomenon. The burning of fossil fuels, including coal and oil, and a myriad of other human activities, has released unprecedented amounts of heat-trapping gas into the atmosphere. The ocean absorbs a staggering 80% of this additional heat.
Aware that our own activities are causing the warming of the planet and the rising of the sea, the concept is simple: we need to stop. In order to fight off the water creeping toward the waist of civilization, civilization must forsake fossil fuels as our primary source of energy. Unfortunately, the every day person has little say in this process. Fossil fuels hold a prominent place in human culture. They keep the lights on. They keep our water hot. They get us to school, or to work, or to play. They enable vacations and honeymoons. They are responsible for the food on our tables and the clothes in our closets. In a word, fossil fuels are pervasive.
But at what cost? The cost of Tuvalu, or London or New York City? Is the inconvenience of taking a bike instead of a car insurmountable?
In the face of such consequences, there are plenty of things to do. Use less electricity. Walk more. Eat food from down the road instead of across the continent. Shower once a day, instead of twice. More importantly, understand the macabre significance of our energy-obsessed culture. Changing your habits is a small gesture and will beget minimal change. Changing your mind is a prerequisite to changing your habits, and will alter the way you interact with the world and your fellow citizens. Changing your mind is an integral step in saving our planet.
“So they waited, marooned in their consciousness, surrounded by a monstrous tidal space which was slowly, slowly closing them out.” –Lawrence Sargent Hall, The Ledge
So, the choice is ours. The processes that have catalyzed the warming of our planet and the ascending of our oceans have been in progress for centuries. They are ingrained in our cultures and are essential for our lives, as we have come to know them. But they can change.
We can change.
Since industrialization gripped the world, human beings have increased the temperature of the globe by 1 degree Celsius. If we gain one more degree, all of our environmental nightmares will be realized. At 2 degrees or more, the very idea of human existence will be challenged. So let’s not get there.
In the making of our own apocalypse, we have a choice to prevent it. If that means a sacrifice of convenience, or a challenge to the status quo than so be it. It is a small price to pay for your life, or your neighbors, or for those lives 1,000 miles away on the island of Tuvalu.
“From his hips upward the fisherman stretched to his utmost as a man does whose spirit reaches out of dead sleep. The boy’s head, none too high, must be at least seven feet above the ledge. Though growing larger every minute, it was a small light life. The fisherman meant to hold it there, if need be, through a thousand tides.By and by the boy, slumped on the head of his father, asked, ‘Is it over your boots, Dad?’
‘Not yet.’ “
–Lawrence Sargent Hall, The Ledge
Climate Hot Map. 2015 “Sea Level Rise”. Climate Hot Map.org
Erdman, John. 2015. “2015 Still on Pace as Hottest Year on Record”. Weather.com. Web
Hall, Lawrence Sargent. 1962. “The Ledge”. The Best American Short Stories of the Century
McKibben, Bill. 2015. “Falling Short on Climate in Paris”. New York Times
National Geographic. 2015 “Sea Level Rise”. Ocean.NationalGeographic.com
Samenow, Jason. 2015. “After record-shattering September, 2015 in commanding lead for Earth’s hottest year on record”. Washington Post
Tagata Pasifika. 2010. “Tuvalu King Tides and the damage of climate change”. Youtube Documentary