Tag Archives: deep time

Lost Cities of the California Coast

After a hiatus to pursue my Low Carbon Diet project, I’m BACK, working on a new project, Lost Cities of the California Coast.

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It explores how people in California cities will respond to rising sea levels over the coming decades through participatory art and creative writing. Here’s a summary:

With sea level rising for the foreseeable future, the coastal communities of California will face unprecedented change in the coming decades. How will each city respond? With higher levees and armored sea walls to hold back the tide? With “managed retreat” to higher ground? With redesigned infrastructure and new technologies that allow their coastal zones to be flexible use areas that accommodate the rising tide line?

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Lost Cities of the California Coast imagines California from a future vantage point, at the time when our grandchildren’s grandchildren look back at our generation’s response to sea level rise. By describing in detail several imagined case studies of cities’ responses, this project will explore a variety of adaptive approaches, evaluating those that were more – or less – successful over the long-term.

For instance:

  • In response to the El Nino storms of 2020, residents of the City of Malibu raised private funds to build a sea wall to defend their beachfront septic systems, exerting considerable political influence to protect their multi-million dollar homes. Yet when even larger storms came in 2032, the wall was destroyed along with many of the sea-front houses. Though a few owners chose to rebuild at great cost and risk, most moved to higher ground, and the abandoned land was purchased at minimal cost by the city and turned into bioswale and public space.
  • After years of frequent flooding sent toxic waters into the streets of West Oakland, the voters worked in 2045 and again in 2060 to pass bond measures to redevelop the Bayside, including the port and airport. Billions were spent to convert industrial sites into wetlands, redesign sewer systems and the port to accommodate fifteen feet of sea level rise, and rebuild the sub-standard housing of West Oakland into high-density neighborhoods modeled on the Netherlands. The foresight of this project created an economic base from which Oakland was able to grow and thrive for the next century.

Using participatory map-making, storytelling, walking, and text, Lost Cities of the California Coast will engage the public in art-making events that will enable participants to envision themselves in a future where sea levels are higher and difficult decisions need to be made. What sort of new infrastructure will be needed to accommodate a rising tide? What opportunities exist for progressive planning, even as some neighborhoods will eventually be lost? Urban planners, architects, engineers, and public officials are already studying the risks and opportunities presented by sea level rise; Lost Cities will broaden the public dialogue around this important issue so that people can, over the coming years, make informed choices about how we will collectively adapt to the rising waters.

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The first case study in development is San Mateo/Foster City, two interlocked cities where more than 100,000 people live in the current 100-year flood zone — a line which closely tracks the 3-foot sea level rise that is expected by the end of this century. What will San Mateo County look like then? Bringing communities into conversation about this challenging issue, as we also discuss creative responses to it, is the first step to developing a resilient city that will thrive for decades to come.

The Dead Sea is Dying

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The Dead Sea is the lowest tideline on earth, filling the deepest trench of the Great Rift Valley, which begins in Mozambique and runs north to Syria. The border between Israel and Jordan divides it in two, a border that is, unusually in the Middle East, both geological and political: not a line in the sand but a crevice in the earth. Here two tectonic plates are moving apart, ever so slowly, Jordan to the East and Israel/Palestine to the West. To infer meaning from this movement would be easy, but nothing in this region is easy.

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The Dead Sea used to be part of the Mediterranean Sea, a mere depression in its eastern shoreline. Then around 5 million years ago, the crunching plates pushed up the Judean hills, cutting off the water supply to the inland sea left behind. One of the most impressive of these hills is Mt. Sodom, a massif of pure halite, or rock salt. This photo, of a small (80′ x 25′) chunk that broke off and rolled down hill, shows the smooth yet razor sharp material that makes up the Biblical mountain. In the background is Lot’s Wife, a pillar of salt that has eroded away from the rest of the mass. She will eventually come crashing down as well.

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The Dead Sea is dense. With less water coming in than evaporates each year in the desert sun, the salts and minerals have become more concentrated over time, so that the water is now 30% mineral (as compared to the oceans, which are 3% saline). The water is almost 1/3 rock. This is why you float in it. It feels slippery more than wet, because of all the bitumen, manganese, potash, and salt that are suspended in this maximum concentration. Several types of single-celled creatures (halophiles) thrive in this environment, but nothing larger. Unless you count Russian tourists.

The Dead Sea has had various names over time: Salt Sea, Bitumen Sea, Stinking Sea, Devil’s Sea. The water’s very weight makes the surface unnaturally calm and reflective. It glows with shades of lavender, periwinkle, and rose that cannot be adequately conveyed in a photograph (at least, not mine.) But don’t get it in your eyes, because it bites hard.

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The Dead Sea is dying. The water level is decreasing by more than a meter each year, which leads to a rapidly retreating shoreline, as seen in the photo above. When I was here 25 years ago, the water level was near the road in many places; now you have to take a minibus from the seaside resorts built a generation ago to the water’s edge, sometimes a kilometer away. This is because the only source of new water for the Dead Sea is the Jordan River, which is the northern extension of the Great Rift Valley, and the international border between Jordan and Israel/Palestine. Virtually all of the water is drained out of the Jordan River for Israeli agriculture, though apparently sewage effluent is released into the river so that a small, muddy stream can be maintained for passing pilgrims.

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The Dead Sea is already dead. In the 1930s, the Dead Sea Works was formed to mine potash and other salts from the lake’s southern reaches, which were shallow and could be sealed off to create evaporation ponds. These ponds now extend for many miles and are home to one of Israel’s main industrial sites.

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Mountains of minerals are evaporated out of the water and shoveled into piles reminiscent of Mt. Sodom. As the Dead Sea Works floods the ponds each year (thereby lowering the northern half), the water level of this part of the lake rises, causing nearby hotel resorts to build berms that act as beaches, in hopes of keeping the waters at bay and out of their lobbies. DSC01610

Though the geology of the Great Rift Valley is still under debate, this area is, according to some scientists, an “incipient, oblique oceanic spreading centre.” In geology, incipient means “to come into being or become apparent.”

Spelled with an ‘s’ it has another meaning: lacking wisdom.

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Tideline as Timeline

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Join me for this New Year walk, marking the edge of the low tide and the rise of the full moon. We’ll think about presence and absence in Princeton-by-the-Sea, a neighborhood on the site of a former Ohlone village.

A little background. This phrase — tideline as timeline — occurred to me earlier this year while writing my Master’s thesis. I didn’t know what it meant then, except in the poetic sense of the daily pulsing of the ocean, in and out. Yet as I’ve taken a deeper dive into geology, sea levels, and climatic change, I now see the phrase as both more literal and more meaningful.

In fact, the tideline has shifted dramatically over time in response to tectonic shifts and the effect of global temperature on planetary ice levels. Over much of the last 500 million years, the planet was significantly warmer than it is now; there was no ice anywhere during much of that time, and sea levels were as much as 600 feet higher than they are now, due to the very different continental configurations of the distant past.

More recently — that is, since North America joined the South American plate 3.5 million years ago — the planet has had a consistent sea level range. When ice ages develop, as they have about every 100,000 years for at least a million years, sea levels drop about 400 feet. When the ice partially melts, as it has systematically done as part of this cycle, sea levels have risen to about where they are right now.  It’s as if the planet has been breathing in and out in a deep time, mirroring the ocean’s daily pulsing at a different scale. We are currently at the bottom of the cyclical exhale, when things are warm and wet.

Knowing this makes it even more alarming that our global temperatures and sea levels are about to spike. The planet has spent the past 20,000 years exhaling (i.e. warming) and we are about to exhale again, without any in breath to sustain us. We have never been here before.

When all the ice melts, as it likely will over the coming 500-1000 years, sea levels will be 212 feet higher than they are today. Where will our tideline be then? It’s one of the things we’ll think about on the Tideline as Timeline walk, the first in a series I’m developing with fellow artist and ocean lover, Zoe Farmer.