Posts tagged “flooding


King Tide : Preview of Sea Level Rise

King Tide : Preview of Sea Level Rise

For the West Coast of the United States, the King Tide hits Thursday (tomorrow), Friday, and Saturday – February 7 – 9. The King Tide, or the highest tides of the year, lets us peek through the window of sea-level rise, showing us what’s to come. The higher-than-usual waves also help us understand what low-lying islands face, and provide us with the opportunity to sympathize with those that suffer in tsunamis (our deepest condolences go out to the Solomon Islands for last night’s tsunami, the villages that were destroyed, and the people that are still missing). 

Please “attend” the King Tide by RSVP’ing, and committing to taking pictures of your beach or coastal viewing area of choice. Use the few days to think about sea-level rise and how it impacts people in obvious ways, and in less obvious ways. Share your thoughts and observations – and pictures! Please email pictures to, and our favorite photo will be shared in a slideshow on the Huffington Post and other outlets. 

(Other coastal communities around the globe are experiencing King Tides at various times in the next ten days. Please contact me if I can help identify the king tide nearest you!)


To Mow or Not to Mow: The Motivational Impact of Living on a Drowning Land

If my yard flooded consistently, would I still mow it?

This is a question I ask myself often (basically since my fascination and concern for drowning islands began)- and for some reason, it’s usually in the context of lawn-mowing. When thinking about or writing on the subject of drowning islands, I often linger on the psychological and motivational impacts that climate change has on the hardest/soonest hit countries. If you live on an atoll, do you care about things like mowing the lawn (despite increasing floods), repainting the kitchen (even though you’ve heard your house may eventually be underwater), re-tile the floor (why? It’ll just flood the next time a storm comes through…)?

So, imagine my surprise (and delight!) when I first stumbled upon a Marshallese man trimming his lawn. Then another. And another. It appears that the Marshallese take great pride in even the appearance of their property, despite the worsening environmental struggles they face. This characteristic (persevering motivation) actually fits a theme of the Marshallese: we are not leaving. Come hell or high water, we are not abandoning our country. The Marshallese are inexplicably, tangibly, and holistically interconnected with their physical islands. As a people they remain committed to climate-solutions as opposed to throwing in the towel. In fact, a section of the RMI Constitution reads:

“All we have and are today as a people, we have received as a sacred heritage which we pledge ourselves to safeguard and maintain, valuing nothing more dearly than our rightful home on the islands within the traditional boundaries of this archipelago.”

I have an area in my yard that struggles- it’s this prime piece of side-yard real estate for me, but yet it lies lower than everything that surrounds it, so it floods and just generally struggles. My husband and I have tried various things throughout the years to improve it’s state, to no avail. I have thought about throwing in the towel on that particular section on many occasions, but I believe I have found my motivation to keep mowing, so to speak, in the Marshallese.

Truly Vulnerable

I have a special place in my heart for vulnerable communities that sit precariously above the water- the atoll nations of the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Kiribati, in particular. But seeing my first atoll-nation grave-sites today made an emotional impression that I will not soon forget.

The graves are a part of this landscape in an integral and even informal way- wedged in between homes, steps away from the ocean (by necessity- this describes most of the land here), children bouncing from headstone to headstone giggling. The average height of the Marshall Islands is just single-digit feet above the water, but these graves are (of course) even lower- even more vulnerable. The sites are lovely and striking- but I wonder what the standing groundwater, the rising tides, the coastal erosion, and the threat of submersion means for these graves and for those that still remember and love those that are buried within. Just one part of this gorgeous, threatened landscape that is under threat- but a significant one.

There is less land and more water in Majuro than there used to be.

Today was my first day in Majuro in the Republic of the Marshall Islands- a thin strip of land nestled in between Hawaii and the northern tip of Australia. The country is certainly a contender for the “ground-zero” of climate change impacts, and is what I refer to as a “drowning island.” The land is short in stature, but what it lacks in height, it makes up for in brilliance and intensity it almost all things- color, scorching warmth, delicious tuna, drop-dead-gorgeous and giving individuals, and stunning scenery. This place feels like magic in a palpable way.

The color of the day morphed considerably- when I arrived in the morning, the landscape was muted to a bright white with shaded accents- the sun bleaching faces and storefronts, beaches and clouds. This evening, everything is tinged in varying shades of blue. It was swelteringly hot, but to get my bearings and to see and talk to the Marshallese people, I walked for several hours down the main road that connects furthest tip to furthest tip. The narrow stretch in between barely lifts out of the ocean. I’m not exactly an athlete, but I could throw a stone across the island in a surprising number of locations.

Walking may sound misleadingly easy, so let me set the record straight here. Apparently last night there was a storm that shot seawater higher and further than “normal” (a decreasingly accurate term in climate-vulnerable zones like this one). There was in incredible amount of standing water in the streets and yards, despite the pounding, intense rays of the sun. I basically ended up walking down the middle of the street, which is no easy feat in Majuro where there is a fairly constant stream of vehicle traffic down its busy, main road.

I talked to many people about the water. I even rolled up my sleeves and helped a small army of kids fill up wheelbarrows of soft, almost mustard colored sand to dump into their yards for a make-shift “sponge” effect (this was slow work and it was hard work). The general consensus was that rain and waves have always been part-and-parcel of island living, but that these forces have increased in duration, frequency, and intensity in this past generation. There are no party-lines on that one- elders and teenagers, men and women, business owners and happy-go-lucky alike agree: there is less land and more water in Majuro than there used to be.

On Nauru, a Sinking Feeling- New York Times Op-Ed by “Drowning Island” Nauru’s President

Today’s New York Times op-ed below, written by “drowning island” Nauru’s president Marcus Stephen, is the perfect post for today- the first post after a brief hiatus, after traveling to Germany for the UN Climate Change negotiations. Please circulate President Stephen’s story at large- his cautionary words deserve exposure.

I FORGIVE you if you have never heard of my country.

At just 8 square miles, about a third of the size of Manhattan, and located in the southern Pacific Ocean, Nauru appears as merely a pinpoint on most maps — if it is not missing entirely in a vast expanse of blue.

But make no mistake; we are a sovereign nation, with our own language, customs and history dating back 3,000 years. Nauru is worth a quick Internet search, I assure you, for not only will you discover a fascinating country that is often overlooked, you will find an indispensible cautionary tale about life in a place with hard ecological limits.

Phosphate mining, first by foreign companies and later our own, cleared the lush tropical rainforest that once covered our island’s interior, scarring the land and leaving only a thin strip of coastline for us to live on. The legacy of exploitation left us with few economic alternatives and one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, and led previous governments to make unwise investments that ultimately squandered our country’s savings.

I am not looking for sympathy, but rather warning you what can happen when a country runs out of options. The world is headed down a similar path with the relentless burning of coal and oil, which is altering the planet’s climate, melting ice caps, making oceans more acidic and edging us ever closer to a day when no one will be able to take clean water, fertile soil or abundant food for granted.

Climate change also threatens the very existence of many countries in the Pacific, where the sea level is projected to rise three feet or more by the end of the century. Already, Nauru’s coast, the only habitable area, is steadily eroding, and communities in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have been forced to flee their homes to escape record tides. The low-lying nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands may vanish entirely within our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

Similar climate stories are playing out on nearly every continent, where a steady onslaught of droughts, floods and heat waves, which are expected to become even more frequent and intense with climate change, have displaced millions of people and led to widespread food shortages.

The changes have already heightened competition over scarce resources, and could foreshadow life in a world where conflicts are increasingly driven by environmental catastrophes.

Yet the international community has not begun to prepare for the strain they will put on humanitarian organizations or their implications for political stability around the world.

In 2009, an initiative by the Pacific Small Island Developing States, of which I am chairman, prompted the United Nations General Assembly to recognize the link between climate change and security. But two years later, no concrete action has been taken.

So I was pleased to learn that the United Nations Security Council will take up the issue tomorrow in an open debate, in which I will have the opportunity to address the body and reiterate my organization’s proposals.

First, the Security Council should join the General Assembly in recognizing climate change as a threat to international peace and security. It is a threat as great as nuclear proliferation or global terrorism. Second, a special representative on climate and security should be appointed. Third, we must assess whether the United Nations system is itself capable of responding to a crisis of this magnitude.

The stakes are too high to implement these measures only after a disaster is already upon us. Negotiations to reduce emissions should remain the primary forum for reaching an international agreement. We are not asking for blue helmets to intervene; we are simply asking the international community to plan for the biggest environmental and humanitarian challenge of our time.

Nauru has begun an intensive program to restore the damage done by mining, and my administration has put environmental sustainability at the center of our policymaking. Making our island whole again will be a long and difficult process, but it is our home and we cannot leave it for another one.

I forgive you if you have never heard of Nauru — but you will not forgive yourselves if you ignore our story.

Marcus Stephen is the president of Nauru.

Op-Ed found at

“We have to put a Human Face to this.”

I am in New York at an incredible conference – the first of its kind – where the very issues in this blog are being discussed. The conference is entitled: “Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate.” At the conference, scholars, scientists, attorneys, politicians, and people from the “drowning islands” across the world have gathered to discuss not only what is happening to these individuals and their homeland, but also what to do about it.

A few hours ago, John Silk, the Foreign Minister for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, leveled with conference-attenders in a very real, candid, and evocative manner. I would love to quote him, but I don’t write quite that fast, so the below words are as close to verbatim as I could get but at moments probably border on paraphrasing.

Foreign Minister Silk started by speaking about the experience of his people when dealing with the nuclear waste from WWII testing sites that the US established in his country. The devastation from what our country did during this testing has been well documented and lingers. On one particular occasion, when Minister Silk was working with professionals involved in the legal process that ensued, they were standing near a crater that was created by a nuclear weapon that had been capped with cement. It obviously needed to be sectioned off, and the Americans there asked something along the lines of “what do you want to put as a warning sign to prevent people from coming to this island?” The Foreign Minister’s response was compelling – Don’t ask us. You dumped this here. You need to come up with the words to warn people.

Mr. Silk then went on to compare this to the international response to small threatened islands and coastal communities. He conveyed the fact that they express knowledge as to the fact that these communities and countries are sinking, and that they realize that they have caused this (in large part), but then they ask: “What do you want to do? You’re losing your country. You’re going to have to swim, but where will you swim to?” His response: You tell us when to swim; but don’t tell us how to swim or where we can swim to… It seems to me that the emitting world is unwilling to allow us to swim to their shores.”

In closing, Foreign Minister Silk discussed the importance of putting a human face to this story- this crisis. He commented on (good and worthwhile) stories in National Geographic and similar publications that highlight climate change as it relates to erasing a species, like a bear. But what about losing a human species? Where are those stories? Foreign Minister Silk and I share our desire to identify this tragic dilemma by highlighting the beautiful people that are in peril.

Southern Flooding- Foreshadowing of a Surreal Sacrifice

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview Janice Person- an open-hearted and dynamic individual who happens to live in recently-flooded Memphis. After I heard Janice speak about the floods on the BBC, I sought her out, and she was kind enough to entertain my follow-up questions during this difficult and somber time.

Janice’s thoughts about the peculiarities, tragedies, and mysteries surrounding a flood provide incredible insights into the plight of the drowning islands (and their inhabitants). While Janice admitted that she doesn’t necessarily “study” climate change to the degree that some others do, her witness to the events of the past several weeks shed light on the “slow-moving thing” that is “strange and surreal.”

Here are pieces of what Janice shared with me:

“There are folks that know they are the first to be flooded. Part of what happens is that this is such a slow-moving thing. It’s a bit strange and surreal. A tornado comes out of nowhere and then it’s gone. This has been building up for a very long time… People know it’s coming. It’s strange to see water coming up over a period of time- a slow progression.”

This “surreal” experience, the slow progression, that Janice spoke of reminds me of several conversations I’ve had with islanders in the front-lines of climate change and sea-level rise. That slow, gradual, lurking, pervasive knowledge that their land is disappearing seems similar to the southern experience that Janice described so well.

“There is a sense for some that they just won’t leave no matter what, that’s part of it… Some people aren’t sure where to go… For some folks, their houses flood every few years because of where they are. They love living close to the river. There’s a draw to the river. Everyone knows the Mississippi has this incredible power… There’s a sense of wanting to live closer to it… I think people get a very defined sense of place… The thing that is the weirdest to me is when people ask: ‘why would you live in a flood zone? Move!’ The flood zone is some of the most productive land in America! You choose to live somewhere for a variety of reasons… There’s a deep, inherent personal connection to where you’re from.”

As Janice shared these thoughts about a deeper, immutable sense of place and connection to home, I couldn’t help but draw strong parallels with islanders that hover just above the ocean. It’s easy to ask someone to move, but it takes more time, sensitivity, and certainly creativity to understand the powerful lure that “home” has and how we can work within that.

“Now I think more people will be aware of just how devastating the water can be. The choices that have to be made along the river with these spillways, that’s something… [rather long and fairly heavy pause here]. Mentally knowing that your home and your land is the first to be sacrificed- that’s really hard.”

I wonder what sort of sacrifices we are asking of those in far-away lands at this very moment. Our daily activities, our creature-comforts, our political and economic decisions- what impact do we have as we open our metaphorical spillway? My pictures in this post are of several beautiful, rather somber Maldivian islanders from a very small and very flat island in the Baa atoll in the Maldives- perhaps very similar to those 25,000 residents in communities on the Morganza spillway who sacrificed their homes this past week in order to spare larger cities from the destruction of the water. Be sure to visit Janice Person’s blog- -and contribute to the cleanup effort as these brave communities put their lives back together (the Salvation Army, Red Cross, and United Way all have donation links on their websites).

Water-Trauma: A Unique and Emotional Language

I can’t help connecting tsunamis, floods, an individual drowning, and the rising tide of climate change in my mind. These events share a textual, emotional, even symbolic connection. Once I commit thoughts to paper (or screen), I fully and readily admit the many differences between specific water-trauma events. Of course- the present floods in the US south are different from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which was different than Hurricane Katrina, which was unique from Japan’s recent earthquake/ tsunami/ and subsequent nuclear disaster, and these are all quite different from what climate change has and will do to small, flat islands standing alone in our oceans.

But speak with someone who has been afraid of, saddened because of, traumatized in some way because of the water, and notice that these individuals and groups speak the same language. The language is emotional, wistful, and in my opinion, the words come from someplace deep within that is reserved for water-trauma and water-trauma alone. I’m not a therapist or psychologist, but I have talked to those that fear the water in a very personal way that is almost… earned.

This week I will be writing about those that have experienced “water-trauma,” and hoping that we start to weave a web of understanding and compatibility for people across the world that have been or fear traumatic impact from water. I hope for and work towards a better global understanding and recognition of this language that those individuals speak because I believe it will build to a heightened sense of compassion for those in that are losing their land to the sea as climate changes.

I sign off today with a quote from one of this morning’s AP stories on the horrific flooding in the US South (linked below). My heart goes out to those impacted during these floods. As we listen to and respond to their stories, we start to learn a new language- one that sheds light on the plight and future of those in the “drowning islands.”

Merleen Acosta, 58, waited in line for three hours to get her sandbags filled by prisoners, then returned later in the day for more bags. Floodwaters inundated Acosta’s home when the Morganza spillway was opened in 1973, driving her out for several months. The thought of losing her home again was so stressful she was getting sick.

“I was throwing up at work,” she said.