Thursday, April 2, 2015

Ocean City, Cities in the Ocean

This is a departure from the climate policy and solutions pieces that I usually post to a more personal approach, how climate change hits me as a human being.  I’ve been writing stories about journeys I’ve taken and the muses on change, climate and the human fate they have inspired.  This story about a trip I took with my then 13-year-old daughter to a scene of my youth, the Jersey Shore, seems particularly appropriate now.  With new scientific reports of rivers undermining one of East Antarctica’s largest glaciers and dramatic slowing of the Gulf Stream, the Jersey Shore is a temporary place, as is much of our world.  How do we begin to absorb the reality of the world we are leaving our children? 

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 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 luxuriantly 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 east coast family Erika will get a taste of those sweet summers of youth.

We walk down the 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 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 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. 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 this Jersey shore town 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 even a 4-5-foot increase.  At 10 feet its entire island disappears and the 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 that will make this place essentially uninsurable.  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 woulf surge into Ocean City and other shore towns. 

Standing out in the surf, 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.


“You know why.”


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.  Climate scientist James Hansen says seas could rise 16 feet this century (p.22) from the melting of polar icecaps and mountain glaciers, plus the effect of heat in expanding the volume of 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 seal 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.  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. 

More 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.

Superstorm Sandy made landfall just northeast of Atlantic City three years later.  The casino district areas where we walked would be flooded by the surge, which would also wash away much of the beach and take out a section of boardwalk.

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. 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 when we reach 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 – 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 an Atlantic that reaches the Philly suburbs on the Pennsylvania side. 

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. 

Part II, From the Greenland Coast to the Jersey Shore: Dead Cities Walking, will complete the story of this journey by recalling another that took me over Greenland and its glaciers dissolving into the sea.


  1. Thanks, Patrick, for this moving description of Atlantic City when you were young. As an annual visitor to Long Beach Island in my youth (I'm your contemporary), I am sending it immediately to all in my 30 person extended family.

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