When I was a teenager in Tampa, Florida, news of an approaching hurricane was often met with glee, a day off school, and a “hurricane party.” On beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, we would swim and surf as the hurricane narrowly missed us, sending sloppy waves onto the shore. At night, as some slept, others—fueled by the electricity of hormones, drink, and drugs—would dance in the crepuscular water and wonder what lurked beneath. When the clouds gave way to the glare of a Florida sun, the entire experience became evanescent: a dream that we had taken extra care to remember only to find ourselves unable to recall. We felt that melancholy in a silent car on the drive home. The hurricane had come and gone. And, soon, we would do the same. Graduate. Get a job. Start families. A hurricane would soon be cause for alarm and not celebration.
More than a decade later, when I visit Florida, I don’t spend my nights, arms outstretched, yelling into an oncoming gale. I talk with my mother about when she should sell her home, a home that could be underwater before the start of the next century. In 2014, two research teams studying climate change came to the same, saddening conclusion: the decline of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) had become irreversible.1 In the years since I’d celebrated “hurricane days,” climate change had reached “the point of no return.”2 Sea levels would rise. Homes would be lost. Life, as we knew it, had forever been changed. The joy that I once found on Florida’s coast was suddenly disappearing.
In the year following this research’s conclusion, I began traveling beside the more than 1,300 miles of Florida’s coastline to survey how Florida had become psychically charged by its own inescapable future. In a state where three-quarters of Florida’s 18 million residents live within coastal counties that generate almost four-fifths of its economy,3 how does life continue, let alone thrive, in an environment whose future has been so gravely foretold? Climate change and sea-level rise were once slow-motion disasters whose timelines were difficult to comprehend and easy to casually deny. But now, given the certainty of the WAIS’ decline, one of nature’s most destructive forces has finally arrived and there’s little that can be done about it. The collapse of the destabilized ice sheet—along with the many additional factors contributing to sea-level rise—could raise global sea levels by as much as 6 feet by 2100,4 causing Florida’s population living below sea level to increase to 2.39 million.5 As long as humans have stood along the shore, staring toward the horizon, they have felt fear but, often, possibility. Now there is only fear. We no longer look across the ocean. We wait for it to come to us.
Given climate change’s newfound inevitability, depicting climate change isn’t just about showing that it exists (it does) and has affected our lives (it has), it’s also about using photography to understand how the irrevocable state of environmental decline has changed us emotionally and psychologically. A billboard depicting a surfer gliding along a breaking wave becomes a premonition; a family, chest-deep in the Gulf of Mexico on a holiday weekend, becomes a portent. An idyllic postcard sent home from a bygone Florida vacation? Another piece of an expanding archive of blind folly in the face of great tragedy.
When I return to Florida’s coast, I see the shadows of the memories that I made there. Shadows that lighten in relation to the certainty that these places will, one day, cease to exist. Photographing Florida now—through the lens of this foreboding research—is not only an attempt to illustrate that we will lose something, but also an indictment that we already have. When the water comes, we will lose homes, family, and friends, but the great sadness of climate change is that humanity—facing a disaster of its own making—now appears to be hardwired for loss itself. Driving along the Gulf of Mexico, across the Everglades, and up the Atlantic Coast, “The Sea in the Darkness Calls” is a personal meditation on these melancholy whispers through the people and places of “The Sunshine State.” It’s a search for the somber truths about the inevitability of loss, the shame of inaction, and the heavy burden of guilt left in climate change’s now-ineludible path. It’s a love letter and a eulogy to a place that will soon be as spectral as the very memories of it.
1 Gillis, Justin, and Kenneth Chang. “Scientists Warn Of Rising Oceans From Polar Melt.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 May 2014. Web. 06 July 2016.
2 “Ice Sheet In Antarctica Has Melted Past ‘Point Of No Return,’ NASA Says.” Interview. Audio blog post. PBS Newshour. PBS, 12 May 2014. Web. 06 July 2016.
3 “Climate Change And Sea-Level Rise In Florida: An Update Of The Effects Of Climate Change On Florida’s Ocean & Coastal Resources.” The Florida Oceans And Coastal Council, Dec. 2010. Web. 06 July 2016.
4 Gillis, Justin. “Climate Model Predicts West Antarctic Ice Sheet Could Melt Rapidly.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Mar. 2016. Web. 06 July 2016.
5 Climate Central. “Risk Finder: Florida.” [Data File] The Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flood Web Tools Comparison Matrix. http://sealevel.climatecentral.org/ssrf/florida Web. 06 July 2016.
Bryan Thomas is a Brooklyn-based photographer, originally from Tampa, Florida. Bryan graduated from Dartmouth College and worked at GQ Magazine before returning to graduate school and earning his Master of Arts at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication. Bryan works as an editorial photographer while pursuing personal projects across the United States. Bryan is a regular contributor to The New York Times and has been published by The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, National Public Radio (NPR), Frontline (PBS), and Harper Collins, among others. In 2017, he was recognized as one of the top 30 emerging, American photographers in the Magenta Foundation's Flash Forward competition and his most recent body of work, "The Sea in the Darkness Calls" was recognized by Corey Keller, Curator of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in CENTER's Curator's Choice awards. The Royal Photographic Society has also shortlisted three images from this most recent work for 2017's International Photography Exhibition. His work has been recognized by PDN's Photo Annual, American Photography 33/32/30/29, and the NPPA's Best of Photojournalism as well as exhibited at The Museum of The City of New York and The Getty Images Gallery in London.
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