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Rising Seas

Rising Seas

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?

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...

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