Global is Personal: 4 Lessons About Climate Change Outreach from #DrownYourTown

Almost four months ago, I sat down at my computer with a puzzle to solve: is there an easy way to model sea level rise without using expensive GIS programs. I found that solution in Google Earth and, after a few days of experimenting and tweeking, #DrownYourTown was born.

1 meter of sea level rise would make for a very soggy superbowl.

1 meter of sea level rise would make for a very soggy superbowl.

#DrownYourTown is a tool for exploring sea level rise through real-time, interactive, GIS modeling. Anyone can submit a request via twitter or tumblr and receive a custom, 3D model of sea level rise anywhere in the world. The system allows users to produce dramatic visuals of both plausible and implausible climate change scenarios. The project is ongoing, with user generated content, an active tumblog, and a vibrant twitter community centered around the hashtag. I am constantly exploring new ways to reach a broader audience. Currently, #DrownYourTown is on a virtual road trip, visiting a new coastal state each day, and cruising through towns after 5 meters of sea level rise.

#DrownYourTown has been an exciting and sometimes humbling journey. Here are four lessons about climate change outreach I learned from drowning your town.

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Abnormal is the New Normal: Shifting Baselines, Polar Vortices, and Climate Change

The Polar Vortex, a mass of cold air usually centered around points within the Arctic Circle, made a visit south for the second time in 2014. The Vortex brings freezing weather, snow, and ice to regions that are unaccustomed to such extreme conditions. It also brings with it a new spate of “so much for global warming” talking-points, fresh on the heals of a recent report revealing that Climate Change Denial is at an all time high.


Unfortunately for the climate change denial industry, Polar Vortices are well-understood atmospheric phenomena. They were documented as early as 1853 as currents of cold air that essentially circle the poles. High-altitude observations in the 1950’s revealed the occurrence of sudden stratospheric warming (SSW) in the Arctic Polar Vortex. These SSW’s can cause a the vortex to weaken or reverse directions, allowing it to drift off axis or split into several smaller vortices. When weakened vortices contact the jet stream, cold arctic air is forced south, resulting in anomalously cold temperatures.

The obvious next question is: Is the weakened polar vortex caused by climate change?

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Check out my #DrownYourTown feature at Zócalo Public Square

One day, I’ll look back fondly and tell my grandkids about the week I spent flooding the planet.

It began as a lark. For the past few months, I’ve been writing installments of a serialized science fiction novel about a world in which the oceans have risen nearly 80 meters and most of the human race now lives at sea. As the characters in my story ventured closer to shore, I realized I needed a simple way to visualize what that world would look like. I took to Google Earth and Inkscape—both free, readily available software packages—and simulated 80 meters of sea level rise. The results were stark, post-apocalyptic images of city skylines, submerged. Los Angeles was completely inundated south of the financial district. In D.C, only the Washington Monument rose above the encroaching Potomac. Telegraph Hill was an island in the expanded San Francisco Bay. North Carolina was a warm, shallow sea stretching from the Outer Banks to Rocky Mount. Florida was gone.

Want to read more? Check out my article at Zócalo Public Square: Why I Drowned L.A. and the World

#DrownYourTown: Exploring Sea Level Rise through real-time, interactive, GIS modeling

UPDATE: These posts, and the hashtag are getting a lot of attention, so I’d like to reiterate, Caveat Tweetor (twitter beware) — these models are being generated on the fly as request come in. They are not validated and there are many variables that influence sea level rise which are not taken into account. This is a fun way to visualize potential sea level rise but it would be inadvisable to use it for real estate speculation. 

This afternoon, I took to twitter to try out a novel outreach initiative — getting people to think about sea level rise by asking them to drown their home towns. With Google Earth and a “Sea Level” image layer booted up, I was poised for 2 hours of intense map manipulation. The requests came in fast, and ranged from the expected coastal cities with a couple meters of sea level rise all the way to the radical (yes, we flooded Reno, Nevada). After 120 minutes, I had produced models at 52 locations and interacted with more than 400 people. I was also completely exhausted. Here, for your enjoyment, is the complete collection of #DrownYourTown models from the initial 2-hour marathon.

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Science in the Fleet: The Promise of Technology as a Panacea for Human Impacts

FleetCover1-REACHToday marks the release of Fleet: Wide Open, part 2 of my serial maritime science fiction adventure. With half the story revealed, we now see the roll technology plays in both the history and the day-to-day operations of the fleet. Specifically, we see three major technological advances that seem as though they would have been major solutions to the environmental problems facing the fleet, yet somehow, the world continues to fall apart.

In our world and the world of the fleet, we often hold up technological innovation as a panacea for global problems. It’s easy to look towards the next big advancement as the solution to our current woes — from alternative energy sources to groundbreaking trash removal devices — but what is often lost in the hype is the human component. Yes, technology is a necessary component of global environmental solutions. You can even look at the arc of human advancement as one long series of bootstrap-hoists — we need to utilize dirty tech to access environmentally sustainable tech (i.e. you can’t develop the ability to produce solar panels without first harnessing the energy locked in fossil fuels). But technology alone is useless without also changing human behavior. This creates a major problem, as technological innovation is often used as a tool to bypass human behavior entirely, the assumption being that it doesn’t matter what the individual does, so long as the tech is in place to mitigate it.

The horse piles of New York

Around the turn of the last century, New York City was in crisis. Horses, the primary means of transportation for people and products within the city have an unfortunate byproduct — feces, lots and lots of feces. At its peak, more than 60,000 horses were depositing upwards of 500 tones of manure every day. The horse crisis itself was the result of a major technological innovation — more efficient fertilizer based on mass produced phosphate. Where once there was a major economic incentive to collect the manure and resell it as fertilizer, now there was also no incentive. And so, the mountains of feces piled up. It got so bad that one editorial expounded that, by the 1930’s piles of horse manure would stand three stories tall and the city would be awash in an unending tide of feces.

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Climate Change is Moving Fish Around

Back in the day, I worked as an intern at Rhode Island Marine Fisheries, where my job was basically to provide general field work help with whatever survey needed an extra pair of hands (yes, it was an awesome job).  One of these was a beach seining survey looking at juvenile fishes using Rhode Island’s coastal salt ponds as nursery habitat.  Among the usual silversides, mummichogs, and juvenile flounder, two of the ponds were also home to entire schools of something that I was only familiar with due to having relatives in Virginia: spot.  These little Scianids, a member of the same family as Atlantic croaker and red drum, are caught in droves in the waters of Virginia and the Carolinas but traditionally have been rare north of the Chesapeake Bay.  They were one of the more common species we caught in these two Rhode Island salt ponds, and occurred so consistently that we could actually observe them growing over the course of the summer.  It isn’t unheard of for stray tropical fishes to get swept into Narragansett Bay on Gulf Stream eddies, where they’re either collected by aquarists or die during their first winter.  However, these were populations of spot that we were seeing.  I don’t know if these fish survived their first winter or have come back since I moved down to North Carolina, but even at the very beginning of my interest in fisheries ecology I knew this was odd.

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Herring Wars: Quotas, Conflicts, and Climate Change in the North Atlantic

Herring and other fish hung out to dry on a trawler in Klaksvík. Photo by ADT.

Herring and other fish hung out to dry on a trawler in Klaksvík. Photo by ADT.

A small collection of islands in the North Sea, a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, is preparing for war. The European Union, under the auspices of an international fisheries management agreement, is ready to levy heavy trade sanctions against the Faroe Islands, an independent protectorate of Denmark. The Faroes, with a population of less than 50,000, intends to fight these sanctions, defy EU authority, and defend their economic independence. The object of contention is the right to fish Atlanto-Scandian Herring; the driving force behind this dispute–dramatic shifts in fish distribution brought on by warming seas and altered currents. This may be the first international conflict directly attributable to climate change. It will not be the last. Regardless of the outcome, this confrontation will set a precedent for future climate conflicts. Welcome to the Herring War.

Despite their uninspiring name, herring are a rather handsome fish. Atlantic herring, Clupea harengus, are relatively small with a classically “fishy” (fusiform) body shape. They are among the most abundant fish in the ocean, forming schools that can number in the billions. Along with other planktivorous fishes, such as menhaden, that convert phyto- and zooplankton into higher trophic-level biomass, herring are critical to ocean food-webs. They are considered to be among the most important fish in the sea. Herring are the dominant prey species for many large, pelagic predators like tuna, sharks, marine mammals, salmon, and sea birds, among others. Their dominant predator, unsurprisingly, is us.

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Meet Sea Leveler: the open source water level gauge that wants you to talk about #sealevelrise


The Sea Leveler, an open source water level gauge that measures activity on twitter.

The Sea Leveler, an open source, arduino-powered, water level gauge that measures activity on twitter.

Two weeks ago, a machine was left on the “free” table at my lab that surprised me–a beautiful stainless steel mechanical water level gauge, on of those old ones with a flywheel in the back that drives the mechanism. Seeing this made me realize that there must be thousands of old scientific devices rusting away in laboratories across the country, obsolete but too well-build to just be thrown out. Then, I thought, there must be some way to take these old tools, some of them elegant, hand crafted works of industrial art, and give them a second life. For Science Online Oceans, I proposed a section on “Hacking the Ocean” developing low-cost, DIY instrumentation to make oceanography accessible to a broader community, but could that work the other way? Can we harness that same maker mentality to take abandoned scientific instrumentation and turn them into tools for education and outreach, or create art through instrumentation?

So I built the Sea Leveler.

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Understanding Sea Level Rise: Why a linear extrapolation is the least reasonable predictor of future changes

The Division of Coastal Management shall be the only State agency authorized to develop rates of sea-level rise and shall do so only at the request of the Commission. These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.

source (emphasis mine)

This is the text of the notorious, anti-science, anti-coastal community bill that was originally floated in the North Carolina state senate. A revised version of that bill is now under review, with new language that now mandates that:

The Commission and the Division of Coastal Management may collaborate with other State agencies, boards, commissions, other public entities, or institutions when defining sea-level rise or developing rates of sea-level rise. These rates shall be determined using statistically significant, peer-reviewed historical data generated using generally accepted scientific and statistical techniques. Historic rates of sea-level rise  may be extrapolated to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise unless such rates are from statistically significant, peer-reviewed data and are consistent with historic trends.

source (emphasis mine)

While this new language is almost certainly an improvement over the old bill, which was heavily supported by a lobbying group for coastal developers and heavily opposed by organizations that actually care what happens to the Carolina coastline and its historic communities, it is still problematic. By problematic, I mean wrong. And by wrong I mean that by refusing to allow accelerated estimates of sea level rise, it explicitly ignores all the best available science and contradicts 130 millenia of historic precedent.

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North Carolina’s attempted ban on sea level rise is a boon for Global Draining researchers

News broke yesterday that NC-20, a lobbying group for coastal development that, among other things, thinks property owners should be allowed to dump chemical waste directly into our watersheds, is sponsoring legislation that would outlaw outlaw sea level rise. Ignoring the fact that you can’t actually sue the ocean, what they’re actually promoting is a law that would prevent the state from using any sea surface model that extrapolates future ocean trends using anything but a linear regression. Essentially, they’re making it illegal for the state to anticipate future changes to the coastline, plan and prepare for potential flooding, or restrict development on transient barrier islands.

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