The Sea Approaches

The Doppler radar showed a perfect pinwheel of storm clouds spinning off Cape Hatteras on the coast of North Carolina, drawing energy off the warm waters of the Gulf Stream: a nor’easter. Down on the ground, on the asphalt shoulder off US 50’s rumble strip on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, I could feel the storm growing. My bicycle was fully loaded for the cross-country ride, with four bags, a tent, and a headlight just turned on.

I had retired as a climate scientist the month before, after listening to the largely illusory debate about climate change for much of my career. The short version is that there’s very little argument among scientists. It’s for real. So I thought maybe I could just ride my bike across the country and talk to people about it. The mantra was from Animal House: “This calls for a stupid and futile gesture on someone’s part, and I’m just the guy to do it.” And perhaps I could see climate change better from ground level.

My ride to Oregon was westbound, the direction of the pioneers. But for a true coast-to-coast journey, I needed to ride east three days from my home in Maryland to dip my tire in the Atlantic. Stopping in Annapolis to warm up at the Naval Academy Museum, I read from an exhibit on John Paul Jones: “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way.” Except for the fact that my bike was slow and I rode timidly, JPJ and I were pretty much on the same page.

By the next day alongside the rumble strip, the east wind of late March was blowing dead into my face, light rain starting to sting. Low grey clouds scudded over the horizon. I was warm enough with legs spun up into a steady riding rhythm, but if I stopped it would get very cold, very fast. This wouldn’t be a fun night to camp out, so I needed to make it to the motel in Denton, Maryland. The wind was picking up. Ten miles out, I was making ten miles per hour. Six miles out, I was at six miles per hour. No matter how hard I worked, I was an hour away. This was getting irritating.

As the rain began to sweep across the road, I balled up, got low on the bike, and slugged through it. I also forced myself to be hyperconscious of traffic, knowing that my rig was a yellow dot on someone’s streaky windshield. Cold, grey miles inched past. Then, paradise in red plastic: Pizza Hut; Best Western.

The Denton exit came into view. I got under the motel’s white aluminum awning and shook the water off like a spaniel. The woman at the front desk peered over her glasses and watched as I generated puddles on the check-in counter. Later on in the room, I left a sopping pile of clothes on the bathroom floor and let the shower dump steaming water over my skin. I decided to lie down on the bed for a moment. Three hours later, dinnertime was almost past. It was with some pleading that a last-call pizza was delivered.

After a pure black night’s sleep, I awakened feeling battered, aching, stiff. Heading down the corridor for breakfast, the odor was hard to place at first, but there it was: hair spray. Clouds of it. And giggles and screeches coming from the theatre-sized meeting room up ahead. Little girls in sparkly dresses and shiny shoes were scooting by, jittery moms in tow with cans of hair spray poised, ready to fire. I was walking through a toddlers’ beauty pageant. They sure do dress funny, thought the old guy in spandex.

Outside, the morning was brisk and clear, the sky washed clean after the storm. I flew across the flat fields of Delaware, driven by a tailwind toward the ocean.

Concetta had come to meet me at a bed and breakfast in the coastal town of Lewes. It was sweet and civilized, with big soft quilts and a bottle of wine. The next day we rode together through the salt marshes and scrub forests of the state park at Cape Henlopen. Once over the last dune, we pedaled into a bright cloudless vista at the shore, my lady and I, with a lighthouse in the distance. The Atlantic. It was westbound from here.

Before driving back to Maryland, we took a side trip not far up the Delaware coast to a place where climate and the rising sea are on display: a pretty little beach community called Prime Hook. There wasn’t much there—a little store, an ice cream stand, a park, and some beach houses strung along the shore, the kind of place where you’d imagine spending a barefoot summer. But it has a problem: it’s a barrier island, and a little lower than most. The high tide line came just below the dunes. Driving onto the island, the access road was inches above the level of the bay.

Prime Hook’s predicament comes into better focus with a visit to the next island north, Fowler Beach. Fowler is abandoned and now part of a wildlife refuge. The access road leads to a small parking lot, with shards of asphalt strewn about. A section of guardrail from the road hangs out into space over the beach. Clearly there used to be much more land here. On either side of the lot are breaches in the island, new inlets formed in a storm in 2008. The bay behind Fowler was a fresh water impoundment a few years ago, but now salt water moves in with the tides through the many inlets.

The problems facing barrier islands aren’t limited toDelaware, or the Atlantic coast, or North America. They’re very much tied to the warming climate. Global sea level is rising relentlessly almost everywhere. Melting glaciers account for about half of global sea level rise, which is recorded by satellites over the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. The satellites can actually measure the weight coming off the land as the ice melts. As the ocean warms, it expands, which also adds to sea level rise. Again, satellites have shown the distinct rise over the last twenty years, and measurements of tides at the water’s edge show that the oceans have been rising since back into the 1870s at least.

The future doesn’t look good for Prime Hook, or for other low-lying barrier islands of the East and Gulf Coasts. Disaster will come in the form of a hurricane like 2012’s Sandy, or a nor’easter like the one I rode through, or a garden variety winter storm that sends homes into the ocean and punches a new hole through the island. Although Hurricane Sandy only gaveDelaware a glancing blow, it was brutal for Prime Hook, severing the access road and flooding dozens of houses, as well as creating new inlets in Fowler Beach.

Consider Sharps Island in the Chesapeake Bay, mapped by John Smith in the 1600s and home to a grand hotel with six gables in the early twentieth century. Now the hotel is gone and the island itself long washed away. The leaning, rusted steel lighthouse is all that remains, presiding over a three-foot shoal. Regardless of our best efforts, this is the fate of our low-lying barrier islands.

There are many good reasons to stop loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, not the least of which is to put the brakes on sea level rise. The link between carbon dioxide, global warming, and sea level rise is quite firm. Over our lifetime, storms like Sandy are bound to become more familiar, and people will tire of rebuilding structures only to be washed away again. (But not yet. As of this writing, a $38 million Corps of Engineers project has been approved to put sand in the island breaches.) Not far from Sharps Island Light is the deep channel of the Chesapeake Bay, a remnant of a river valley in the last ice age. We are now creating the estuaries of the next geological era.