STAYING ABOVE WATER

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Kit Noble

An alarming view of sea level rise.

A shocking report was released last June by top climate scientists warning that sea level rise could reach seven feet by 2100, more than double what was previously thought. If the seas rise by seven feet, the destruction to coastal communities like Nantucket would be apocalyptic. In an effort to draw up a plan for these rising tides, the Nantucket Preservation Trust recently held its Keeping History Above Water conference. The keynote speaker was author and Rolling Stone contributing editor Jeff Goodell, whose recent bestseller The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World provides a deep dive into what coastal communities will look like in the near future. N Magazine recently spoke to Goodell to find out what Nantucket should be doing to stay above water.

N MAGAZINE: Is sea level rise inevitable?

GOODELL: Yes, it is inevitable. That’s why I called the book The Water Will Come and not The Water Will Come… Unless Everyone Sells Their SUVs and Buys a Tesla. That’s one of the fundamental facts that people don’t really get. They think that if we get our act together and start cutting carbon or find some magical technological fix, then we could stop sea level rise. But that’s not true. Cutting carbon is really important because it can change the long-term rate of sea level rise and the ultimate height of it, but we already have a lot of sea level rise baked in.

N MAGAZINE: With this inevitability in mind, what three things would you suggest people do at this point?

GOODELL: Be aware of the risks that their home or investments face with sea level rise. Get politically involved and begin to fight hard for cutting carbon and to make climate change a priority. And do what you can to reduce emissions and live in a lower carbon way.

N MAGAZINE: You write in your book that if the sea level rises from three to six feet, it would be the difference between survival and extinction for many coastal communities in the developing world. There was just a report predicting that sea level rise could hit seven feet by 2100. What would that devastation look like on an island like Nantucket?

GOODELL: First of all, let me be clear that seven feet is not even the high end of projections. Various teams of scientists say it could go even higher than that. What would it mean for Nantucket? It would not be pretty. Seven feet of sea level rise is very, very serious. You already are seeing a lot of problems with erosion on Nantucket—that would be hugely amplified. All the beaches as you know them would be gone. There would be massive destruction of all coastal regions of the island and the economic implications would be huge.

N MAGAZINE: Is it absurd to think that Nantucket could be completely underwater in a hundred years?

GOODELL: What’s really important to grasp is that it’s not like “Oh, we’re fine until Nantucket becomes Atlantis.” Just the incremental damage to roads, to houses, to real estate, to beaches hugely changes the dynamics and character of a place. So it’s really important to grasp that it’s not a we’re-fine-until-we’re-underwater problem. The best ice scientist in the world, Richard Alley, says that because of the instability of Antarctica, we can’t rule out fifteen feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. So yes, the risks of massive changes are there. The conventional wisdom right now is to prepare for six or seven feet by the end of the century, which would mean massive changes for Nantucket.

N MAGAZINE: During your research, did you come across any innovative technologies that you would recommend for an island community like Nantucket?

GOODELL: One of the tricky things about sea level rise is that there’s not a technological fix. There are obviously things one can do. In some places, building sea walls can help. But building sea walls can also be very problematic because it shifts water to other places and kills ecosystems along the shoreline. You can’t really build a wall around the entire island unless you want to live on a kind of fortress in the sea. I think the most progressive places are thinking about combinations of improving drainage and raising buildings and structures. The most innovative places are figuring out ways to live with water. The notion of fighting the water is very twentieth century; the idea of living with water is very twenty-first century.

N MAGAZINE: How has today’s political leadership affected sea level rise?

GOODELL: Trump has been a bit of a double-edged sword. He’s obviously done everything he can to subvert not only actions to cut carbon emissions, but to subvert climate science itself. On the other hand, because he’s been so awful on this particular issue, he’s inspired a lot of people to take it seriously. The pushback has been pretty profound. I think he’s activated a lot of people. This age of denial that Trump embodies is going to be over soon because the grim reality of what we’re facing is going to be apparent to everyone.

N MAGAZINE: Are you optimistic that we can make those necessary changes, or do you feel like we should all start building an ark?

GOODELL: I’m not optimistic that we’re going to go back to the old world that most of us grew up in with a stable climate. We’re plunging into a different world. We’re not going to stop these dramatic changes that are happening. I think that we need to learn to adapt. We need to do everything we can to reduce the risk of truly big, gigantic changes. We need to decarbonize our economy and our lives as quickly as possible. At the same time, we need to adapt and stop pretending that Nantucket in fifty years is not going to look like Nantucket fifty years ago. Nantucket is going to suffer dramatic changes, and the things that you’re seeing now with erosion are going to accelerate and only get worse. We’re not going to stop that no matter what we do, so we need to think about how we are going to deal with this and not delude ourselves into thinking that we can go back to the old world.

N MAGAZINE: What can Nantucket teach the rest of the world when it comes to sea level rise?

GOODELL: Nantucket is very lucky compared to many places. It’s obviously relatively wealthy and has the means of changing, adapting and doing things differently. If the island has this sort of awareness to do that, I think that Nantucket could be a model for other islands on how to adapt, make changes and deal with this. That is if residents on the island collectively get together and have the will and the interest and motivation to do that.

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