BY LEAH JOANNA HOWITT

I love the water: the way it moves, the pure deep colors, the mind-bending vastness of it. In my mind, the solution for anything really is salt water; whether it be through ‘sweat, tears, or the sea’ (Karen Blixen).

Last week however, I learned about the deadly power of water. A friend and I visited one of our favorite museums, The Annenberg Space for Photography. The current exhibit is called “Sink or Swim: Designing for Sea Change,” and tells the story of communities that are organizing to going create resilient solutions in the face of inevitably rising sea levels.

It’s easy to think of oceans as indestructible; they are so huge, so intangible. Seemingly our last frontier, oceans are gigantic and terrifying mysteries that hold so many answers and open up so many new questions. Yet the addition of excess CO2 into our fragile atmosphere has caused vast changes in our ecosystems, combining a rise in temperature with melting ice caps and glaciers, extreme weather over our oceans, and sea level rise lapping at our coasts. All of these changes are contributing to an overall increase in our sea levels, along with more frequent and powerful storms and hurricanes that gain energy from warmer water.

The “Sink or Swim” exhibit focused on coastal communities, which are particularly vulnerable to these effects. Communities like these are far from unusual; in fact, close to 40 percent of the world’s populations live within 100 kilometers of the coast.

One of the most at-risk populations can be found in Bangladesh, a small country about the size of Louisiana but with a population close to that of Russia. The Annenberg exhibit had an astonishing array of photos taken here, depicting compelling scenes of people walking to school or work waist-deep in water.

Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen, Annenberg Space for Photography

Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen, Annenberg Space for Photography

Scientists predict that by the year 2050, rising sea levels will flow over about 17 percent of the land, forcing 18 million people away from their home. In the face of these harsh statistics, people in Bangladesh are making innovative architectural changes. For example, the organization Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha has built floating schools that can rise with the water. Sangstha is finding ways to work with the water, potentially saving many lives while also preserving the bond Bangladesh has with the coastal ecosystem that has sustained its people for generations. The water was here before humans, but if we respect it, we will not be completely at its mercy.

"Floating School" by Jonas Bendiksen, Annenberg Space for Photography

The Annenberg exhibit specialized in highlighting these acts of perseverance, rather than sinking into the desperate and terrifying facts surrounding climate change. Yet, despite these innovations, the facts I saw were still extremely disheartening. Even if climate change could be stabilized today, sea level will rise for the next 100 years. Most of the photographs were shocking, especially those of destruction caused by hurricanes. A frustrating aspect of the exhibit was that no advice was given on what visitors could do to help after they left. After doing some research when I got home, it seems that minor contributions definitely help. For example, reducing personal waste is important because garbage buried in landfills produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas. What do you do to mitigate your carbon footprint?

Submerged roller coaster after Hurricane Sandy. Photograph by Stephen Wilkes

For those interested in seeing the exhibit firsthand, it is located close by, off Santa Monica Blvd. The museum is free, and is open Wednesday through Sunday: Annenberg Space for Photography - 2000 Avenue of the Stars Los Angeles, CA 90067

 

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