Monday, November 21, 2011

A Snapshot of Climate Change - the Morris Island Lighthouse

A student in my Natural Resources Law class is writing a very interesting article on coastal erosion, the public trust doctrine, and takings. She passed along this interesting photograph of Morris Island, SC. As you can see in the image, moving left to right, the lighthouse was originally constructed 1200 feet onshore, then in 1938 was on the coast, and is now, well, in the ocean.

Morris Island1

Here is another fascinating image taken from Google Earth (you can see the faint description of the "Morris Island Lighthouse" just to the right of the center of the picture):

Morris Island2

Our coastal areas have always been dynamic, but that dynamism will only become more apparent as sea levels rise. These images of Morris Island should give us pause. Over the last three decades, nearly half of all new construction in the United States has been in the coastal zone, and approximately fifty-three percent of the total U.S. population lives on the seventeen percent of land in the coastal zone. By 2000, counties along the coast had more than four times the population density of counties further inland.  By 2020 an additional twenty-seven million people are expected to call the coast home (see here for citations). As a result, sea levels rising at exponential rates (over geologic time scales) will meet head-on with a rush of humans heading at exponential rates right into the face of rising sea levels—an ironic scenario that demonstrates the circular nature of human psychology related to climate change and sea level rise. Humans exacerbate climate change through the emission of copious quantities of carbon, and as a result sea levels rise; then humans move in disproportionate numbers into areas likely to be inundated by rising sea levels; then society expects governments to alleviate their difficulties after it becomes apparent that their structures will be out to sea. Hopefully we can take proactive actions to prevent more and more human-built structures from being consumed by the most vast natural resources on the earth - our oceans.

- Blake Hudson

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