The land beneath our feet

By Ronald M. Horvath | Apr 14, 2010

Rain, and more rain. It rained for two solid days and the river at the bottom of our hill in Millville, already over its banks, churned along in a frightful hurry to the harbor. But there was no flood tide at the bottom of my basement steps. Our new anti-flooding system in the cellar worked like a charm. Technology wins again and once more the elements are kept at bay.

It was expensive but it could have been worse. I could have been outside with my exceedingly low-tech shovel scraping up all that precipitation one shovel full at a time in the manner of a normal Maine winter and piling it head high till my driveway looked like the grand canyon. Maybe global warming isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Of course all the winter storms that have struck the Middle Atlantic States have been fodder for the anti-climate change crowd, forgetting for that moment of convenience that the real consequences of global warming are extreme weather cycles, more powerful storms, and weather patterns beyond mankind’s usual powers of prediction.

Extreme? Well, we hardly had a winter, did we, by Maine standards anyway. Our recent rains are reminiscent of last spring, which practically drowned out the whole of last year’s growing season. And if sitting in Maine with practically bare ground while almost 5 feet of snow piled up in Maryland, and even Florida had measurable snow, isn’t extreme then what is?

It has indeed felt like a year of rain and wind, in the extreme sense. Another spring like the last one with its endless rains could be the demise of many of Maine’s remaining farms. The two torrential rainstorms this past fall were the fatal final straw for my basement. What other changes are in store, I wonder? Will Maine’s future be more wet than white? Will our environment be forced into an evolutionary shift to a wetter, warmer ecology? Will our traditional flora and fauna begin migrating north to more familiar terrain while strange denizens of the south begin showing up in their old haunts? Will moose grow scarce, replaced by feral hogs? Will I be surprised some morning by an armadillo at my compost pile and magpies on my bird feeder? Will thousands of elderly Mainers have nowhere to migrate to upon retirement, or need to?

Perhaps the most telling symptom of climate change is the quiet demise of low-lying islands around the globe as they slip silently beneath the encroaching sea. Recently an island called New Moore Island in the Bay of Bengal, 2 miles long and 1.5 miles wide (almost the size of Matinicus) and contested for years in a territorial dispute between India and Bangladesh, settled the dispute itself by disappearing beneath the rising sea.

Unlike Matinicus, New Moore Island was uninhabited and you would think both nations would be glad at the removal of a diplomatic thorn in their sides but the news was not welcomed in Bangladesh. If this trend continues in 25 to 50 years 18 percent of that country’s coastal area will disappear or be salinated out of agricultural production. Twenty million people will be affected and probably displaced in what is already one of the world’s poorest nations.

Likewise Egypt’s Nile Delta -- breadbasket of ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire for centuries -- is suffering a similar fate. Rising seawaters are spreading salt into its soil, already forcing some farmers off their land and others to build dikes or add soil to raise the level of their land. Food shortages are the immediate expected results but seven million climate refugees looking for a new neighborhood will not be a welcome addition to the problems of a poor country.

There’s more, of course. There’s always more. Many island nations in the Pacific are endangered. Kiribati, consisting of 33 coral atolls scattered over the center of the vast Pacific Ocean -- halfway between Hawaii and Australia -- is becoming uninhabitable due to rising sea levels and salination. Their president is even now looking for new homes for his 100,000 people. New Zealand has taken in many Pacific islanders including 11,000 people from Tuvalu, the first island country in which the entire population has been forced to evacuate because of rising sea levels.

It was with all this in mind that Robin and I -- while on a recent visit to her parents -- took a cruise up the Caloosahatchee River out of Fort Myers, Fla. This river flows from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf and is quite a water resource for fishing and recreational boating. All along its banks are displayed a great variety of riverside homes ranging from huge, palatial estates to the more modest mobile homes. I was impressed with it all but I also noted just how low the land was on which that multitude of homes rested. No hills were visible on any horizon. There was no margin of error in any dispute between land and sea. How tenuous an existence it all seemed to be, I thought. A flood from one direction or a flood tide from another, pushed by a hurricane, could already cause billions in damage. A rise of half a meter in sea level would make all of what I could see uninhabitable.

Surely, though the debate over climate change isn’t over, how it is happening, or why, is becoming rapidly moot. It is happening. Age-old complacencies like ancient patterns of life will soon be disrupted and alternatives must be, and will be, found. These changes will ripple around the world and we must prepare ourselves and learn to accommodate what can’t be resisted. Like my flooded basement, we will find a solution.

The damage is done, and we must all now deal with the consequences.

Ronald M. Horvath lives in Camden.


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