It’s the summer of 2012, I am 13 years old and I have butterflies in my stomach as I gear up for another exciting afternoon of sailing in Pt. Judith, Rhode Island. The salty air swirls around my head and my eyes squint as golden rays of sun warm my skin while I look out across the beautifully vast waters of Narragansett Bay. I can feel my heart begin to pump faster. I look at my watch; 12:45pm. Perfect. Today’s high tide would peak soon around 1 o’clock. High tide meant that my partner and I would only have to wheel our boat a couple of feet over the rocky shoreline before launching it off of it’s trailer and into the bay, saving our bare feet from the shards of broken shells and rocks that scattered the beach. Low tide meant dreading the extended journey towards the water due to more of the shore being revealed, leaving behind small cuts on the soft soles of our feet. I look to my left; a row of 10 small sailboats prepare to be launched from their trailers that are safely grounded atop the lush, sandy dune overlooking a small salt marsh. Even when the tide reached its highest point our boats would be safe, for this portion of the beach was always exposed. Excitement and anticipation begin to flow through my veins as we push our boat over the dune, across the rocky beach, and into the water. These are the days I loved the most; the ones I looked forward to, and the ones that would make me fall in love with the ocean.
It’s the summer of 2019, I am 20 years old and I have an intense feeling of anxiety as I wait for my group of jr. sailors to gear up for another afternoon of sailing. I look at my watch; 12:30pm. Today’s high tide was approaching fast and I knew we’d have to move quickly. There had been a huge rainstorm the day before which meant the tides would be rising higher and faster than normal. I can feel my heart begin to pump faster.
After a storm two weeks prior, the tides during the following days had risen so high that the entire beachfront went completely underwater, overflowing into the marsh on the opposite side of the dune, something I had never seen before. My fellow sailing instructors and I frantically ran to rescue our boats that were at risk of being swept away along with the tide. Thankfully we were able to pull each trailer to higher ground on the opposite side of our sailing facility that was already crowded with other boats and structures. However, I worried that next time we would not be so lucky.
High tide means insecurity, risk, and uncontrollable challenges. Low tide now means safety. Adrenaline and nervousness begin to flow through my veins as I quickly help my young sailors push their boats over the sand. I stand ankle deep in water as I watch 10 small sailboats sail into the vast unknown of the bay and I feel an overwhelming sense of relief. I look at my watch; 1:00pm. We made it. I look to my left and notice that just a sliver of sand remained along the shoreline. These are the days that have begun to occur more frequently; the ones we are unprepared for and the ones that fill my heart with fear knowing that the ocean will continue to change.
Climate change is real and it is happening. A majority of the world is aware of the fact that the increase of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has caused global temperatures to warm at alarming rates. We know that the glaciers are melting, the oceans are rising, and more severe weather patterns are occurring. It is clear to many that these changes will drastically affect life on Earth as we know it. Even so, minimal efforts towards preparing for how we will adapt to these changes have yet to be acted upon. But why? If it is known that the resulting implications of climate change will inevitably change the way humans make use of the Earth and its resources, why is preparing for, if not preventing, these changes not at the forefront of society’s agenda? I believe this must be due to the fact that many of us, especially in the US, have yet to experience these changes occur within a place we are connected to. I believe that I was one of those people, until I began to witness the intensity of sea level rise first hand while teaching sailing in Pt. Judith, Rhode Island.
Camp Fuller, a residential summer sailing camp, can be found tucked away along the shores of a small salt pond which opens into the Narragansett Bay. The heart of the camp sits atop a strip of land that juts out at the very center of the salt pond. No matter which way you turn your head your eyes will be inevitably met with some of the most breathtaking views found in New England.
For more than half of my life I have been lucky enough to call this place home for the summer. I began as a youth sailor at 10 years old and have since continued on to become the head of the camp’s sailing program. My most valued life experiences and life skills can be attributed to my time spent here. Sailing has provided me with not only a grave amount of strength, confidence, and independence but has fostered a sense of environmental connectivity within me. Mastering the art of properly maneuvering a boat solely based on wind, water, and weather conditions requires an intense level of constant environmental awareness. Sudden gusts of sightless wind, rough ocean waves and swells, changes in wind direction; all essentially are uncontrollable and unpredictable factors that force a sailor to make immediate changes to their plan of action during that moment. Success in this sport comes through being completely and utterly in tune with the environment, anticipating each move it will choose next, accepting that it cannot be controlled, and allowing yourself to work with what it hands you. For these reasons I have developed an extremely strong sense of respect and gratitude towards the environment and more specifically towards the ocean. The deep rooted connection that I have towards this particular place is the reason why being witness to the climate related environmental degradation of this area has had such a profound impact on me.
For decades Camp Fuller’s fleet of C420 sailboats have been stored along a wide stretch of beach front during the summer months due to this being an easily accessible location for daily use. Until recently, the thought that this area could potentially put our boats at risk, if tide waters rose high enough, was unheard of. However, the amount of exposed shoreline that exists here has decreased significantly over the past 2-3 years. These changes have become strikingly noticeable and unavoidable, and have triggered a sense of indescribable fear inside of me. Not only do I have concern for a future where the entirety of this land is underwater, but I am concerned for how else rising sea levels are impacting coastal communities. If it is happening to me, it is happening to others.
The global sea level has risen at least 8 inches since scientific record keeping began in 1900, 3 inches of which have occurred since 1993. The current rate at which the global sea level is rising is a little more than an inch per decade, a rate that has significantly increased in recent decades. This increase in the rate of global sea level rise is primarily driven by a combination of two factors related to anthropogenic-caused climate change; thermal expansion, as water temperatures increase, and melting land ice (i.e. ice sheets and glaciers), as air temperatures increase. Scientists predict that global ocean levels will rise at least 10-30 inches by 2100.
However, the rates at which local sea levels are expected to rise are worthy of much greater concern. Local sea level rise, or relative sea level rise, is affected by the global sea level rise and is also affected by local land motions, and the effects of tides, currents, and winds. The rate at which local levels are expected to rise is much faster than the average global rate of increase. Many US cities that are located along the coastline have seen high-tide flooding, sometimes referred to as “nuisance flooding”, between 300% and 900% more frequently during the past 50 years. Almost 40% of the US population lives in relatively high population density coastal areas, where sea level plays a part in flooding, shoreline erosion, and hazards from storms. 8 out of 10 of the world’s largest cities are located near a coast meaning that urban settings such as these face potential risks to infrastructure and things like roads, bridges, oil and gas wells, power plants, and sewage treatment plants as coastlines move further and further inland. Environmentally, coastal ecosystems will be faced with increased amounts of stress as sea levels rise, causing significant damages to wildlife habitats and natural structures that provide protection from storms.
The future of sea level rise depends on multiple factors. How much it will rise depends largely on the rate of future carbon dioxide emissions and future global warming. How fast it will rise depends on the rate of glacier and ice sheet melting. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conclude that even with extreme progress towards the lowest greenhouse gas emission pathways the average global sea level will rise at least 12 inches about ocean levels in the year 2000 by the year 2100. On the opposite side of the spectrum they conclude that on the highest greenhouse gas emission pathway, which would be the case if humans were to make no changes to the levels of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, sea levels could rise as high as 8.2 feet about 2000 levels by 2100. Even though the potential to lessen the severity of increasing ocean levels exists, there is no doubt that this is a problem that has already begun and is unable to be prevented any further at this point. As a result, entire coastal communities along with millions of people are at risk of becoming displaced from the locations at which they reside and are ultimately faced with questions often sounding like; What will we do? How will we prepare? Where will we go?
Both scientists and environmental planners have begun exploring strategies for adaptation due to climate change. The challenge in preparing for a life impacted by climate change lies within the uncertainty of events. In general, it is extremely difficult to produce accurate and quantifiable future predictions of ocean levels and the potential for things like flooding, storm surge, erosion, salinization of surface and groundwaters, and degradation of coastal habitats that will ensue because of it. In March of 2019 the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental economic organization, released a report titled “Responding to Rising Seas” which outlines recommended approaches to tackling coastal risks that countries should incorporate into new government policies. They highlight that the implementation of measures to support adaptation to sea level rise is happening too slowly to match the pace of challenges ahead. “While most countries are increasing investments to understand climate risks, there has been far less action in updating regulation. Only five countries have dedicated funding for coastal adaptation,” (OECD). The OECD also states that countries should focus on increasing engagement with those directly at risk, planning with future conditions in mind, aligning financial incentives for adaption and ensuring that the conditions of vulnerable populations are taken into account. As of March 2019 only 5 countries had dedicated funding for coastal adaptation.
To me it is unclear as to why actions like these are not being prioritized by regions who face the highest risks resulting from sea level rise that will inevitably damage, if not destroy, their homes and communities. I feel as though people are blinded to the harsh reality of what our future holds. Shouldn’t this be a desperate matter of life or death for anyone who has any sort of relationship with a coastal environment? Shouldn’t the sense of place and place attachment that is present in those who reside in coastal areas be the driving force behind implementing adaptive measures to combat climate change related events?
I am certain that my own personal connection towards the ocean, that is based upon my relationship with Rhode Island, a place that has had a significant impact on life, is not unlike the experiences of millions of humans across the globe. The sense of place that humans experience through their relationship with their surrounding environment has the ability to influence the definition of one’s identity, and in regards to the environment, can play a major role in climate change adaptation. However, this is a strategy that I feel has yet to be fully embraced by many.
Seeing an environment that I grew up being surrounded by, become victim to the unforgiving impacts of human inflicted climate change felt like losing a part of myself. It felt like watching a close friend, family member, or loved one slowly and painfully suffer an illness in which there is no cure. I was always aware that this place was very special to me but what I had been unaware of leading up to these moments was how my relationship with this place defined my deepest goals, values, and motivations. Although witnessing the slow destruction of my coastal habitat evoked a feeling of sadness and fear inside of me, the experience has signified a call to action and has ignited a need to work towards mitigation, accommodation, and adaptation in lue of environmental changes that await. I believe that this is in response to an instinctive desire to defend my sense of place, my home, my habitat, which has permanently imprinted on me, regardless as to whether or not I was aware of it.
This instinctive desire to protect one’s home, I feel, must be the case for others in regards to their own sense of place. Like myself, many are unaware of how large of a role this sense may play in their lives and slowly as the destructive impacts of climate change on our planet become increasingly more and more apparent, they too will be faced with the gut wrenching feeling I have experienced over the past year. Possibly, this could be a wake up call and a force to motivate rapid implementation of adaptive strategies that is required to salvage the environments we call our homes.
The presence of this feeling is what I hope to be the saving grace for life as we know it. Though every conducted piece of climate research and every environmental scientist supports the fact that the earth is changing in extreme ways that will cause detrimental catastrophes forcing our lives to alter, it seems as though people continue to lack urgency regarding the situation. I believe that if people are able to harness their own deeply rooted connections and relationships towards the environment and begin to share those with others, we will begin to see that humans share a commonality in that the environment is our lifeline and we have no choice but to protect and restore it. It is what has shaped us into the beings we are today, for without it we would not survive. I believe that if this fact can be acknowledged huge strides will be made towards creating a resilient and sustainable planet.
In order for me to come to terms with the role my relationship with the environment has had on my life and the importance of preserving my place because of that, took the destruction of that place to occur. This too will be the case for many. By the time the world is awakened by the formidable feelings that come from experiencing environmental destruction before your own eyes, I hope it will not be too late.