Rising tides: a view from dry land

Clay Reynolds looks back to his childhood to consider how a climate-changed world will be entirely different but populated with people like us.

Growing up on the semi-arid prairies of West Texas, I didn’t care much about sea-levels. As a boy, I never saw a river I couldn’t walk across, although becoming stuck in quicksand or victimized by some random vermin or other while breaking through the wild-plum thickets along the sandy banks of our neighborhood creek and riverbeds was a threat. When I first saw the Mississippi, I couldn’t believe it. These times of my childhood where I grew up were the years of drought. It lasted seven years, actually, so oceanic waters meant little to me. Although as an infant my family visited California and, I was told, spent time on the beach, I have no memory of the Pacific. I didn’t even see the Gulf of Mexico until I was twelve, and the Atlantic wasn’t in my experience for another decade.

So the whole idea of rising ocean levels is hard for me to imagine, even now, and even after I’ve lived on the coast for ten years and been on ships at sea. I’ve walked the seawalls of major cities that border oceans, and I’m sensitive to the power of rising tides, but it’s an intellectual rather than an emotional perception. I am still, I guess, emotionally on dry land.

Years ago I saw a documentary about divers exploring the drowned remains of some ancient city. The presumption was that an earthquake had opened the entire city to the bay that wrapped around it, submerging it suddenly and completely to a depth of twenty or thirty feet. The cameras showed divers swimming into and out of doorways and around columns of ancient, forgotten buildings, once home to an active and large population. The sensation of watching this film stayed with me. It was more than the ghostly exploration of a dead city, more than the speculation of what happened to the people who once walked these streets and lived in these sunken structures. It reminded me that Nature has little regard for the pitiful etchings of mankind. When Atlas, so to speak, more or less shifts his weight, just a little, the world shifts with it, and prairies buckle, mountains crumble, oceans rise.

The two-meter rise of the oceans forecast by the dark prophets of science is not something, though, to be casually regarded. Man’s refusal to respect and preserve the planet/garden where he exists is the cause of this, they say and I believe. I have seen reports of soot-covered glaciers, of the diminished ice-packs in Greenland, Antarctica, the rapidly disappearing rain forests, and I’ve felt desperately sad, even a little bit afraid. I note that recently, a cruise ship traversed the previously impenetrable Northwest Passage, which, triumphant an achievement as that may be, signals a crisis with polar ice. I worry about that, and I worry about polar bears and penguins and whales and other creatures of the sea that rely on the stability of oceans to survive.

Water rising two meters doesn’t sound like much. In American terms, that’s a couple of yards. But the global impact of that on low-lying cities such as New York or San Francisco, Boston and Charleston, Miami and Mobile, and most certainly New Orleans and Corpus Christi would be horrific. And that’s just in the U.S. In more than a minor way such a rise would remap the coastlines of all the continents. And while it might not sink entire cities, it could change their perimeters, force them to face ruination and disappearance of their most precious icons and landmarks.

The focus of the media when they deign to talk about this in serious terms is the economic impact, of course. Loss of property would be one—oceanfront is prime real estate almost anywhere—and certainly loss of business from shipping, fishing, and other seaside enterprises. Tourism would be affected; the famous beaches where people go to frolic and take the sun and surf would be altered in dynamic ways.

But apart from the grim and somewhat temporal realities, there is the emotional impact of all of this. It’s our fault. It’s our problem to fix, and we do nothing about it, not really.

When I was a boy in my drought-stricken homeland, I remember that some people came “to town,” which is how it was phrased, driving animal-drawn conveyances. Mules and horses pulled carriages and wagons into the “wagon-park” that was behind the main buildings of Main Street and across from the depot. I was five or six at the time, but it seemed perfectly normal to me. I understood that they weren’t doing this to be quaint; this was their principal form of transportation. I’m not that old. This was only sixty years ago in rural West Texas. But we have moved from that to automobiles so entirely, I’d speculate that in that same county today, no more than a fraction of the population has ever ridden in, let alone driven, a mule or horse-drawn wagon. We’ve come that far.

As I sit here and compose this on an electronic machine, comfortably cooled by air conditioning, knowing that in a while, I’ll fire up my vehicle and drive into the city where I will teach a class in a comfortably chilled classroom bathed in electric light and enhanced by electronic devices, I don’t pause and marvel at the progress that has been made in the past six decades. But I do worry that maybe the price of that progress may be measured in meters, the measurement of the rise of the oceans.

I think there are two truths here: High tide is coming, and there is nothing we can do to stop it, as we lack the collective will to truly assess our carelessness and count the cost or to try, even, to reverse the slide toward submersion. And in time, I suspect, divers will be exploring the drowned ruins of our civilization. The question then, is if there will still be people high enough and dry enough to care.

ReynoldsClay Reynolds is a writer who has authored more than a thousand publications ranging from academic articles and essays to award-winning short fiction and novels. A native of Texas, he is Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas.

hourofwrites* This vision was a runner up in the “Life plus 2m” prompt at Hour of Writes, which carries out weekly, peer-reviewed writing competitions.

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Happy delta life

Lucas Janssen might move from nasty, flooding Amsterdam to raise food in the Dutch floodplains.

Interview from ‘Futurum Urbanum’ (November 2036)

Note from the editor: In the past months, during our ‘Futurum Urbanum ’ editorial meetings we came to the conclusion that we should also pay attention to developments beyond the scope of the metropole. Statistics show that there is a growing number of people that exchange their city life for a living on the countryside. This tendency can be recognized in the whole European continent. In the editorial board we wanted to understand why people make such choices. Therefore, we visited a small community in the eastern part of the Netherlands, where we had an interview with Mark van der Steen (44). Mark and his family live in Honderdmorgen, a community quite close to the Waal river.

FU: Why did you decide to move to Honderdmorgen?

Mark: At first, we lived in Amsterdam. It is the city everybody wants to live in, and so did we. After some years we started to experience that it was not really that great. First of all, we had great difficulties in finding good education for our three children. The situations in the schools were really bad and good teachers missing. And then, of course, there were the climate effects. During summer, every two weeks we had a flooding leading to a total congestion of the city. The summer heat and the growing number of insects made it hard to be outside.

FU: How did you end up here?

Mark: Well, we were scanning the various options in the Dutch countryside as we wanted to make a living in production of high quality food. In this area the prices had significantly dropped because of the expectations of continuous flooding from the Rhine, or Waal as this branch is called. There were a lot of deserted houses. Hence, the prices were low and we decided to take a chance. Apart from the lower areas there are also some higher grounds in this area.

FU: And how did it work out?

Mark: In the end it worked out quite well! We are here now for almost eight years. We have a real nice community of nine families that make a living with the production of food and we have been able to organise the education for our children. In terms of flooding, after a couple of years it turned out differently. Germany introduced their ‘Wasserwende’. They started retaining their water by building large reservoirs and infiltration works. As a result, we have not been flooded since we are here. Actually, we need to take various measures to have sufficient water to farm here such as closed reservoirs. One of the unexpected is that truffles are growing in the higher located forests.

FU: So what is it actually that you make a living with?

Mark: There is quite a large group of people in cities that want high quality foods. We produce a wide variety of meat, vegetables and fruits. The vegetables and fruits are of course seasonal; the meat is sold continuously. We raise the ‘Roman Roosters’, which are sold in cities across the border as well. Chefs like the meat of our roosters because of its intense taste and nice structure. For the fruits, for instance, we are growing seven varieties of raspberries as well a three varieties of gooseberries.

FU: This all sounds … almost Arcadian. At the same time I can imagine there must be things you miss out here. What is it that you miss most?

Mark: I don’t think we miss too much. During the growing season we’re too busy. And we have an arrangement with one of our customers. They stay in Warsaw in December and January to enjoy real winters and we can use their apartment. We pay them in chickens, which works actually much better than using the official currency. In fact, more than fifty per cent of our business is based on direct trade. The Climate Tax on meat is a real pain in the ass for businesses like us.

So we spend long weekends in the city. First of all, our children can meet certain professionals learn specific skills, e.g. native speakers foreign languages. Then, of course, we visit musea and go to concerts. Moreover, we sometimes give courses to city people on growing vegetables. Some twenty years ago there was this interest in urban farming, which after a few years stopped. These days it is picking up again, people have a need for connecting to the physical world. Basically this has always been an underground current, but now it surges more than ever.

FU: Do you think your children would want to live here or in the city?

Mark: You ask for themselves. Let’s see who’s around. … Ah, there is Fiona, she is fourteen and our oldest child. Today she has been taking care of a group of toddlers.

Fiona: I am planning to live in the city in a few years time because there is no other option. I play the hobo and I want to become a professional musician. However, I already know I cannot stand to live in an apartment building. Thus, finding an appropriate spot to live is going to be challenge. And afterwards, I will return here. There are many benefits, such as living with our animals, being free of camera monitor, and I reckon there will still be disconnected spots to relax.

JanssenLucas Janssen has experience in most of the disciplines related to the field of integrated water management. Currently he is with Deltares, a research and technology organization. Lucas lives in Wageningen, the Netherlands, near the river Rhine.

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The bore is coming

Sometimes one’s retirement does not go as planned, writes Sarah Dixon in this story*

The bore is coming.

It comes, as it always has, to its peak near the autumn equinox. Experts predict that, after a summer of incessant rainfall on top of already record water levels, it will be catastrophic. Catastrophic. This is not a word that has ever been applied to the Severn Bore in all the thousands of times man has watched water surge and roll along the river’s course.

In years gone by it was a popular tourist attraction; people walked the banks and viewed the bore as it hissed and crashed its way upstream. It’s been years since anyone dared stand on the banks; not that the banks are where they were before the water rose, or we sank, depending on your perspective.

My perspective is a hillside, across the valley from my retirement home. The house was once a pleasant rural retreat; In the sticks, as my wife used to say. In the arse end of nowhere, I would counter. We bought it to retire to. In our late 50’s, good luck and good decisions left us still young enough to have our health, to be in love, and wealthy enough to enjoy our retirement.

At that time the ramshackle property, nestled in woodland several metres from the river bank, seemed an ideal place to spend our days. My wife wanted to set up a small business, growing Bonsai trees, and I was going to write the novel I’d been promising myself all these years. The kids were grown and on their own way. We had been good, responsible citizens for decades and now was the time to reap the rewards.

Then the water rose; not slowly as we’d thought but with alarming quickness. Remote sounding scientists were portending ‘tipping point’, the latest in a long line of terrifying prophecies that had failed to come true; AIDS, the Millennium Bug, Bird Flu, Zika… They shouted loud enough but the media had been using the tactics of hysteria to sell news for years. We were immune.

The Totten Iceberg in East Antarctica had never read the news, and it was indifferent to the reception its inevitable melting would receive; it didn’t do it for attention, it did it because it was ice, and when ice gets warm enough, it melts.

Within weeks the water that had run, benignly brown along the floor of the valley below us swelled with the melt water from a broad strip to a swollen, hungry torrent. A vicious snake that had swallowed something large; distended, struggling, angry.

We sat on the balcony, where we had envisaged enjoying afternoon tea, or pre-dinner drinks in the summer evenings, and watched the water become a steady stream of bloated animal corpses; not all the farmers had higher ground to take their beasts too. The turgid, turbulent water snatched up anything in its path, the weight of it enough to pull trees from the earth or gather up buildings and send them, flotsam and jetsam, on their way. It was as if the Gods were playing poo sticks, my wife noted on the day before she left.

Don’t worry, it isn’t the end of our marriage. It was just the end of our time here; We had the official warning and knew that our house would likely be swept away with the next bore. Our insurance company stated their refusal to pay; we are at fault for not having the prescience to sell before we knew there would be a disaster, it seems. I don’t know if we would have done that, even if we had known. This was our dream. If it is to sink without a trace, then we should watch it do so; the captain and his ship and all that. We couldn’t have slept at night, if we’d sold on inevitable disaster in place of a dream.

We live with my son and his wife now, it’s a squeeze but we get along. There’s no space for Bonsai trees, no quiet for writing, but there is the joy of Grandchildren. You have to make the best of what you’ve got.

My wife didn’t understand why I wanted to come and watch, she called it morbid. Her eyes brimmed with tears that only abated when I made the poor joke, ‘Don’t add to the water level, old girl.’ She’s at home.

I’ve found myself a spot, high and dry, sitting on a tree stump. I have a flask; the bitterly aromatic tea is clouding the air before me. The cup warms the chill in my hands but it doesn’t touch the ice in my guts, or overwhelm the musky dampness of falling leaves and rotting timbers. They seem appropriate for today, not the day of the dead, but the day of dying dreams.

Somewhere, out in the wide ocean, a wave has formed; larger than they ever were, swollen with melt from good old Totten and not just the tip; the whole nine yards. The wave crashes angrily to shore, the force of it loosening cliffs, stealing shale. But there is a weak point, the estuary; here the water finds a place to run.

Imagine a funnel, loyally taking the water you pour in and directing it to a single point. Now imagine throwing a bucket full of water into the funnel; imagine the force that it sprays from the end.

The water throws itself, unknowing, unfeeling, into the Severn. The estuary roils. Near Avonmouth the swell is terrifying but it is just the beginning. The bore itself forms past Sharpness when the weight of the water hits the rocks at Hock Cliff. Now the Bore has its head, and it races towards the narrowing at Langney Sands where even with the risen water level the channel is just a few hundred yards across. Crashing, hissing, vicious and unstoppable, this is nature’s lesson. We are not masters here; we are not even students. We are expendable.

It is catastrophic.

The bore is coming.

DixonSarah Dixon is a prolific writer of short stories, usually Science Fiction or Fantasy but always with a hint of wonder. After spending her life wanting to write, but never reaching her own lofty standards she read the advice ‘Finish first, edit later’ and finally made it to the end of a chapter. She hasn’t stopped since. A wife and mother of two, it was the desire to write stories that challenged the lure of video games that led her to write her first children’s novel. Alfie Slider vs the Shape Shifter is an action adventure for 9-12-year-olds, coming late 2016 from SilverWood books. When not writing, Sarah enjoys working with schools to engage children with creative writing including delivering her workshop about social commentary in Sci-Fi titled ‘How Aliens Changed the World.’

Addendum: Sarah’s backstory on her motivation and process of writing this vision.

hourofwrites* This vision was the winning entry in the “Life plus 2m” prompt at Hour of Writes, which carries out weekly, peer-reviewed writing competitions.

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