This morning we began our day watching the National Geographic documentary entitled Earth Under Water. The movie focused on the future for coastal cities around the world and what the earth may become in the next century. While some options were offered up, they all came with immense sacrifices, either for the environment, animal and plant species or the human population.
As we continued a heated discussion about sea level rise, I couldn’t help but be taken back in time to my childhood on the beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. For as long as I can remember I spent endless hours every summer building sandcastles with my dad and brother, each time getting bigger and more complicated. We created our own little kingdom with houses and castles and bridges and staircases. We would catch hermit crabs and minnows and any other little sand bugs we could find to keep in the pool of water at the center of the castle. As the tide began to rise we would hurriedly begin to make huge walls and trenches, covered with seaweed and shells, trying to detour the crashing waves. Our effort would slowly begin to fail as in a flailing haze we would shovel piles of sand onto walls as quickly as they were taken away by the water. We yelled directions to each other, convinced that we were stronger than the inevitable tide.
As these memories sink in I can’t help but wonder if I am studying to go into a field where I will spend the rest of my life fighting a pointless battle as I did as a little girl on that beach. While more experienced and educated, I, as well as anyone else on this planet, cannot beat nature in this race against time. As a child it was sandcastles, as a teenager it was mission trips to fix houses destroyed by hurricanes along the east coast, and as an adult it could be a career, but is there ever a chance for success?
Today we arrived in Smith Island and I could not help but picture it as one big sandcastle. A friendly yet dwindling community, most of the families on the island have been there for generations as watermen. Out of the eight thousand acres that make up the area, only nine hundred are habitable, a statistic that lowers each year. While they suffer less from sea level rise and subduction, the consistent erosion is astonishing. Every day they watch their island shrinking, the water creeping closer to their homes and to their futures.
Just as I built trenches and walls covered with seaweed and shells to surround my castle, they build bulkheads to delay nature’s force. Just as I captured and enclosed little sand dwelling animals, they continue to catch crabs even as the populations dwindle. As the water creeps closer and the land disappears and the storms rage on, is the fate of this struggling community the same as my flattened sandcastle?
When asked what the future for Smith Island looks like, the pastor of the community sadly admitted that they wouldn’t be there in a hundred years. But just as I threw shovelfuls of sand at the walls of my castle until the bitter end, this community will continue to fight back and last as long as they can in their home.
I, and I don’t think anyone else really knows what to say or do about Smith Island or our coastlines. Do we fight back and build walls, trying to defend against the sea level rise we created by building our empires? Do we give up and move inland, evacuating our homes and cities we worked so hard to build up? Do we continue to create technologies that will further destroy the environment and species but keeps life as close as possible to what we are used to? None of these options seem viable but we cannot blame anyone but ourselves. Just as I built my sandcastle against the water, most of us flock to life along the coast. Just as I built walls and trenches we think we can beat nature with our technologies. And just as I collected animals for my own, we exploit plants, animals and resources without regard for the future.
I do not know what the future for Smith Island or any of the other habitable areas along coastlines around the world is but we do know it will be very different from today. This day has forced me to contemplate the inevitable future that would be so much easier to ignore. I can only hope that as sea level rises and erosion continues, we remember that we first think about the environment and species that surround us.