Sunday, November 24, 2019

Islands in the storm

"Since 2005, winters in Mexico have been my Hemingway Machine."

 

As winter descends upon my refashioned yurt in Tennessee, I put away my planting and pruning tools, process the last of this year’s bamboo wastes into biochar, shut down my wood heater, and send myself south to warmer climes. I will be working in different parts of the Caribbean over the coming months but right now, in this week before the climate summit in Madrid, I am in a remote part of Southeastern Mexico where a friend who has moved to the city has given me the use of her small, one-room palapa. I can subsist reasonably well here on the equivalent of $500 per month — more than twice my take-home from Social Security — mostly coming from Patreon and other small gratuities.

This month the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellite (EUMETSAT), NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with funding support from the European Commission and support from France’s National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), will launch a new Airbus weather satellite. Sentinel-6a’s advanced surface altimeter data, refreshing with every 10-day orbit, will go directly to national meteorological agencies to produce weather forecasts. It will act as an early warning system for El Niño by detecting the encroaching bulge in warm surface waters. Storm intensity and the onset of heatwaves will be revealed by tell-tale signatures in sea-surface height. The satellite will also measure sea-level rise worldwide.

The Jason-2/OSTM satellite provided insights into ocean currents and sea-level rise with tangible benefits to marine forecasting, meteorology, and understanding of climate change. These observations are being continued by its successor, Jason-3. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech





“Global sea-level rise is, in a way, the most complete measure of how humans are changing the climate,” said Josh Willis, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “If you think about it, global sea-level rise means that 70 percent of Earth’s surface is getting taller — 70 percent of the planet is changing its shape and growing. So it’s the whole planet changing. That’s what we’re really measuring.” According to the NASA press release:
Decades of space- and ground-based observations have documented Earth’s surface temperature rising at a rapidly accelerating rate. The oceans help to stabilize our climate by absorbing over 90 percent of the heat trapped on the planet by excess greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, that have been emitted into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
As the oceans warm, they expand, increasing the volume of water; the trapped heat also melts ice sheets and glaciers, contributing further to sea-level rise. The rate at which it is rising has accelerated over the past 25 years and is expected to continue accelerating in years to come. 
Sentinel-6/Jason-CS will measure down to the millimeter how much global sea level rises during the 2020s and how fast that rise accelerates.
The tourist maps have this place I sit writing this marked as an island, and it once was, but storms over centuries and the depositions of a meandering river long ago closed the gap with the mainland, making it more accurately a peninsula. It was kind of the reverse of sea-level rise. Now I get to witness the ocean’s return. The whole of this fragile, narrow sand spit and its adjacent mainland lie within one of Mexico’s largest nature reserves, a sanctuary to jaguars, pelicans, manatees, flamingos, crocodiles, and many migratory birds and fishes. They are moving around too, but urbanization and land-use change prevent them from migrating very far.

Last summer I spent a week on the other side of the Atlantic, in Rye Harbour, Kent. I wanted to bicycle around Romney Marsh, home of my ancestors for untold centuries before they scattered to the Jamestown Colony in 1623 or the Massachusetts Bay in 1635. As I related in an earlier post, I documented my line only as far back as 1200, when the record trail dried up, but the Bates clan had lived on a harbor island, Lydd, for some centuries, and were generally engaged in seafarer service trades such as boatbuilding and ship chandlery. New Romney was then a principal Cinque Port connecting England to the continent. In 1287 a massive storm leveled the city, sank the fleet at anchor, and dammed the river, forcing it to push out a new channel towards Rye, west along the coast. The old harbor filled with sediment and created Romney Marsh, now known for the quality of its mutton and wool, and my ancestral island migrated inland several miles from the coast, becoming what is now the rustic, half-timbered village of Lydd. A church built on the island in Roman times, later damaged in the German Blitz, remains in weekly use near the town square. There are still families called Bates born and dying there. 

Six hundred sixty years after the great storm, I was conceived on one island (Hawai’i) and born on another (Oahu). It should, I suppose, not be surprising that I find myself drawn to islands. In a sense, the majority of my adult years were spent in a kind of cultural island — a hippy village in the middle of a southern red state’s poorest county.

I started coming to this place in Mexico a year after my mother died. She left me many lessons but one that has endured these past 15 years is where she chose to spend time in her 70s and 80s. She had checked India, Antarctica, Alaska, China, and Africa off her bucket list and most winters she made a timeshare in Mazatlan her base. Like me, she was a world citizen, not clinging to one spot or claiming a single allegiance. After diligently offsetting my carbon footprint in bamboo at home, I followed that model, learning from the good health, energy, and joy it had given my mother. Since 2005, winters in Mexico have been my Hemingway Machine. In my friend’s grass shack, with no phone, no heat, and only intermittent power, I have written six books and several hundred of these blog posts. 

Back in 2005, the main industries here were fishing and weaving hammocks. The area was just opening to birdwatching, kiteboarding, wild side tourists. Today it is drowning in tourists, sinking under the weight of their concrete enclosures, and suffocating in their wastes.

We two-leggeds seem drawn to inhabit dangerous places despite their natural hazards, whether for the attraction of culture, as in Venice or San Francisco, or for the natural beauty, as in the forested hillsides near Yellowstone or Mt. Etna. Infrequent hazards do not spark our fight or flight reflexes, and we tend to ignore them. The people in Paradise, California reacted too slowly to a wildfire that destroyed their town, and it cost lives, but they were lulled to that false security by long experience of tranquil mountain forests, the speed of previous wildfire progression, and what had seemed a good evacuation plan — pre-Anthropocene.

It is the same here. Coming and going in season, year to year, I can see how far inland the coast has eroded in the last decade. I attribute frequently flooded streets more to sea-level rise than to the heavy rains typical of the tropics. Knowing a thing or two about climate science, I see how feeble the engineered response — “adaptation” — is in comparison with what is coming, or its speed. The island will be entirely underwater by mid-century if not sooner. Its highest ground is only two or three meters, and those elevated areas are few and far between. During Hurricane Wilma in 2006, there was no dry land remaining. As I look up from my laptop, this room has a watermark all around, a meter above the floor. 

Still, new hotels are being built. New restaurants are offering sushi and haute cuisine. Expensive apparel stores are opening on the dirt streets. With the flash fortunes being made in the Maya Riviera, the new business people are not necessarily climate deniers, they just believe they can erase any debt and reap profits long before the waves wash away their temporary holdings. And then they might even rebuild for another go, as people did after Wilma.

That may or may not be true. Like any place in nature ravaged by human industry, this piece of paradise suffers from too much change, too fast. The Mayan Reef that protects the shore and replenishes its sparkly white sands has been ruined. It is dead. The mangroves that cleaned the water and bred the fish were cleared to build swank residences. The octopi were drag-netted. Where once you could hook fish with rowboats or sail-craft or dive the reef, to be a fisherman here now means getting up in the night and going much farther out, with high-powered boats, to search and net scarce schools using sonars, satcoms, and GPS. 

There are good people in the nature preservation parts of the Mexican government, and they have designed and put into law some very good regulations. If implemented, these will ban plastic, pets, and night lighting on the beach. They will reverse the unchecked sprawl and reclaim the key ecosystem recharge zones. I really hope that happens, but like many people here I am skeptical because politics is warped by money, and here there is a lot of money working to make sure none of that good reclamation policy happens. In which case, the hotels will eventually drown in their refuse and sewage. Or another hurricane will level them again and the entire tale resets to where it was before I arrived, minus a lot of land and its beautiful biodiversity. 

I could try to draw some grand lesson from all this, but I will leave it to you to do that. For now, it is enough that I get to hang out with these beautiful birds and enjoy what a billion years of evolution has bestowed, before it’s gone.


Global sea level has shown a steady rise since the early 1990s to present as measured by Jason-2/OSTM and its predecessors and successor from the early 1990s to the present day. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 

Earth’s climate is changing, and the study of oceans is vital to understanding the effects of those changes on our future. “Global sea-level rise is one of the most expensive and disruptive impacts of climate change that there is,” said JPL’s Willis. “In our lifetimes, we’re not going to see global sea-level fall by a meaningful amount. We’re literally charting how much sea level rise we’re going have to deal with for the next several generations.” 

In his testimony to Congress in 1988, climatologist emeritus James Hanson said sea level could rise as much as ten feet this century. He was ridiculed for that statement, but he has yet to be disproved. Ten feet would permanently evacuate lower Manhattan, about a third of Oakland and Alameda, all of Miami and a dozen other Florida cities, not to mention Venice, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City, Mumbai, Basra, Alexandria, New Orleans, and Bangkok. All underwater. 

Mumbai underwater at daily high tide, 2050. Source: The New York Times
 
Storm events will augur the crux moments when humans will be forced to grasp some hard truths we now deny. Sentinel-6 is our spy atop the watchtower. It will tell us when the destruction is coming but it cannot stop it. 

Only we can do that.


Its not too late to register for my Permaculture Design Course in Belize in March, or you can catch me at various talks during COP25 in Madrid. 


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