06/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rising Sea Levels: Imagining A World Where Land And Water Converge (PHOTOS)

We hear a lot about how to forestall the effects of climate change. Lower your carbon footprints by eating less meat, flying less, changing your light bulbs, and so on until your brain malfunctions. All of this is good. But what if it's all not enough?

It's possible that if we don't get our act together, we'll find ourselves in our worst-case scenario, with sea levels rising beyond our control. I'm not necessarily talking "The Day After Tomorrow" out of control, but enough to drive people out of uninhabitable zones and result in an economic mess. According to the EPA, higher temperatures are expected raise sea levels by expanding ocean water, melting mountain glaciers and ice caps, and causing portions of Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets to melt. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the global average sea level will rise between 0.6 and 2 feet in the next century, depending on how things play out.

It's a grim prospect, and not at all an implausible one, as it's happening to island nations around the world-- Tuvalu, the Carteret Islands and the Maldives are already feeling the effects of rising sea levels. And island nations are not the only ones at risk-- 11 of the world's largest cities are precariously positioned on coasts.

According to Greenpeace, "switching to renewable energy sources, if we do it fast enough, is our only hope to avoid disastrous sea level rise." Unfortunately, moving fast is not a key strength of our governments. British scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock, who formulated the Gaia theory, was interviewed by The Guardian earlier this week on why that is. He boiled it down to one scary observation: Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change.

"I don't think we're yet evolved to the point where we're clever enough to handle as complex a situation as climate change," Lovelock said, adding that our only hope is to prepare for the worst by building defenses against rising sea levels. Lovelock's diagnosis is even more astute in light of recent trainwrecks such as Copenhagen and Climategate, which highlight just how unlikely a global consensus will be. Clearly, the ability to understand the scope of the situation is overwhelmed by our ability to agree on it, putting us in a state of debilitating indecisiveness.

But none of this necessarily means we're doomed to drown in a sea of our own making. While we may not be smart enough to prevent rising sea levels, we just might be smart enough to adapt to their conditions. There are some people who are already envisioning a future that is engulfed by rising seas-- but instead of running for cover, they're asking the waves to bring it on.

These people are architects, designers, and engineers commissioned by New York's Museum of Modern Art to imagine New York City under the threat of rising sea levels and storm surges, and to draw out the city's potential in that context. According to a study by New York City's panel on climate change, the city's sea level will rise two feet by 2080, and that's only a conservative estimate, as other predictions go as high as six feet. New York City's coastal orientation makes it a prime model for how to deal with rising sea levels in a large, thorny metropolis.

The project, called "Rising Currents," dismisses a global governmental approach that has thus far failed to effect change on a longer continuum. Instead, it shows what can happen when local is taken to its most localized level. Barry Bergdoll, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, split New York Harbor up between five architectural teams, each of whom tackled one zone. Bergdoll calls the project "glocal," in that it works on a local level, but has global implications.

He gave the architect's this challenge: "Your mission is to come up with images that are so compelling they can't be forgotten and so realistic that they can't be dismissed."

Each group was assigned a unique proposal, from the creation of salt and freshwater wetlands along the banks of the bay to habitable piers and manmade islands, a Venice-esque aqueous landscape, and a protective reef of living oysters. Imagining these proposals in action revitalizes the city in a way that would alter its architectural and cultural identity. "Climate change is seen here not simply as a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be seized," Bergdoll says.

The five teams came up with solutions that are not only functional, but grounded in an intriguing cultural landscape. They envision a city full of untapped promise, creating a soft edge around it that intertwines land and water. As opposed to traditional ways of dealing with sea level rise, such as putting up barriers that further separate us from nature, this meshing of land and water allows for more ecologically-friendly solutions. Local ecosystems are woven into the designs to create a symbiotic environment between land and sea.

Take, for example, the Working Waterline project, which uses recycled glass from the existing environment to create jacks that both provide a habitat for marine life and stymie waves from crashing into the shoreline. And Oyster-Tecture, which makes use of, you guessed it, oysters, to fuel its design, as the sea creature is capable of attenuating waves, among other remarkable functions. It makes more sense when you see it-- to view all the proposals and the thinking behind them, click through this slideshow:

Rising Currents

"Rising Currents" reveals a new sort of attitude toward climate change-- one that doesn't get bogged down in our current political climate, but that takes this in-limbo moment as an opportunity to find innovative solutions. Local change can be so powerful, and an artistic eye is often able look beyond the functional, structural changes and take into account aesthetics that enhance the spirit of the city. Instead of seeing rising sea levels as a force that will engulf and weaken our coastal cities, it's viewed as a chance to forge a mutually-beneficially bond with our local ocean ecosystems, while building striking new landscapes.

This doesn't mean we should stop assuming any responsibility for our actions and rejoice at the thought of rising seas. However, it's refreshing to envision a world that doesn't have to include sinking cities and ravaged ecosystems, but rather one that is even more ecologically-dynamic and interconnected with its oceans. Whether these plans will be realized remains to be seen, but ideally, they won't spend their last days sitting in a museum.