In the morning of October 2, 2018 a massive oscillation of pulsing white started to heave its lungs over the southwestern Caribbean sea.
For the NHC (National Hurricane Society) this was nothing out of the ordinary. Such disorganized accumulations of thunderstorms occur fairly regularly during the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico hurricane season, however, dutiful in their profession, they began to monitor it. Over the next few days, the tropical disturbance slowly, in a smooth fog-like creep, began to gather itself into a definite whorl. An enormous wheel, of rumble and powder, started to roll northward and then so eastward toward the Yucatán Peninsula. Its body got built quickly, and a head began to form. By October 6th, a lazy, sleepy eye was taking shape. Advisories got initiated. People waited on the land, looking out. On the 7th day, it depressed, spun, and woke, and by 16:55 UTC that day it had a name. Hurricane Michael over the next three days would begin barreling into the Gulf Coast and Florida, its gaze reaching landfall on the 10th of October. In wild winds and torrential rains, it popped up electrical poles like wine corks, smothered beaches, flooded rivers, tore into houses and flung small animals into the sky. Northward it banked, tired—yet still determined—and poured and howled itself over the states of Georgia and both Carolinas. On the 11th day, its one, beautiful mean eye closed; still, like a sleepwalker, it continued. Hurricane Michael had one last gasp, and after traveling east for four days, its cyclone-shell dropped on the Iberian Peninsula the 16th of October, washing Portugal in its death throes. No doubt it was satisfied with its brief, but brutal life.
I was not there, of course; I was safe and snug on the west coast of the United States, watching it all from my laptop. I had an awe and respect for its savagery, its sheer size. Hurricane Michael in little more than a week had ripped through a dozen countries and touched three continents. It slouched its belly over some 5,000 miles, crushing all it could before it vanished into literal thin air. I found it remarkable, and terrifying; a true Titan of Nature.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, the glaring, unforgiving Sun, are all welded into the amorality of the Earth and Universe, so very far beyond the simply duality of right and wrong that us human beings so lovingly cling. It was at this time, watching Hurricane Michael thunder itself through the lower east coast, that the true mass of climate change—the heavy bodies of the fast rising seas—sat all their weight upon me. As I scrolled safely through the destruction of Hurricane Michael (a pang for being a rubbernecker, twinging) it began to fully settle upon me just how much we were not ready for the onslaught of destruction that was making headlong for us.
The water, la belle dame sans merci, was coming. And she was arriving at a good clip, unable to wait for anyone or thing. I saw it, like a vision: if the west coast of the North American continent would burn in wildfires unending, than the east coast would flood. Highways would wend along the seafloor, barnacles would encrust front steps; the tops of buildings, pockmarked from eroding salt and oiled in algae, would metamorphose into small craggy islands, waves breaking upon them like rocky shores. It was all going to happen, in the rising decades, the turbines of a windmill wheeling in one direction—the east coast was going to flood. One day, the tides would come and the waters would cease to recede. Hurricane Michael with its wake had washed clarity over me, and I sought more detail in the emerging scene.
(So, I went to the bookstore, for I know it is safe to assume that when something of importance strikes me it has surely struck someone else far more educated than I, earlier, and that that someone has probably written a book about it. Lo and behold—there it was.)
Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World is not a book to enlighten and uplift a reader. It is a book of education and facts, designed to inform, ask open-ended questions, and little more. Goodell has one thing on his mind: what’s going to happen, when the water comes? Not if—when. Compiling, vetting, daydreaming, Goodell pens the coming scenarios lurking beneath those encroaching waves. Someday in the future, the Ferrari on the seafloor won’t just be a haunting image in a fiction dystopia. In the approaching decades, as a child grows into an adolescent and so into an adult, so too will the sea gradually climb, and the land—along with the coastal metropolises of the homo sapien world—will become one with the cold blue.
The real x factor here is not the vagaries of climate science, but the complexity of human psychology. At what point will we take dramatic action to cut CO₂ pollution? Will we spend billions on adaptive infrastructure to prepare cities for rising waters—or will we do nothing until it is too late? Will we welcome people who flee submerged coastlines and sinking islands—or will we imprison them? No one knows how our economic and political system will deal with these challenges. The simple truth is, human beings have become a geological force on the planet, with a power to reshape the boundaries of the world in ways we didn’t intend and don’t entirely understand. Everyday, little by little, the water is rising, washing away beaches, eroding coastlines, pushing into homes and shops and places of worship. As our world floods, it is likely to cause immense suffering and devastation. It is also likely to bring people together and inspire creativity and camaraderie in ways that no one can foresee. Either way, the water is coming. As Hal Wanless, a geologist at the University of Miami, told me in his deep Old Testament voice as we drove toward the beach one day, “If you’re not building a boat, then you don’t understand what’s happening here.”
A book that opens with a prologue titled “Atlantis,” like many current events reads of the day, a reader is aware that they are likely going to feel a little depressed and a lot disappointed. This is to our nonfiction writer’s benefit, however, for a good enough writer can grasp what a book is for. Though fluffy feel-good inspiration and kinship memoirs flood the shelves in these self-help, self-love times, a book has a much greater power, one that many modern writers do not utilize fully: The Omen. In this, science fiction writers particularly excel, and lucky for Goodell, his subject of choice falls nearly parallel to the realm of science fiction. But, The Water Will Come is not a fantasy—it is frightening reality. Goodell employs not the mistakes of the past to get his point across, but the what-ifs of the future, and he does it well, gently veering readers to brush by grave scapes of political deadlock, citizen denialism, flooded neighborhoods, climate refugees, health and sanitation nightmares, nuclear spills, abandoned houses, skyscrapers half submerged and crumbling into the sea. The complexity of the situation he tries to make clear: the future of rising seas looks less like an orderly spider’s web and more like a mountain-sized tangle of electrical cords. No one really knows what’s going to happen when the water shows up; but, it’ll show up, salty and bacteria ridden and full of fecal matter and dead things. It’ll kill trees, fuck-up army bases, eat poorer countries and neighborhoods alive. When it comes, not everyone is going to play fair. The rich will likely get along fine, pack up and move inland or to higher ground, sail around the rusted hats of buildings in their boats, continue with their lives. Others won’t be so fortunate.
How much will the waters rise? How much land loss are we talking about here? Once again, Goodell says with a distressing shrug, we’re not sure. But the hopeful 3 feet 2 inches reported in the 2013 ICPP report is looking grimly underestimated. This is of particular importance, because in 2013 the thaw and collapse of the Greenland ice sheet happened too sudden and too quickly to be included. Scientist thought the melt would take decades longer than it did. This is regrettable, for the 2013 ICPP report was the scientific bases on which the 2015 Paris Climate Accords was constructed. Countries all over the world are planning for at most 4 feet of additional water. But by possibly as early as 2075, we’re looking more at 7 to 10 feet of sea level rise. Some climate scientists even suggest as much as 25 feet by 2100.
If I lived on the second floor of a small apartment complex right along the ocean in Miami-Dade, with 10 extra feet of water, I could open my window, sit my leggy self on the pane, and dip my toes in.
And Miami-Dade is ground zero. Those who will be hit the hardest will be those living in Atlantic coastal cities like New York, USA and Lagos, Nigeria; the island states of the South Pacific, such as Kiribati and the Marshall Islands (the Marshelles made famous by climate change); Alaska and the upper Canadian coasts (the melting of the Bering Strait a national security and foreign affairs nightmare for the United States); and Shanghai, which sits only about 13 feet above sea level, built on the alluvial plain of the Yangtze River Delta. Small towns will be hit too, and perhaps suffer even harder than their big metropolis neighbors, who’ll have more money to fund big projects such as raising sidewalks and roads, building and tearing down infrastructure, and fixing municipal sewer systems that have broken down from the erosion of salinization, the salt of the rising ocean seeping into everything.
There will be refugees: people who have lost everything and will have to move across national lines, over oceans, travel hills and valleys to find new homes. And we are not ready for them. Such displaced people will have no protection, Goodell reminds, for under international law, there is no such thing as a climate refugee. Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives (deposed by a military coup in 2012) made an enemy of big Western polluters by being fervently outspoken about the fate of his island country. In 2014, he issued the following statement to the polluting giants: “You can drastically reduce your greenhouse gas emissions so that the seas do not rise so much… Or, when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can let us in… Or, when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can shoot us. You pick.” Though seemingly bleak, Nasheed’s pronouncement is disturbingly real. Consider how the world today is handling the present refugee crisis. With the first-world countries, from Denmark to Australia to the supposed haven of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (the United States of America) slamming their doors, one does not have to be a prophet to envision the horrible future that awaits on the coming, ever rising, ever rising waves.
Has Goodell written a good book? I don’t know; the writing is a tad dry. (I guess I’ll forego a rating on this review.) Goodell’s writing doesn’t wow, however, on such a dire timeline—one that seems fated to be swallowed into aquamarine dimness—flowing prose and cruel optimism (or pessimistic declarations) seem not the point. Goodell presents what’s there, and like many journalists turned authors, his writing is informative, brief, concrete; and, when he does dream, he does so in a way where he confines himself to the modern day consensus of “Hey now, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.” The Water Will Come is the book I was searching for, and it is what it is. Whether we as citizens of Earth will heed the warnings in its pages, is yet to be seen, but the word is getting out, and Goodell is doing his part in trying to make sure it outpaces the water.
2018 was the year scientists all over the world declared that we were no longer talking about climate change—we were living it. That year, record high temperatures struck Europe and India, Hurricane Florence ripped through Cape Verde and Hurricane Michael followed suit, famine continued for many East African countries, wildfires burned on and on.
It will only get worse. Many climate scientists believe our planet is on the path to becoming a “hothouse.” By 2100, the Republic of Kiribati, and many other South Pacific nations, will be underwater. As the waters rise, and the heat grows, rainforests and coral reefs will shrivel and collapse, freshwater ecosystems near the coast that become contaminated with seawater will choke and die. It will get hotter. Southern Spain and other parts of Europe will turn into deserts; the western United States will be caked in the fumes of wildfires. Berlin, Germany will become as hot as Basrah, Iraq. Such radical transformation in such short time seems impossible to many—but it is already here.
Change is coming; the Anthropocene has begun its march. At current, the world is undoubtedly ours. For how much longer, is a topic up for debate.
Goodell’s message is clear: the water will come. But so much more is riding in on those crystal waves. Though the horizon looks dark, the future will forever remain unknown to us until the light of the present breaks it free. All Goodell and the lot of us can glimpse are the silhouettes of things to come.
And, if you are gazing out, seeking glimpses, The Water Will Come is a good place to start.
The featured image is a view of the eye of Hurricane Michael taken on Oct. 10, 2018 from the International Space Station currently orbiting Earth. The photo was taken by astronaut Dr. Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor, who began working with NASA as a Flight Surgeon in 2006. In 2009, she was selected as a NASA astronaut. Image provided by Wikipedia – Thank you.