High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Costal Crisis

By John Englander

The Science Bookshelf | 2012 | 219 pages

Reviewed by Steven Paul Leiva

Last October, as tropical storm Sandy was slowly forming itself into Hurricane Sandy some 600 miles south of Jamaica in the Caribbean—not yet on anybody’s mental radar but certainly on the actual radars of scientists—oceanographer John Englander was probably grabbing some well-deserved rest. He had just, twelve hours earlier, digitally sent his book, High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crises, to Amazon to be listed for sale the very next day.

In the book he had written, “Despite the massive potential danger, one can envision New York City being defended against 20 or 30 feet of sea level rise...I don’t want to minimize the challenge for New York City, they are legitimately concerned about the impact of sea level on tunnel and subway entrances. Also, the other four boroughs of the city have significantly lower elevation exposures.”  

Englander said that “one can envision New York City being defended against 20 to 30 feet of sea level rise,” because the defenses to allow that to happen have not (“yet” one hopes) been put into place. And so the only nearly 12 foot sea level surge that Sandy—now given the media made moniker of “Superstorm”—caused in Lower Manhattan had exactly the impact on tunnels and subways that Englander mentions.

This projection and then immediate realization of crises might be considered an interesting coincidence, maybe even an amusing one, if it wasn’t a deeply alarming and sad one. It is almost as if Hurricane Sandy came into being to add a rather devastating exclamation mark to Englander’s main thesis in his book: that it is time to wake up, it is time to pay attention, and it is time to do something.

Not that Englander presents this in any harsh or strident manner. Indeed, High Tide is not an alarmist, the-sky-is-falling book, but rather a calm and considered detailing of the data leading to the fact—not fancy—-- that the sea level is rising. And will continue to do so for the next thousand years. Although Englander makes it clear that this is due to global warming speeding up, and that that—and the very fact that it is even happening when the planet should actually be in a cooling trend—has been the direct consequence of the massive amount of carbon dioxide that humans have thrown into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels over the last hundred years, he does not moan and groan and beat his chest and declare what awful creatures we humans are.

Rather, he seems aware that human-caused global warming is more a consequence of the exponential expansion of our knowledge and understanding of physics and the mechanics of the universe that has taken place in the last five hundred years, than any black-soul malicious intent. How would it have been possible for humankind not to have exploited its new knowledge to gain a better control over our environment—if I may use that word—to create a life more easily and comfortably; more competently and efficiently led?

 Life was always well understood to be short and brutish, it would have been unnatural, given our propensity to expand our natural abilities through tool-making, not to seize the opportunity to make it longer and more, what we have come to call, humane. That this enthusiastic and energetic exploitation of knowledge of how things work has led to dire consequences, Englander presents not as a horror to assign blame for, but simply as a fact to be dealt with.  

And, indeed, as he says, “This may seem like a bleak forecast, but the success of our species is intricately linked to our ability to adapt. If we have the courage to look at our future, we can make it a livable one.”  

In other words, humankind’s intelligence (and all that goes with it) that got us in this mess, is exactly what we need to call on to adapt to it and survive.

From this nonjudgmental position Englander has written a short, concise, and precise book detailing the facts of global warming; the difference between long-term global change and day-to-day meteorological conditions; the ancient and recent history of sea level rise and its causes; and projections of future sea level rise, both if we do nothing or do something about it.

And he lays out the consequences of sea level rise, which are substantial whether we do something or stubbornly do nothing about the problem. For no matter what we do, both the melting of the Arctic ice cap, indirectly, and the melting of the vast ice sheets of Greenland and the Antarctica, directly, has set the sea level rising for the next one thousand years. It will be, he says, “The single most profound geologic change in recorded human history.”  

 Englander declares that we cannot at this point stop sea level rise, we can only try to mitigate its impact by lessening as much global warming as possible. And we need to prepare our “densely developed coastal society” for a reality where much of coastal land as we now know it—although smartly defended for as long as possible, it is hoped—will have to be abandoned over the coming centuries as populations withdraw from disappearing islands and changing coastlines.

This will take individuals, investors, corporate leaders, and governments to both plan and execute what Englander calls Intelligent Adaptation. It can be done, Englander states, but it will take dispassionately understanding the facts and pragmatically acting on those facts while dropping political polemics. It will take the effort of heroes from all walks of life who will admit to no discussion of villains.

 Even oil companies Englander refuses to cast as black-hearted for they, “Help meet our vital energy needs. They are providing a valuable service that we depend on. Our power needs are not going to reduce magically, and the replacement technologies will take a long time to develop and implement....”

Englander prefers to see business not as an enemy, but as half of the healthy partnerships with government that “will be essential to our ability to adapt.” For it is not some magical reversal of the dire consequences of sea level rise, but rather as much mitigation of, and intelligent adaptation to, those consequences, that he is calling for.

Of course, to make such a call is easy, to do is far more difficult—and perplexing as the task is so daunting. Englander, however, does not leave us high and dry on the problems of being low and wet. In the last section of the book entitled “What We can Do,” he covers a number of practical efforts for defending our coasts as long as we can and for preparing for, and adapting intelligently to, the substantial changes sea level rise will cause. He also details how new technologies paired with political and personal will can slow the rise of the sea, and ease our way into a future of challenges.

High Tide on Main Street is an intelligent, pragmatic, and useful book full of data presented simply, clearly, and never dryly. It is a well-structured book for ease of comprehension, and you will not get lost among the information.  Englander never presents the problems of sea level rise as anything less than urgent, but also never with the voice of panic.

It is exactly what anyone interested in the future of our existence on this planet should read, absorb, and use to make personal decisions of how to lead a life; how to design business and corporate strategies that contribute to the intelligent adaptation he says we need; how to make local and national decisions if you are an elected official, and, most generally, how to best use your fundamental democratic rights as you enter into the voting booth.

Truly, a book for everyone.

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