The Sea Will Wait
The sea is rising. Around the world, people check tide gauges, monitor the shore, watch the waves. And we observe that the water is higher than it was. Sure, in a few places the land is moving upward even more rapidly, such the Hudson Bay Lowlands, so recently released from their glacial burden. But globally there is no question: the sea is rising.
People are building dikes. Engineers are designing tidal barriers, planning new sea walls. We humans are an optimistic species; our can-do attitude has made us what we are today. We can solve this problem! We have done this sort of thing before. After all, the Acadians drained and diked the Tantramar hundreds of years ago. Early last century the Dutch dammed the Zuiderzee and reclaimed land in the polders, and just a few decades ago the English built the Thames Barrier. We can defeat the sea. We have the ability.
But the sea will watch. Its sun-dappled waves may wash gently on the shore, but they are like a flicking watery tail, and just over the horizon a monstrous salty cat is plotting its next move. The sea will wait.
Maybe we will not be able to save low-lying Third World islands like those of Tuvalu. What hope do we have that funds will be found to prevent the Bay of Bengal from sweeping across the low coast of Bangladesh? What hope is there that millions of people on west African deltas will not be displaced?
But here in the West it is different, surely! After all, New Orleans is being rebuilt, isn’t it? And America has the resources to relocate people from the low-lying land of South Florida! And Venice might be sinking, but I’m sure that the Italian government will block the sea!
We can save those treasures now, we can save them next year. But what will the world be like in 50 years? 500 years? 5000 years?
The sea will always wait. It will wait with anticipation while ice sheets calve into the great northern and southern oceans. It will wait comfortably while its waters warm and expand. It will watch patiently for its chance, and that chance will come. It is steadfast and resolved, while we are mercurial and easily distracted. Sooner or later we will be transfixed by war, or plague, or recession. We will let down our defences and the sea will come in. Maybe in some places this will be an all-out assault, a tsunami or hurricane-driven wall of water that will suddenly roar across a low-lying coast. But elsewhere it will be a gentle lapping trickle creeping from the estuary up the back streets, while no-one notices from the windows of half-darkened houses.
Have you ever been looking at the sea from far out on a tidal flat, and suddenly come to the horrible realization that the water is already behind you, threatening to cut you off completely from the land? The tide moved so quickly, and yet you probably didn’t perceive it until it was almost too late. Did you have to dash to make it to shore before you were soaked? The sea has the capacity to do that to coastal humanity. More slowly, but on a tremendous scale. And we are largely a coastal species. The effects will be immense, greater than any of the catastrophes that affected us in the last eventful century.
I stand at a roadcut, by a highway in the centre of North America. All around me are layers of sediment, laid down over millennia by ancient seas that came and left, came and left. How could we possibly think that the waters will never come here again?
The sea will always wait. Its patience is infinite. It has all the time in the world.
© Graham Young, 2012