It’s 10 o’clock at night, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. I’m sitting on the sand in Miami Beach, outside the city proper, eating fish tacos and pondering how it’s come to this.
Overhead, a full moon lights up a swirling nimbus of clouds like one of the hurricanes that occasionally slam into this coastline. At my feet, the surf pounds the shore where the Army Corps of Engineers recently harvested tons of white sand and grafted it onto the shoreline further north, where beach erosion threatened oceanfront condos (total price for the job: $15.8 million).
Suddenly, down the beach, a highrise comes unmoored, calving off of the glittering skyline and sliding into the Atlantic. I leap to my feet, ready to run for high ground, then realize it’s just a massive cruise liner, disembarking from the Port of Miami. My god, those things would make the Pacific Princess look like a glorified canoe.
I may be a little jumpy -- cut me some slack, I’m not much of a beachgoer -- but here on the edge of the continent, it’s easy to feel like things are coming apart. During my time here, I've watched storm drains cough up seawater, looked at climate scientist's projections of huge swaths of South Florida submerged by rising seas, and listened to locals' tales of surviving past storms that have reduced entire neighborhoods to rubble.
Miami Beach, which sits on a barrier island across the narrow Biscayne Bay from Miami proper, is quite literally on the front lines of climate change. In all likelihood, most of this buzzing hive of tourists rocking spray-on tans and swilling Snooki’s favorite drink will be waist-deep in water by the end of the century.
And the city itself isn’t far behind. A story in Rolling Stone this summer called Miami a city “on its way to becoming an American Atlantis” -- a place that will someday be “a popular snorkeling spot where people [can] swim with sharks and sea turtles and explore the wreckage of a great American city.”
But I’m told that the reality here is more interesting than that -- that locals are thinking seriously about how to prepare for the rising seas, that there might be a future here, albeit one where the houses are on stilts and you need a Zodiac to get to the Deco Drive Hookah Lounge. I came to see for myself.