2009-07-02 / News

Island Lookout

By Stephen Heffner
Jamestowner and URI oceanographer Art Spivack commissioned a study last year to explore what Rhode Island might look like if global warming melted all the glaciers and ice sheets on Earth. The study produced a map showing a 220- foot rise in worldwide sea level that would put most of the state south and east of Route 95 under water–including every square inch of Jamestown.

“The good news is that it would take hundreds of years,” Spivack said. He left open the question of what we can expect in the nearer future, though conservative estimates peg the ocean’s rise at approximately three feet during the next 90 years. Hotter-headed glacier huggers say the sea will climb a full 20-feet any minute now. Even modest projections of ice melt include predictions of serious infrastructure problems: flooded subways, backed up sewers, waterfronts marching inland.

Beyond the big disruptions– Manhattan turning into Venice– there will be subtler problems that will mess with things as basic as everyday language, and with some of our most common physical and cultural yardsticks.

Take Denver, Colorado, for example. Through boom and bust, there always was one thing civic boosters there could rely on: at 5,280 feet above sea level, Denver was the “Mile High City.” But if sea levels rise, Denver loses altitude. Planning ahead, city officials recently appealed to the public for help in drafting backup slogans. Early returns include: “Still Pretty Hightown,” “Plenty Of Kilometersburg,” “Way Up There In Dog Miles City” and “Used To Be A Contenderville.”

Even something as imposing as Mt. Everest won’t be immune from shrinkage. It is still listed at 29,028 feet above sea level, but as the cubes in Cocktail Earth dissolve, Everest will shed stature. British adventurer George Mallory was once asked why he would risk climbing the Big E. He replied only, “Because it’s there”–the magnitude of the challenge so self-evident that nothing more needed saying. A few years from now in a watered-down world, an Everest visitor might answer, “Because I’ve got a couple of hours free this afternoon.”

How about the old expression, “tip of the iceberg”–the idea that the visible part of the berg is nothing compared with the giant, much-scarier chunk below the surface. But in a warmed world, the only ice left will be in your freezer, so the metaphor will likely change from a warning about dangers unseen to an admonition to believe what’s in front of you. For practice, let’s try out the new parlance on current events–say, the Republican plan for economic prosperity. “Lowering taxes on the wealthy is just the tip of the iceberg.” Meaning: That’s pretty much the whole plan.

In Jamestown, the melted future will include a reassessment of local place names. Some will gain significance, including Narragansett Avenue, which, instead of merely terminating at the edge of Narragansett Bay, will dive straight in at each end, creating two snappy new boat ramps in the process. Another example: the East Ferry Deli, whose name will become even more apropos as ferries dock at the front door and passengers go in for coffee from a gangplank.

Then there’s the Bay Voyage Inn, where guests will be able to relive history. The place got its name, remember, from having been floated over on a barge from Middletown in the late 1800s. In the waterlogged future, daily bay voyages could become a prominent feature of the hotel’s amenities.

On the other hand, several renamings might be in order. We’ll have to wait to see, for example, whether East Shore Road stays on the shore or drops into the shallows. Same for Seaside Drive, depending on whether it remains at the seaside or ends up in the sea. As for the tenacious Clingstone house in the East Passage, all we can do is hope for the best: “Cling on!”

At the south end, I see a fight brewing between two old rivals: the Sheffields and the Mackerels. The town beach, you see, will be one of the first places to go under in the Great Melt, erasing the barrier between Sheffield Cove and Mackerel Cove. The result: One continuous body of water and two clans ready to duke it out over naming rights. And it probably won’t be long after that before the Beavertail Island lobby starts demanding independence from Conanicut.

Back in town, Steve Liebhauser will be able to stand pat if he wants to, as his restaurant is probably far enough up the hill to stay out of the flood. Still, he might consider making it easier for visitors to find the place by changing the name from Slice of Heaven to Sliver of Dry Land.

Finally, there’s the venerable Zeek’s Creek Bait & Tackle shop, which, even in the current Pre-Melt Period, hovers in precarious proximity to high tides. A few degrees Fahrenheit into the future and the bait might be swimming directly into the store. But Greg Zeek says he’s got a plan.

“I’ve been saving all the styrofoam and plastic bottles that wash up around here, and I’m going use to the stuff to turn this place into a floating Dunkin Donuts for people in boats.”

Nice. I reminded him that there’s likely to be a new North Road Bridge to span the expanded marsh. “Good,” he said, “then I’ll open a toll booth and a floating donut shop.”

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