Ten years ago, I launched a strange little project called Drown Your Town. The premise behind Drown Your Town was simple: I created a little macro in Google Maps that allowed you to superimpose a floodwater layer on top of 3D renders of communities. It was a quick and dirty way to demonstrate sea level rise in an era where those kinds of bespoke models were hard to generate. With #DrownYourTown, anyone, anywhere could simulate sea level rise in their own back yard.
It wasn’t originally going to be an outreach tool. I was writing a science fiction novel about life in a post-climate change world and needed an easy way to visualize places in the stories might look like. The book is still available, on Amazon, along with two other novellas that I wrote, though I warn you, none of them are very good (in my defense, it was the high water mark for self-publishing ebooks and I was still trying to figuring out what my post-academic career would be).
We pushed out the app, launched a successful tumblr page where folks could request sea level rise models, initiated what remains to this day my most successful Twitter campaign of all time, and spent the next year helping people visualize sea level rise in their communities.
We learned a lot about climate change outreach from DrownYourTown.
Early this month, I completed and self-published my first science fiction novel through Amazon’s Kindle Direct publishing service (and, a few days later, as a paperback through Createspace). The ideas for the book were conceived over a long week in August, while vacationing with my parents at a rental house in St. Michaels, Maryland. Wandering through the low-lying eastern shore towns started me thinking about the kinds of stories we would tell hundreds of years from now. Thus, the central conceit of Fleet — that it was not a tale of environmental devastation but of people living their lives in a post-sea-level-rise world — surfaced.
Writing Fleet was a marathon. All told, from the first day that I started outlining characters and deciding what the central story of Fleet — uncovering a human disaster caused by desperation and betrayal, then buried at sea — to the day I hit publish on the Amazon server, Fleet took a little over 3 and a half months, during which time I was also moving across the country, finishing several scientific manuscripts, and looking for a job.
Having now had a few weeks to decompress, I think it’s a good time to reflect on the book, what I tried to accomplish, and where it goes from here.
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
We’ve reached the point in the program where requests for #DrownYourTown are coming in faster than I can process. That’s great! It means people are really connecting with the #DrownYourTown hashtag as a way to bring the concept (if not the specific details) of sea level rise home. The response has been greater than I ever imagined!
So, rather than leave people high and dry (we wouldn’t want that, would we), here is a step by step guide to simulating sea level rise anywhere in the world using Google Earth and a little geographic wizardry. The best part? It can all be done with completely free software.
1. Download Google Earth — you can find it here. Take some time to play around with it. Google packed this free package with some awesome features.
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.