The Coastal History Blog 25: “The Encroaching Coast”

Most people wouldn’t associate northern Indiana with shipwrecks, but Lake Michigan has its share of them.  The J.D. Marshall sank in 1911, where it remains, just a stone’s throw offshore from the Indiana Dunes State Park.  It was a “sand sucker,” employed in pulling up sand from the lake bed for industrial use.

The J.D. Marshall was a bit player in a larger drama, as miles of Lake Michigan shoreline were reshaped and conscripted into the service of heavy industry, as a haunting set of photographs from the 1910s shows.  The town of Gary, Indiana became the home of one of the world’s premier steelmaking facilities; the remains of that infrastructure, in slightly updated form, dominate the coast even today.

I don’t expect to see any glamorous Hollywood films or major museum exhibits about sand suckers any time soon, but the existence of such ships should remind us of a side of coastal life that’s often forgotten.  I wonder how many cubic feet of material a single sand sucker would displace over the span of its working lifetime. [1]

I’ve written before in this blog about the massive re-engineering of coastlines to serve human needs, whether this means creating white sandy beaches ex nihilo or generating “coastal squeeze” when we pack the shoreline with infrastructure, and refashion the sea bed for the convenience of ever-larger ships.  Mark Monmonier’s book Coast Lines highlights a different phenomenon: The inconvenient truth that unplanned inundations and encroachments are chewing away our coastline at an increasing rate. [2]

Monmonier, a cartographer, describes the very first map to show how climate change could impact a major city.  This forecast of a planetary greenhouse effect appeared in the Annual Review of Energy in 1980.  (Yes, almost 35 years ago.)  Steven Schneider and Bob Chen wrote that in this scenario, “one could launch a boat from the west steps of the United States Capitol… and row to the White House South Lawn.”  The black-and-white map showing the National Gallery and many other DC landmarks swallowed by a much enlarged Potomac tidal basin failed to capture the imagination of many people at the time.

More recently, of course, the conversation has shifted away from “what if…” to “now that…”  In October, the Boston Globe ran a piece entitled “When island nations drown” discussing whether a fully submerged nation could continue to exercise sovereignty over its “exclusive economic zone.” [4] In the case of Kiribati, a sprawling Pacific nation encompassing many islands, its “land area is about that of Kansas City, while the ocean territory it controls is larger than India.”  The lawyers are already sharpening their (metaphorical) pens on this one.  Could Kiribati, within our lifetime, become the first economically important “deterritorialized state,” occupying no land but receiving revenues from its fishing grounds?

While the example of a flooded nation is especially vivid, the problem of who owns, controls, and benefits from submerged real estate may be especially urgent and complex in the case of partially sunken cities.  An underwater golf course is probably not going to bring in a lot of revenue as such, but don’t expect investors to kiss their money goodbye without a fight.  What will creative, desperate entrepreneurs do with water rights in strategic locations?

Ironically, just days after the Boston Globe ran its story on sunken islands, the BBC reported on some serious plans to revamp Boston itself along the model of Venice.  Tactfully entitled “How Boston is rethinking its relationship with the sea,” the article discusses the idea of turning the Back Bay neighborhood into a series of canals. [5] This part of Boston was, in fact, underwater until the 1850s.  Even with steam-powered equipment, it took twenty-five years to fill it in.  Not surprisingly, this low-lying area is now particularly vulnerable to tidal surges.

Contemplating the fate of this upscale neighborhood in which even a one-bedroom basement flat may cost $1 million, one planner said: “The way we solve this has to be vibrant, livable, exciting and enhance our quality of life.”

I suppose there will always be people coming out on top and making a profit.  Stories about high tech, outside-the-box solutions to sea level rise will be popular, but I don’t envision many of these investor’s daydreams coming true for—say—Bangladesh.

We have spent the past century rearranging our coast.  It seems that the coast will spend this century rearranging us.



[1] In practice, sand suckers seem to have often been repurposed older ships in their last years of service.

[2] Mark S. Monmonier, Coast Lines: How Mapmakers Frame the World and Chart Environmental Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[3] Monmonier, Coast Lines, 136.

[4] “When island nations drown, who owns their seas?” Boston Globe, October 19, 2014.

[5] “How Boston is rethinking its relationship with the sea.” BBC News Magazine, October 26, 2014.

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