Oped by Sarah Heins

What do I do when my home is gone? I ask myself this question daily. It’s not a new question for me, it’s been a fear of mine since I learned about sea level rise. But in recent years the question has changed. In the past I would ask myself,  “What do I do if my home is gone?” Now the if has become a when.

I am a Long Island resident born and raised. My daily experience involves seeing as many bays, oceans, and canals as sidewalks and streets. Now I am faced with the crushing reality that by the turn of the century, the bodies of water where I’ve found so much peace and solace will overtake the only home I’ve ever known.

I am by no means ignorant enough to think that my family and I might be  the only ones losing their homes to the devastating effects of climate change. One just has to look at the record breaking wildfires currently occurring in California to see how destructive a force the climate crisis can be. How heat and drought, both natural cycles in their own right, can cause such chaos, and create toxic air quality that is spanning the globe. The water wars happening  in the Middle East because of massive droughts and acidification are more indicators of what is to come. We can’t forget tropical storms and hurricanes, which have been shown to increase in intensity and linger longer as a result of climate change, causing far more damage wherever they hit.

But there is something far more sinister about sea level rise that haunts me more than fires and storms — the permanence of it. Fires and storms can destroy homes, -neighborhoods, even entire ecosystems, but they eventually fade and there is time to rebuild. Even in aridified environments there is hope that one day weather patterns may shift again and water will return to the region. If the sea level rises and the ocean decides to claim a piece of land for itself, there is little to no remedy for that. It’s like the countless shipwrecks scattered across the ocean floor — once the ocean decides to claim you, there is no way to fight its might. 

I do not want to give the false illusion that Long Island is the only place at risk of succumbing to sea level rise, or even that it would be the first. As I’m writing this thousands of people have had to flee their homes in low lying countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives because of encroaching water, and in the next thirty or so years, the number will likely become millions. Long Island isn’t unique, as part of a  so-called “first world” country, for  being in danger of disappearing forever. Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, London, Shanghai, Mumbai, Tokyo, and countless other cities around the world are all at risk of becoming permanently inundated with water, displacing hundreds of millions and forcing them to seek refuge.

Long Island after a hurricane. Coast Guard photo

But there are two factors that make the situation of Long Island unique. The first of these is its composition. It’s home to New York City’s two most populous boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens. They also serve as it’s most ethnically diverse locales, with Queens taking the title of the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world. It’s home to white picket fences and perfectly manicured lawns. It’s home to sprawling mansions and gardens, the likes of which inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to write The Great Gatsby. It has acres upon acres of sprawling vineyards for anyone who fancies a wine tasting. It houses tons of farms and farmers who partake in back breaking labor everyday just to get by, but live not even an hour from the millionaires paradise that is the Hamptons. It’s beaches and forests, rich and poor, urban and rural, all mixed together in some weird yet stunning amalgamation of the human experience shoved onto just over 1,000 square miles. To lose Long Island would be to lose so many different versions of the human experience that could never be reclaimed.

For me, the idea of losing Long Island to sea level rise is even more impactful when I think  about how this island came to be. As the last ice age was ending a massive glacier slid along the eastern coast of the United States and dropped tons of rocks, sand, and other sediments, leaving Long Island behind before becoming part of the sea. The island has stood ever since. In a painfully beautiful twist of fate, it was the melting of ice that formed this land and it will be due to melting ice that will make it disappear. The difference is, one was caused by nature — the other by us.

Long Island may not ever become completely submerged. If we act now to fight climate change and curb our greenhouse gas emissions, we could likely save the higher parts of the island. Leaving miniature islands to remind us of what once was, the land that we lost. But also of what we can do, how it’s never too late to make a change, and that saving some is better than saving none. These islands would speak to the power and strength of humanity, our willingness to fight and fix disasters, even the ones we’ve caused.

This is what I hope becomes of Long Island. Rather than a distant memory buried under the waves, I want it to become a beacon of human progress —  of what we can do when we all work together. I want it to be a reminder of the difference we can make if we all care a little more.

Alas, I am not a psychic or a fortune teller, and these may all just be dreams that never come to fruition. So until the day I see true changes being made, I’m going to listen to the science and the future that it’s predicting where the island I’ve known my entire life will be consumed by the sea. This brings me back to the same question I had at the start of this piece: what do I do when my home is gone?