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Must Charleston become Atlantis, or is there a way out?



College of Charleston


Must Charleston become Atlantis, or is there a way out?

“But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune... the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.” Plato

Sarah Shtessel


Walking through Charleston, I try to imagine what the city would look like underwater. The fountains would probably look less majestic. The cannons at the Battery would look silly and out of place. If Charleston sinks into the ocean, humanity may need to forget the narrow, winding streets of cobblestone and brick, the pastel historic houses and the charming streetlamps that caress the sidewalk in the evening with a warm, orange glow. Only the tops of church steeples will be visible, sticking out the water like any ordinary twig.

Much like Atlantis back in the day, Charleston is considered a major cultural center due to its economic, social, and political importance. It was voted as the number one tourist destination in the U.S. for the fourth year in a row, and as the number two in the world, by the readers of the Conde Nast Traveler. Moreover, Charleston was dubbed “Silicon Harbor” due to the rapid increase of technology and engineering companies in the area. Politically, Charleston is the center of racial tensions and Southern liberalism, making it an important microcosm for American politics.

And much like Atlantis, Charleston will sink into the ocean. Charleston is especially in danger because it is below sea level. This means that Charleston floods easily, as was recently demonstrated by the flooding caused by Hurricane Irma. With time, Charleston will flood more and more easily than it already does as sea levels rise. The National Air and Space Administration (NASA) estimates that since 1992, sea levels have risen by a total of 86.4 millimeters, or 3.4 millimeters per year. Although 86 millimeters may not sound like a large increase, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has found that rising waters have caused for 20 square miles to be eroded by the ocean all along the east coast. Therefore, much of the land in and around Charleston will erode over the next twenty to fifty years.

Losing Charleston will be a major bummer for the country, and yet the city is not taking major steps to stop erosion. Before 2013, homeowners on Folly Beach were not allowed to build seawalls to protect themselves from rising sea water, and were forced to vacate their houses or to rebuild houses deeper inland. Due to receding beaches, homeowners built them anyway and so voted to remove those regulations. In addition to seawalls, the city re-nourishes the beaches every year by adding sand. Although seawalls and re-nourishing beaches are important steps to protect against rising water, these are temporary responses that bandage, not solve, the erosion problem.

Does Charleston have to whither away? No, it does not. Charleston needs to learn from the Netherlands. Several years ago, the Netherlands was facing a similar crisis as Charleston, catching the attention of the New York Times. Much like Charleston, Rotterdam is below sea level and slowly sinking. It was a swamp that was filled in to increase land for agriculture and housing. Since then, the city has had to deal with flooding and waterlogging. However, the city does not try to block the water. Rotterdam uses the Nieuwe Maas River to its advantage, a philosophy they call “Room for the River.”

In Rotterdam, buildings, such as garages, are constructed as emergency reservoirs in case of sewage overflow. Fountains, gardens and basketball courts are built to act as retention ponds. Rotterdam has also constructed the Maeslantkering, a giant floodgate designed as swinging arms that open and close in order to regulate water flow. The arms of the floodgate also act as seawall, protecting the city from tides or flooding. All these installations work to guide flooding and use the water for the advantage of the city. Moreover, the projects are designed to help poor communities and encourage economic growth. For instance, increased investment in poor communities catalyzes business growth and creates jobs. Local businesses use their expertise to sell environmental solutions all over the world, increasing GDP through exports. Meanwhile, the gate catalyzes trade by protecting the port, which is a hub of steel and petrochemical trade.

Charleston cannot give in to the water. The threat is increasing every year as greenhouse gases increase in the atmosphere and the Antarctic glaciers melt. Nor can the city choose to use temporary fixes that it used before, such as raising the city level by three feet or building seawalls. We need to learn from the Dutch and make “Room for the Ocean.” Charleston needs to invest in long-term solutions. Charleston does not need to be Atlantis. We can be so much better.