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Rising Seas - FREE Feature Download


As the planet warms, the sea rises. Coastlines flood. What will we protect? What will we abandon? How will we face the danger of rising seas?

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By the time Hurricane Sandy veered toward the Northeast coast of the United States last October 29, it had mauled several countries in the Caribbean and left dozens dead. Faced with the largest storm ever spawned over the Atlantic, New York and other cities ordered mandatory evacuations of low-lying areas. Not everyone complied. Those who chose to ride out Sandy got a preview of the future, in which a warmer world will lead to inexorably rising seas.

Brandon d’Leo, a 43-year-old sculptor and surfer, lives on the Rockaway Peninsula, a narrow, densely populated, 11-mile-long sandy strip that juts from the western end of Long Island. Like many of his neighbors, d’Leo had remained at home through Hurricane Irene the year before. “When they told us the tidal surge from this storm would be worse, I wasn’t afraid,” he says. That would soon change.

D’Leo rents a second-floor apartment in a three-story house across the street from the beach on the peninsula’s southern shore. At about 3:30 in the afternoon he went outside. Waves were crashing against the five-and-a-half-mile-long boardwalk. “Water had already begun to breach the boardwalk,” he says. “I thought, Wow, we still have four and a half hours until high tide. In ten minutes the water probably came ten feet closer to the street.”

Back in his apartment, d’Leo and a neighbor, Davina Grincevicius, watched the sea as wind-driven rain pelted the sliding glass door of his living room. His landlord, fearing the house might flood, had shut off the electricity. As darkness fell, Grincevicius saw something alarming. “I think the boardwalk just moved,” she said. Within minutes another surge of water lifted the boardwalk again. It began to snap apart.

Three large sections of the boardwalk smashed against two pine trees in front of d’Leo’s apartment. The street had become a four-foot-deep river, as wave after wave poured water onto the peninsula. Cars began to float in the churning water, their wailing alarms adding to the cacophony of wind, rushing water, and cracking wood. A bobbing red Mini Cooper, its headlights flashing, became wedged against one of the pine trees in the front yard. To the west the sky lit up with what looked like fireworks—electrical transformers were exploding in Breezy Point, a neighborhood near the tip of the peninsula. More than one hundred homes there burned to the ground that night.

The trees in the front yard saved d’Leo’s house, and maybe the lives of everyone inside—d’Leo, Grincevicius, and two elderly women who lived in an apartment downstairs. “There was no option to get out,” d’Leo says. “I have six surfboards in my apartment, and I was thinking, if anything comes through the wall, I’ll try to get everyone on those boards and try to get up the block. But if we’d had to get in that water, it wouldn’t have been good.”

After a fitful night’s sleep d’Leo went outside shortly before sunrise. The water had receded, but thigh-deep pools still filled parts of some streets. “Everything was covered with sand,” he says. “It looked like another planet.”

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Tim Folger wrote about tsunamis for the February 2012 issue. George Steinmetz has photographed 28 stories for the magazine, the last one on Libya.