Elizabeth Rush. Photograph: Stephanie Ewens
One of the few stories I remember from the Bible vividly depicts the natural and social world in crisis. It is the apocalyptic narrative par excellence Noahs flood. When I look it up again, however, I am surprised to find that it does not start with a rainstorm or an ark, but earlier, with unprecedented population growth and Gods scorn. It begins: When human beings began to increase in number on the earth. I read this line and think about the 6,000 inhabitants of south Florida turning into 6 million in 120 short years. The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become. I think about the exponential increase in M&Ms, Chobani yogurt cups and grande lattes consumed over that same span of time. The dizzying supply chains, cheap labor and indestructible plastic. So God said to Noah, I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. And then the rain began.
I do not believe in a vengeful God if God exists at all so I do not think of the flood as punishment for human sin. What interests me most is what happens to the story when I remove it from its religious framework: Noahs flood is one of the most fully developed accounts of environmental change in ancient history. It tries to make sense of a cataclysmic earthbound event that happened long ago, before written language, before the domestication of horses, before the first Egyptian mummies and the rise of civilization in Crete. An event for which the teller clearly held humans responsible.
Dig into geologic history and you discover this: when sea levels have risen in the past, they have usually not done so gradually, but rather in rapid surges, jumping as much as 50 feet over a short three centuries. Scientists call these events meltwater pulses because the near-biblical rise in the height of the ocean is directly correlated to the melting of ice and the process of deglaciation, the very events featured in the documentary footage Hal has got running on a screen above his head.
He shows us a clip of the largest glacial calving event ever recorded. It starts with a chunk of ice the size of Miamis tallest building tumbling, head over tail, off the tip of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Then the Southeast Financial Center goes, displaying its cool blue underbelly. It is a coltish thing, smooth and oddly muscular. The ground between the two turns to arctic ice dust and the ocean roils up. Next, chunks of ice the size of the Marquis Residences crash away; then the Wells Fargo Center falls, and with it goes 900 Biscayne Bay. Suddenly everything between the Brickell neighborhood and Park West is gone.
The clip begins again and I watch in awe as a section of the Jakobshavn Glacier half the size of all Miami falls into the sea.
Greenland is currently calving chunks of ice so massive they produce earthquakes up to six and seven on the Richter scale, Hal says as the city of ice breaks apart. There was not much noticeable ice melt before the nineties. But now it accelerates every year, exceeding all predictions. It will likely cause a pulse of meltwater into the oceans.
Photograph: Milkweed Editions
In medicine, a pulse is something regular a predictable throb of blood through veins, produced by a beating heart. It is so reliable, so steady, so definite that lack of a pulse is sometimes considered synonymous with death. A healthy adult will have a resting heart rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute, every day, until they dont. But a meltwater pulse is the opposite. It is an anomaly. The exception to the 15,000-year rule.
From 1900 to 2000 the glacier on the screen retreated inward eight miles. From 2001 to 2010 it pulled back nine more; over a single decade the Jakobshavn glacier lost more ice than it had during the previous century. And then there is this film clip, recorded over 70 minutes, in which the glacier retreats a full mile across a calving face three miles wide. This is why I believe we are witnessing the beginning of the largest meltwater pulse in modern human history, Hal says.
As the ice sheets above Hals head fall away and the snacks on the buffet disappear, topography is transformed from a backwater physical science into the single most important factor determining the longevity of the Sunshine State. The man seated next to me leans over. If what he says is even half true, he whispers, Florida is about to be wiped off the map.