We are accustomed to hearing about catastrophes that change life in an instant—an earthquake, a fire, an explosion. But there is a catastrophe that is playing out in slow motion, measured out over the course of years, decades, and centuries. And it’s happening now.
The culprit is not so much nature as ourselves. Our catastrophe has to do with dependence on fossil fuels, which has sparked a chain of events that has warmed the atmosphere and oceans and melted glaciers and continental ice sheets, and consequently raised sea levels.
One estimate says that by 2070 the coastal flooding that will result from this rise may affect nearly 150 million people living in port cities. “We have irreversibly committed future generations to a hotter world and rising seas,” says author Tim Folger in this month’s cover story.
Because there are no computer models or scientists to tell us with certainty how fast and how much the seas will rise, it is a challenge to illustrate this story and telegraph the problem’s urgency. You could say it requires a leap of faith in imagination that is grounded in fact. In telling this story—and others on the same subject that we have published—we have worked with the best scientists, illustrators, writers, photographers, and cartographers to bring clarity to complexity. We know the characters in this unfolding drama: the oceans, the vanishing glaciers and ice sheets, the ever more destructive storms, like last year’s Sandy. It’s just that we are trying to tell a story with an unwritten end.