Aug 20, 2019

The East Coast is sinking under water—this photographer is documenting it as it disappears

St. Helena Sound, Green Pond, SC
Adele Peters
Fast Company
ACE Basin, St Helena Sound, South Carolina. Info. Photo: J. Henry Fair
ACE Basin, St Helena Sound, South Carolina. Info. Photo: J. Henry Fair

As climate change pushes sea levels higher around the world, the water is rising especially fast along the East Coast of the U.S. as the land simultaneously sinks. In low-lying Charleston, South Carolina, where the local sea level was first measured in 1921, the water has risen around a foot in the intervening century—and even when the city isn’t facing a hurricane, city streets already regularly flood.

In a new photo series, photographer J. Henry Fair is documenting American coastlines before the worst impacts of climate change happen. A new book, On the Edge, focuses on his home state of South Carolina, where Fair worked with local pilots, flying over cities, suburban developments, and wetlands to take aerial shots near the water’s edge. “South Carolina is one of the states that will be hardest hit by sea-level rise,” says Fair, who plans to photograph the rest of the country’s coastal areas. In one image, taken in a development south of Charleston, one condo building looks like it’s already in the water. “You think, what planning board approved this?” he says. Another image shows a sprawling shipping terminal filled with shipping containers, also at risk of flooding.

A 2018 report from the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that sea-level rise could put more than 300,000 coastal homes in the lower 48 states, worth $117.5 billion, at risk of chronic flooding over the next three decades. Another 14,000 commercial properties are at risk. By 2100, 2.4 million houses and more than 100,000 commercial properties, collectively worth more than $1 trillion today, could be at risk if emissions aren’t curbed.