March 6, 2011

Temporal Disconnect: An Underwater Oceanographic Institution?

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Martha’s Vineyard oceanview, Cape Cod, November 2008.

I was walking along the beach today in Woods Hole here on Cape Cod. I wanted some fresh air and felt like collecting some seashells. You always find the best seashells in the winter. There’s no one else on the beach, usually, so the biggest, most beautiful seashells will just be waiting for you there on the sand, perhaps tangled in some seaweed. As I walked the beach and looked for shells, I thought about how in the next century or two– at most– all of Cape Cod will be underwater.

I find it somewhat ironic that Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI)– one of the leading research institutions studying oceans and climate change– will be one of the first places to go underwater once sea level rises, as it is currently doing and will continue to do over the next hundred years or so. The institution is built on the low-level glacial till of Cape Cod, and most of the scientists have offices with an ocean view. In the summer the scientists and graduate students often go down to the beach for a quick swim. Building an oceanographic instituion on the ocean makes sense, but if WHOI scientists and trustees were smart they’d begin investing in some property in the hills of New Hampshire. Why? Because that’s where the new oceanfront property will be not so long from now.

The scientists here at Woods Hole are very environmentally aware. The scientific parking lot is cluttered with bicycles and compact hybrid cars, a great contrast to the Land Rovers and SUVs that fill the nearby Martha’s Vineyard Ferry parking lot. Most people you encounter here acknowledge that climate change is occurring and that sea level will rise significantly in the near future.

Almost everyone here would agree that Cape Cod will be one of the first places to go underwater when sea level does rise significantly. However, no one seems to worry about the location of the oceanographic institution. At least, they don’t worry about it on a day-to-day basis. The scientists take their lunchtime strolls along the beach and play with their expensive mass spectrometers and PCR machines in their multi-million dollar labs. No one seems too worried about having to move all of these fancy labs and scientific equipment once sea level rises.

I am sure that at times Woods Hole scientists must wonder about what will happen to the oceanographic institution once Cape Cod is underwater.Yet, it is difficult to really worry about the institution on a day-to-day basis, even for those scientists who are actively studying climate change. I’ll speak now for myself: while I intellectually recognize that the sea is rising– and rising fast– I cannot wrap my mind around the effect of sea level rise on my own life. When I look at the ocean, I don’t see it rising. One day’s ocean does not appear different from the next day’s. Sea level rise occurs fast on the geologic timescale but still occurs quite slowly on the human timescale.

Human minds have not evolved to think on geologic scales. We are very well-adapted to thinking on the scales– both physical and temporal– that apply to our own short lives. If one cannot actually see the sea rising or anticipate it rising significantly within her own lifetime, it is difficult to become alarmed. One may have minor concern for one’s descendants, but that gut reaction of “Wow! The sea is rising, so I’d better run away” just doesn’t happen for an ocean that rises on the order of millimeters per year. You just can’t see the change occurring nor anticipate- in a gut way- its future influence on your life.

Honestly, I think this is why the issue of sea level rise and climate change is so difficult for many people– myself included– to become worked up about. I am a first-year graduate student now in the program at Woods Hole. I will graduate in four to five years**. Very likely, Woods Hole will not be underwater in five years. After I graduate, who knows where I may end up? So, I find it challenging to become concerned about sea level rise here on Cape Cod, at least in my daily life and routine. Once the waters are lapping at my office door, then I’ll become alarmed.