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Ocean City, Cities in the Ocean

Ocean City waterfront. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress.

It is a pleasant, sunny day at the Jersey shore, much as I remember from childhood. Bathing-suited beachgoers play games at boardwalk arcades, ride the Ferris wheel, eat pizza slices and Philly cheesesteaks. The beach is thick with a rainbow of umbrellas. Families crowd into the surf between designated flags in front of lifeguard stands.  Tanned young lifeguards whistle them back when they stray beyond.

All so much as I recall from the blessed and happy days as a kid when my folks took the family to the shore, rented beach houses for two and three weeks at a time.  Ocean City, Wildwood, Asbury Park when Bruce Springsteen was a kid playing guitar out on his dad’s roof, Atlantic City before the casinos, when it was best known for Steel Pier performances by Chubby Checker, Fats Domino and other iconic early ‘60s rock and rollers.

Those were glorious days of youth.  Luxuriating for hours in the waves during the day. Going out on the boardwalk at night with friends. My parents would coordinate our vacations so several families would be down there at once.  Playing spies on a secret mission, a big thing in the James Bond-Man from U.N.C.L.E. 1960s.  Grabbing free fudge from the tray outside Copper Kettle Fudge until driven away by store managers.

I am giving my 13-year-old daughter the Jersey shore experience today.  Erika is a child of the Pacific Northwest, a stunningly beautiful land that has every natural advantage but one, a Gulf Stream-warmed ocean in which you can immerse for hours.  On our side of the continent, staying in the waves for more than a few minutes requires a wetsuit and dodging the occasional great white shark.  Relating my Jersey shore upbringing to my daughter stirred her longing for warmer waters.  So today on a visit to my east coast family, Erika is getting a taste of those sweet summers of youth.

We walk down the Ocean City boardwalk feeling that mix of slightly muggy east coast summer heat and sea breezes that characterizes the shore.  The shops have all kinds of goodies.  We stop in an open air place to have pizza, and then go a few doors down for ice cream cones.  In every way it is the ideal shore day. I could not have asked for a better one to share with my daughter.  It is every bit the boardwalk and beach it always was.

But as we cruise down the slatted, weather-beaten boardwalk planks on this brilliantly sunny afternoon, darkness fills my eyes. The beloved scenes of my youth are filtered through carbon-black lenses.  I feel a sense of approaching death.  I see these happy places of my childhood being battered by growing storms, washed away by the rising seas.

During different geologic eras the Jersey coast extended a hundred miles beyond the present line while in others the entire southern half of the state was underwater. The coast reached to the western edges of what is now Philadelphia. Earlier in the day driving down the Garden State Parkway through corridors of trees, I sensed the ghost ocean ready to return and overtop them.  The nearby waters seem to say, “This is my place.  You are only visitors.”  Driving across the bridge that connects this barrier island community to the mainland, the name hit me with gallows humor. How long before Ocean City becomes a city in the ocean?

Erika and I have had enough time to digest our lunch.  Now it’s time to play in the warm waters.  We buy our beach medallions from a young woman beach attendant and head over the sands to set up our site.  Then we quickly strip down to our bathing suits and rush towards the water. It is indeed amenable.  And a joy to see my curly blonde teenager frolicking in the waves besides me.

Worn out, she heads in to lie on her beach towel.  I stay in the water, and begin a grim march walking on the sandy bottom from flag to flag and back. I feel a little choked up, as I look at the cheesy but lovable old boardwalk. I feel I am looking at a dead city.  These shore communities built on low-lying barrier islands will be among the first to go in a world of rising seas.  Along with Tuvulu and the Ganges delta islands of Bangladesh, the Jersey shore will be a drowned landscape.  This section of the Atlantic Coast so wrapped up in my childhood memories is clearly a climate change ground zero. These shore towns are conceivably some of the first significantly populated coastal U.S. communities from which a staged retreat will have to take place.

I use a 14-story hotel near the beach as a measuring stick.  Will half be covered, three-quarters?  Then it struck me that the portion doesn’t matter much. Humans can no more occupy land under 10 feet of ocean than they can under 100. Underwater is underwater.

Later after we have returned to my mom’s place in Reading, Pennsylvania, I will find a detailed set of maps for East Coast sea-level-rise hot spots on the Environmental Protection Administration site.  Of course, New Jersey is one of them. They will confirm my eyeball assessment.  The southern barrier islands on which shore communities from Atlantic City to Cape May are situated will be largely underwater with a 10-foot rise. Ocean City begins to drown at a 4-5-foot increase.  At 10 feet its entire island disappears and Great Egg Harbor Bay behind it opens to the sea while bulging in all directions.  Wetlands lining the Great Egg Harbor River vanish for miles inland.

But another thought occurs to me.  Long before sea level rise takes this place, it will be washed over by storm surges and regular flooding that will make this place essentially uninsurable.  Eleven Jersey shore towns were including in ranking of 30 cities with the highest proportion of its population threatened by flooding in 2060. Ocean City at #11, and Atlantic City at #3, are already experiencing rapid increases in sunny day floods during high tides. By the time Ocean City is finally swallowed by its namesake it will likely already have been abandoned.  How long?

It is August 2009.  Three years and four months later Superstorm Sandy will landfall just north of Atlantic City, flooding much of it as well Ocean City and other shore towns. The casino district areas where we were walking would be flooded by the surge, which would also wash away much of the beach and take out a section of boardwalk.

Standing out in the surf earlier in the day, looking at the beach and boardwalk, striding along the bottom sand, I sing Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” to myself.

“Well now everything dies baby that’s a fact

But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

Put your makeup on fix your hair up pretty

And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”

Going in I ask a lifeguard if water ever reaches under the boardwalk.  She said not often, but it did happen during a recent lunar eclipse.  As Erika and I pack up to leave the beach I stop for a moment to eyeball the current water level to the boardwalk.

“What are you doing?” Erika asks.

“Measuring the sea level,” I reply.

“Why?”

“You know why.”

“Oh.”

Poor girl. Stuck with a climate activist curmudgeon for a dad

“Can we save it?”

“Yes.  The only reason we couldn’t save it is human stupidity.”

“Easy come. Easy go. We’re on top for now,” Erika raps to the Black Eyed Peas song as we drive back toward my aunt’s place inland from the shore.

Of course I am not telling my daughter the whole truth.  I don’t want to spoil her day and tell her this place is gone, probably during her lifetime. I have days before read conclusions by International Polar Year scientists now expecting Greenland ice to fully disintegrate.  That would mean 20 feet more water on the oceans.

Aunt Diane’s place is on the Great Egg Harbor River inland from Somers Point and Ocean City. It is a steamy, sunny late afternoon.  Dancing sunlight on the waters arrows in several V’s pointing my direction.  The broad estuarine river is surrounded by a low canopy of trees.  Sitting on the dock I do my standard sea-level eyeball, water line to ground floor of the house. The vegetation line by the river indicate high tides move within 8-10 feet of the floor line. So it is entirely conceivable that this place where I sit will be underwater this century. And if it is not, it will be increasingly vulnerable to storm surges and extreme high tides.

Erika and I meet my Aunt Diane that evening for dinner in Atlantic City a few miles up the coast.  An ex-nun retired from a high-level college administration position, she works part time doing financial work for a homeless shelter in the poor neighborhoods behind the boardwalk Vegas glitz.  Some of the old Atlantic City I remembered from childhood is still around, streets of shops and small wooden houses. But downtown is a foreign land, stuffed with high-end retail chains, restaurants and of course casinos, overseen by the pinnacles of the metropolitan-scale hotel towers.  I could not help but see them as a measuring stick for ice melt.

Trump Tower advertises itself reaching 429 feet above sea level.  Harrah’s boasts it’s the top dog at 525 feet.  An ice-free planet might add 250 feet of water. So the top 20 stories of The Donald’s namesake would remain, while Harrahs would top that by another 10 stories. Of course, those towers would be long gone under the endless hammerings of tide and surf, perhaps deconstructed to harvest materials in a resource-short world.  (Demolition of Trump Tower has since eliminated the someone delicious irony it would be destroyed by the “Chinese hoax.”)  But the casino-hotel towers of contemporary Babylon do provide a sense of scale for the changes we might be bringing.

Though some might regard drowned casinos as a pretty good reason to applaud sea-level rise, one might also wonder when gamblers will unite to fight global warming and save Atlantic City.  After all, we are shooting craps with the global climate system and the dice are loaded to favor the house.  The odds for winning are slim to nothing.  The game is rigged against us.

Global warming gallows humor.

“Well now everything dies baby that’s a fact

But maybe everything that dies someday comes back”

Perhaps some night in a future century lovers and gamblers will meet in a new Atlantic City, somewhere north on the ocean-washed slopes of Mt. Kitantitty, the Appalachian corner of northwest Jersey that would be the only part of the state remaining on an ice-free planet.

Erika and I spend our third day at the shore in Cape May. A banner declares we are visiting the oldest beach community in the U.S., now on its 400th birthday. A history in the local visitors guide caveats that a bit, tracing the community’s birth to Henry Hudson’s voyage of discovery in 1609.  But European fishing and whaling communities did grow here alongside Lenni-Lenape villages in the 1600s.  The resort dates to 1766, a refuge from Philadelphia, so arguably it still is the oldest shore town.

Fires swept the community in 1869 and 1878, while the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1946 (capitalized in the guide) washed away South Cape May for good. An Ash Wednesday Noreaster devastated the resort town in the 1960s.

The town was almost destroyed by another natural disturbance regime in the 1960s, urban renewing modernizers who wanted to update the quaint resort to compete with its splashier neighbors.  Fortunately a civic movement pushed them back and by 1970 the town was declared a National Historical Site. Today the community on the southern tip of New Jersey makes its Victorian architecture a tourist draw.  Since such an old community accumulates a large population of ghosts, a tour of haunted houses is on offer.

Downtown, a long pedestrian plaza is lined with the typical shore shops, art galleries thick with beach paintings, knicknack shops at this end of a kitsch supply chain that seems inevitably to start in China, fudge-salt water taffy places (we stock up), seafood restaurants serving up the local catch.  All pretty much what one finds in any beach town whether it’s in Jersey or my Pacific Northwest.

The U.S. Coast Guard operates the 170-foot-tall Cape May Lighthouse a couple of miles east of town.  The exterior endless circles of brick are paralleled by an internal spiral staircase reaching an observation deck.  At the 157-foot level a docent tells us we have reached the top. The Fresnel lens is gone from Cape May, but more modern lights still guide ships up the Delaware Bay to Philadelphia.

Erika and I walk outside fully enclosed in a red-barred framework, enough to hold down the heart rate and adrenline pump.  Striding around the deck one can observe jetties protecting nearby Sunset Beach, and a massive but now empty artillery bunker that protected the bay in World War II. The docent and a companion, both youngish women, speak of forbidden parties in the empty hulk.

The docent explains that sand used to extend 800 feet in front of the bunker. They wouldn’t want it too exposed to commando teams.  Now it is on the water line.  All along the Jersey shore sands are shifting, piling into Wildwood while stripping Ocean City and Cape May.  The docent says her grandmother told her the coast around here changes every seven years.

Heroic and costly efforts to pump sand maintain the recreational viability of places like Ocean City. The sand on which Erika and I have been playing is very much a human artifact, subject to abrupt change at nature’s whims, likely to wash away with the next Noreaster.  This coast is particularly vulnerable. Driving down the parkway one is always close to water, scary close.  Bridges cross channels to wide embayments.  Long, flat green wetlands on land side stretch well inland.

I circle around the deck. To the west is the townsite where the southernmost point of Jersey juts out into the Bay.  This is green landscape outlined by tan beaches,  a vista of houses and town nearby, more jetties defiantly sticking out telling the waters what to do.  It all is a temporary picture.  That sense of heavy emotional gravity sets in once more.  At a 100-foot sea level rise, I would be looking down 60 feet to water level.  On an ice-free planet I would be 60 or 70 feet under.

Cape May has survived hell and high water.  But will it live to celebrate its half-millennium birthday? The EPA map shows pieces of the higher elevation community surviving at 10-feet plus, but the old core of town is gone.  I wonder if the ghosts will evacuate, or perhaps simply remain. Will this convivial and charming place itself be part of a tour of ghost communities conducted by scuba and submersible?

As we drive from town, signs declare Coastal Evacuation Route, resonating with the Tsunami Evacuation Route signs of my coast.  They send the same message. A big wall of water is coming here someday.   Know your evacuation route or be prepared to become food for fish. The big wave works the same everywhere whether driven by the lurchings of a coastal earthquake or the winds of an Atlantic storm.  We are all united by water.

+++

By 2009 I had been working full time as a professional climate advocate for over 10 years.  I had been aware of the climate disruption threat and calling it out in my writing since the 1980s.  I had written many articles and papers on climate science and solutions, even a book. But the Jersey shore trip with its visceral sense of inevitable loss opened a new dimension. I started writing global warming poetry and songs for sunken cities.  The shore inspired a Springsteen-ish lyric I called “Dead Cities Walking.”

Seen the rotting casino towers
fall before the rising tide
Their salt corroded skeletal remains
relics of a reckless age
crumble into the sea
Seen the rising tides devour
the Trump and Harrah towers
One day the ocean got an urge
sent the shore a big storm surge
Where the lights were once so pretty
now a real Atlantic City
Where the city now the sea
Wrecked remains now underneath
We take tours out there by submarine
to see what’s left of the gambler’s dream
Cruise old shore towns Asbury to Cape May
Drowned boardwalks where they used to play
Where they used to tour old homes of ghosts
now we tour the ghosted coast
They’re building New Atlantic City
up north there on Kitantitty
They’ve moved the roulette wheels
and one-armed bandits
beyond the reach of the sea
Philly’s moved to the burbs
It’s the new shore town now
They’re building New New York
where Yonkers used to be
now that the City’s submerged
They’ve saved the Lady
Deconstructed her
Put her back together up there
in New Times Square
We see the old skyline
dying in the sunset
Driving down ghost highways
Garden State Parkways
Memories of former days
Old Led Zepp playing
Signs are saying
Ocean City     Cape May
Driving on my way
to dead cities walking

On that drive to the shore, flipping the radio dial we caught Don McLean’s “America Pie.” His obtuse one-hit wonder about ‘60s rock is the subject of intense hermeneutical debate over which lyrics refer to which stars. As I listened it recalled an epiphany that came to me flying over the west coast of Greenland one August 2000 afternoon on the top of the world route from Amsterdam to Seattle.

I had been in Europe at the Ardennes Forest summer retreat of Ecolo, the Green Party of French-speaking Belgium, to speak about global Green Party statements to the Kyoto and Buenos Aires U.N. climate summits.  As a co-chair of the U.S. Association of State Green Parties, predecessor to today’s Green Party of the United States, I had been asked in 1997 by Ralph Monoe, chair of the European Federation of Green Parties, to co-author the Kyoto document.  With signatories from six continents it was the first global statement ever by the world’s Green parties.  I was asked back to do the same for the follow-up conference in Buenos Aires in 1998.

Returning home, some six or seven miles above the west coast of Greenland, jagged fjords stretched hundreds of miles north out the window to the horizon beneath a deep blue sky. Rocky brown earth along the coast pushed back miles to the white line of the ice pack. On this late summer day fleets of icebergs were sailing in lines out of the fjords west of Godhavn into Disko Bay and the Davis Strait, the passage between Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea. Dozens of white glacial fragments freshly calved from the ice pack were sharply outlined against in the dark blue waters.  Though they seemed small from six miles up, their fractal, crystalline shapes were clearly visible, indicating just how massive these immense ships of ice were.

Aboard the plane the last moments of the movie were playing. It was “American Pie” with Madonna.  Her version of the signature Don McLean song formed the soundtrack to the show outside.

Bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die.

By coincidence, or synchronicity, I’d been reading Brian Fagan’s Floods, Famines and Emperors. Waiting at Schipol Airport I had just read his narrative about cold snaps that ensue when too much fresh water suddenly invades the Labrador and Greenland Seas. It makes the ocean less salty, so water becomes lighter and stops sinking to lower depths. It is that sinking in this particular part of the ocean that vacuums water north and drives and the Gulf Stream circulation that brings that warm water to the Jersey shore. The fear is that this could entirely stop the circulation of warm water to the north, creating weather chaos around the world.

A Gulf Stream shutdown likely caused ice age conditions around 12,000 years ago. Scientists now tend toward the conclusion the planet is overall too warm for that to happen again. But that does not mean a shutdown of North Atlantic circulation would not have serious impacts, mucking with weather systems in ways that bring drought across the planet and make Superstorm Sandy-scale storms common events. Some of the planet’s hottest waters and most rapidly rising seas are piling up off the east coast, the opposite number of that North Atlantic cool spot. A Rutgers University study found sea levels on the Jersey coast are up 18 inches since 1900, compared to 8 inches globally. The combination of hotter and higher water is just what it takes to drive increasingly devastating storms.

Since I took that flight in 2000, scientists have found the Gulf Stream is slowing to rates not seen in at least 1,000 years, and they are pointing the finger at Greenland melt. Stefan Ramsdorf, one of the world’s leading scientists studying the North Atlantic circulation, wrote in Real Climate:

The North Atlantic between Newfoundland and Ireland is practically the only region of the world that has defied global warming and even cooled. Last winter there even was the coldest on record – while globally it was the hottest on record. Our recent study attributes this to a weakening of the Gulf Stream System, which is apparently unique in the last thousand years . . .

It happens to be just that area for which climate models predict a cooling when the Gulf Stream System weakens . . . Meanwhile evidence is mounting that the long-feared circulation decline is already well underway . . .Another new aspect is the importance of the increasing mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet, which causes extra freshwater to enter the North Atlantic that dilutes the sea water . . . The ice loss amounts to a freshwater volume which should have made an important contribution to the observed decrease in salinity in the northern Atlantic.

Flying over Greenland in August 2000 I was indeed seeing the early onset of ice melt that has only accelerated since.  I was flying just north of one of its ground zeros, the Jacobshavn Isbrae glacier, one of Greenland’s three biggest. Jacobhavn, the largest, is a 400-mile long ice river that drains seven percent of the subcontinent and has been “for some decades . . .  the world’s most prolific producer of icebergs,” Fred Pearce notes in his With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change, cover appropriately decorated with a picture of ice falling from a polar glacier front and splashing into the sea.  My beach reading at Ocean City.  See, I told you I was a curmudgeon.

“Jacobshavn was the likely source of the most famous iceberg of all – the one that sunk the Titanic in 1912,” Pearce reports.  “But is has been in overdrive since 1997, after suddenly doubling the speed of its flow to the sea.  It is now also the world’s fastest moving glacier, at better than seven miles a year.”  The white stream could now be dumping the equivalent of a Nile River into the sea every year.  It is sending a message that polar ice does not behave in a gradual manner, but abruptly changes.

Thought responsible for four percent of 20th century sea level rise, Jacobshavn’s flow shot up two times between 1997 and 2003, dissolving its floating ice shelf into icebergs such as the fleet I saw out the plane window.  Scientists including Pennsylvania State University glaciologist Richard Alley are discovering that glaciers are being speeded up and sent on their way by rivers of meltwater flowing beneath their base. While standard sea level rise projections range around two to three feet feet this century, Alley says 20 feet is not unimaginable. If anything is clear about the cryosphere, the planet’s ice cover, it is that our understanding falls far short, and melt consistently proceeds faster than projected.

“Greenland is a different animal from what we thought it was just a few years ago,” Alley says. “We are still thinking it might take centuries to go, but if things go wrong, it could just be decades.  Everything points in one direction, and it’s not a good direction.”

The watchword is feedback.  As the Arctic becomes warmer it promotes processes that add to the effect.  White ice and snow repel sunlight, send it back toward space.  Blue water absorbs it.  Ice melt water plunges water deep into the heart of the ice, melting it yet more.

There was a time 14,000 years ago, Mark Lynas notes in Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter World,  when “the giant ice sheets of the last glacial age crumbled and gave way to the Holocene.”  Every 20 years sea levels escalated by over three feet. That went on for 400 years.  This was the result of climate feedbacks generated by small changes in sunlight due to orbital fluctuations.  Humanity today is also changing the degree to which the planet absorbs sunlight at a rate several times greater. “Just as they were in the past, ice-sheet changes in the future could be, to use (climate scientist James) Hansen’s phrase, ‘explosively rapid.’”

As I looked out the plane window, was I seeing the modality for the end of the world as we know it? The sight of the Greenland coast was slowly receding to the rear, framed by the wing and engines determinedly plowing forward across the curvature of the Earth. Madonna was singing the final verses.

And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.
And they were singing bye-bye Miss American Pie . . .
This’ll be the day that I die ….

As the thrum of the jet engines departed the Greenland coast making their own full complement of greenhouse gases – I was not unaware of the irony of my flight – I thought about rock’n’roll, automobiles, the fossil fuel age, the exuberant expressions of our technological adolescence mostly made in USA, and all the excrescences of that time now up here inexorably warming the atmosphere and melting those glaciers.  How much we are at the end of that age, I thought.  Bye Bye, Miss American Pie indeed.

That day in August 2000, conveyed by the sight of those iceberg fleets sailing out the fjords, I had a sense that if I conceived of my mission as preventing severe climate change it was too late already, too locked into the system, rolling like an unstoppable juggernaut or an accelerating glacier. While we had the technical means to prevent it, the inertia of political and economic systems would drive us into radical climate disruption, a sense all too  well confirmed as it has emerged in succeeding years.

At the same time, I felt an encouragement to continue everything I was doing, knowing I could not give up, and that everything we could do to slow and reduce the momentum of climate disruption was vital to leave our children a world in which they would not be absolutely swamped by the impacts. To give my daughter and her generation a fighting chance. Put whatever tools we could put in place to help them build a new world in which humanity creates a more fitting relationship with the planet.

In those bergs that day over Godhavn and Disko Bay, I did sense the end of the world as we knew it. Now, another August nine years later, as we drove along the Garden State Parkway to Jersey shore towns where that melted ice water would come, I felt that day approaching closer. It somehow felt fitting to be reminded by a song about the end of youthful innocence, the day the music died.  The day the Jersey shore of my younger days would go under the waves. For weeks after that flight I experienced life as a temporariness.  Driving through standard, autofied urban/suburban development, the sense this all was passing came with an immediacy, as if this will not be here tomorrow.

The feeling of immediacy passed, but the sense remains.  Life is impermanent.  There is wisdom in accepting this.  Nothing lasts long but Earth and Sky, goes the Native American saying. We must accept the passing of things. But I cannot take the realities of climate into my soul without a certain sense of grief. All things must pass, and we must too.  But what shall we leave, above all, to our children?  From that question I cannot be detached. Erika’s generation will know a changed world of drowned cities and possibilities past. And I hope as well a chance to build a better world out of what we have left them.

At least in those days at the Jersey shore I had a chance to share with her a little of the joy I felt in my youth’s warm summer waves and boardwalk playfulness. Not much, but the least I could do.

This first appeared on The Raven, Patrick Mazza’s substack page.