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Street artists trace against time — and sea-level rise

highwaterline 1
Jayme Gershen

This is a story about an all-American machine, and two women who are leading an unusual effort to prepare our cities for climate change.

The machine is known as a Heavy Hitter. It's an aluminum box about the size of a bulldog that rides on 10-inch diameter pneumatic wheels. Push the Heavy Hitter forward, and a spring-loaded gizmo inside sifts a dusty line of powdered chalk onto the ground below.

You've probably seen one of these bad boys being used for its intended purpose: to draw the lines on a baseball field. But back in 2007, an artist named Eve Mosher found another use for a Heavy Hitter: She used it to transcribe a line from a map onto the streets of New York. The line marked 10 feet above sea level, tracing areas of the city that would be flooded in a serious storm surge -- an event made more likely by climate change.

The project, which Mosher called HighWaterLine, got a smattering of media attention -- and she won some proof-of-concept in 2012, when Superstorm Sandy pushed floodwaters right up to the line in some spots. But the most remarkable thing was the buzz it generated on the streets. People came out of their houses to see what she was up to, she told me when I wrote about the project in 2011. "Kids followed me around like the Pied Piper."

In the Heavy Hitter, Mosher had found a way to do something that environmentalists and scientists have struggled mightily to do: broach the topic of climate change in a way that made it real for people, right where they lived, and that brought it to them in a non-threatening way. "It wouldn't have worked if I was walking around dressed up as a jellyfish or something," she told me recently. "There's something about pushing a baseball field line machine -- it's odd, but it's not too weird."

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On defense: Cities get serious about climate resilience in 2013

new york city skyline
Andrew Ferguson

If 2012 was the year a changing climate beat U.S. cities like Apollo beat Rocky, 2013 may go down as the year that urban America hit the meat locker and got serious about defending itself. Thanks to disasters like Superstorm Sandy, being "green" is no longer just a tired trend. The notion of becoming "environmentally friendly" has morphed into a mandate to buttress ourselves against an environment that has become decidedly unfriendly to us. And the antics in Congress this year make it abundantly clear that, as sustainable communities activist Rob Hopkins told me recently, the cavalry is not coming; …


The not-quite-perfect storm: Miami dodged the bullet last time, but can its luck hold out?


Note to self: The next time you take the Climate Change Tour of Miami with Nicole Hernandez Hammer, bring Dramamine.

I'm sitting in the back seat of a rental car as Hammer, the assistant director for research at the Florida Center for Environmental Studies, careens around the Magic City like Danica Patrick. One of her graduate students rides shotgun, navigating with her iPhone.

Our mission for the day is to survey parts of this city that will be flooded as climate change continues to drive up the level of the sea. Hammer, who studies the impacts of sea-level rise on infrastructure and communities, has kindly agreed to act as my tour guide and pilot. I'm just hoping I can keep my breakfast down.

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Sink tank: In Miami, climate scientists ask, “How deep, how soon?”

Ines Hegedus-Garcia

Harold "Hal" Wanless is a wizened walrus of a man who presides over the University of Miami’s geology department from a fluorescent-lit basement at the north end of campus. His walls are decorated with photos taken on research trips over the years -- glaciers grinding through the northern mountains, a wooden boat hauled up on the tundra -- and a map of Greenland, where he trekked last summer to get a look at the melting ice for himself.

Wanless, with his gray mustache and wire-rimmed glasses, is known hereabouts as the go-to man for predictions of doom. He's been sounding the alarm about melting ice sheets and rising seas for years, and does not mince words when it comes to what he believes is the only sane response for residents of South Florida.

“There’s a lot of silly dreaming about how we’re going to handle this,” he told me during a recent visit to the walrus cave. “We’re going to handle this by relocating.”

Until recently, many people rolled their eyes at comments like this. But as rising seas have begun to flood the streets of nearby Miami Beach, and sea-level rise has consistently outpaced more cautious predictions, folks have begun to take Wanless more seriously.

"Nobody wants to cry wolf. Nobody wants to overestimate the problem," Wanless says. "But our [climate] models are incapable of keeping up with what's happening."

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Miami vise: Rising seas put the squeeze on a sun-drenched beach town

south beach flood

It's a balmy, mid-November morning in Miami Beach, Fla., and I’m sitting at one of the cafe tables in front of the local Whole Foods, sipping a cup of coffee, and watching the tide come up. Oh, you can’t see the ocean from here. The tide is gurgling up through the storm drains along the street.

It starts at about 8:00. A trickle of water from a nearby grate quickly becomes a stream which becomes a lake, spreading across the intersection of Alton Road and 10th Street. By 8:20, water pours off of the cars rolling into the parking lot. At 8:40, it reaches the axles of the Jeep parked on the corner. Pedestrians abandon the submerged sidewalks for high ground in the middle of the Alton Road, dodging rooster tails kicked up by passing vehicles. To get back across town, I'll have to wade through murk that comes almost to my knees.

One of my sources here, a scientist studying the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise, tells me that if I stick my finger in that water and taste it, it will be salty. I look at the gunk burbling out of the gutters, swirling with oily rainbows and cigarette butts, and decide to take her word for it.

The water is coming from Biscayne Bay, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that lies between Miami Beach and the city of Miami. Steadily rising high tides in recent years have driven the stuff backwards through the storm drains, underneath protective seawalls, spilling into the streets and spawning a multimillion dollar retrofit to the city's drainage system. In the process, Crockett and Tubbs’ seaside haunt has become a bellwether for coastal communities everywhere that are only just beginning to grok the implications of a problem that will dog us for generations.


Postcard from the edge: Urban conundrums on the front lines of climate change


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.

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Saving the city from climate change, one house at a time

alex washburn

Alex Washburn was one of those New Yorkers who stayed put, defying Mayor Mike Bloomberg's orders to evacuate when Superstorm Sandy came stomping into town. But unlike those who dug in their heels out of stubbornness or helplessness, Washburn stuck around out of pure curiosity. He's Bloomberg’s chief urban designer -- the guy responsible for shaping the city’s parks, streets, and other public spaces -- and he wanted to meet Sandy in person.

"I wanted to watch, feel, understand what a storm surge meant," he says. "If I don’t understand it viscerally, I can’t design for it."

So while his family and many of his neighbors headed for higher ground, Washburn sat in his 19th century Red Hook rowhouse and watched.

"The first inkling was water coming out of the storm drains," he says. "It rose very, very fast. Within minutes it had turned into a river. A little later, I remember looking out, and the power had gone out. It’s brown dark, it’s not black dark, and here I am in New York and there’s water between every building."

Washburn, who dropped by the Grist offices a few weeks back while promoting his new book, The Nature of Urban Design: A New York Perspective on Resilience, compared the sight out his window that night to the view of Mount Rainier on the Seattle skyline. "I got that sense: I don’t care what we do. That is big. That water was going to go where it wanted."

And that included Washburn's house. The storm surge, which peaked at about 12.5 feet, swamped his basement, rising about three feet inside his ground floor.

Months later, with the mess largely cleaned up, Washburn's biggest challenge began: Figuring out how to defend against the floods next time. In the process, he has discovered that the kind of innovation and outside-the-box engineering required to make coastal communities resilient to storms like Sandy often runs counter to rules and regulations that were designed for tamer times.

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The caveman dilemma: Why we take such lousy care of ourselves and our planet

banksy caveman
Lord Jim

For Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, many of our problems today boil down to this: Through much of human evolution, our ancestors spent their days eating twigs and berries, chasing antelope, and being chased by things with big, nasty teeth; these days, the only things we chase are our double greaseburgers and fries -- and it's usually with 32 ounces of corn-syrup-laced soda. We're cavemen come to live in the city. Our bodies just aren't adapted for this stuff.

DanLiebermanheadshotThose are my words, of course. Lieberman is much more eloquent and precise about the subject, which he's explored in great depth in his new book, The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. Lieberman is the first to point out that modern living and technology have made our lives better in many ways. Still, a look back at where we came from can tell us a lot about where we're headed, he says -- and how we might alter that course for the better.

I caught up with Lieberman recently for a conversation that ranged from the paleo diet to Fruit Roll-Ups to the similarities between the obesity epidemic and climate change.


This is what it will look like when the Big One hits New York City

South Ferry subway station after Hurricane Sandy

A year ago today, New Yorkers were emerging from their homes, surveying the damage wrought by one of the most powerful storms in history. Floodwaters were subsiding, but 750,000 city residents were without power -- among millions along the Eastern Seaboard. The subway was shut down, many of its tunnels filled with water. The New York Stock Exchange was shuttered. In areas that bore the brunt of the storm, homes had been blasted apart by wind and waves. Entire neighborhoods lay in smouldering ruins. But burly as it was, Superstorm Sandy could have been a whole lot stronger. Technically speaking, …

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Nature vs. nature: Is “green infrastructure” the best defense against climate disasters?

A car drives through water driven onto a roadway by Hurricane Sandy in Southampton, New York
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

A year ago, Northeasterners were bracing for the worst. On Oct. 27, with Superstorm Sandy pinwheeling up the East Coast, Gov. Chris Christie declared  a state of emergency in all of New Jersey. Mayor Mike Bloomberg ordered 375,000 people to evacuate from low-lying areas of New York City, closing schools and shutting down the subway system. Stretching almost 500 miles across, Sandy had morphed into one of the most powerful storms in history, and it was about to body check greater New York.

For many, the worst came. In the past few weeks, we've seen story after story of residents who are still trying to piece their lives back together. But the storm played out quite differently for the residents of Cape May, N.J., a seaside haven for vacationers and birdwatchers. When they were allowed to return to their homes after the storm had passed, most locals found things largely as they had left them, not counting some minor flooding and truckloads of sand that washed into the streets.

Bill Ulfelder, New York executive director for the Nature Conservancy, credits a unique set of natural defenses for sparing parts of the town. Some of the neighborhoods that fared best were adjacent to the South Cape May Meadows preserve, a 218-acre natural area that the conservancy had worked to restore in 2004, alongside the state and the Army Corps of Engineers. "South Cape May had no wave damage and no flooding. All the water went into the wetland," Ulfelder says.

Ulfelder and his compatriots believe that Cape May holds lessons for other coastal areas as climate change whips up stronger, more damaging storms. Restoring dunes, marshes, and oyster reefs could dampen future storm surges, they say. Give a little back to Mother Nature, and maybe she'll go a little easier on us.

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