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Photos

How Designers Are Responding to Rising Sea Levels

A haunting photo exhibit shows the steps people are taking to adapt to the angry ocean.

A woman walks along a new sea wall in Sendai, Japan, after a tsunami crushed the region in 2011. (Paula Bronstein/Annenberg Space for Photography)

As the global climate continues to warm, sea levels around the world are growing higher and higher. How will the millions who live on coastlines respond to this grave threat: Tax breaks for boat owners? Everybody moving to Nebraska? The spontaneous growth of dorsal fins?

With damaging floods and steamrolling storm surges, we're already getting a taste of what the havoc that swollen oceans can bring. And in a great-looking exhibit at L.A.'s Annenberg Space for Photography, we can see some of the unique, crafty, and sometimes frantic things that civilization is doing to cope with the looming waterworld.

"Sink or Swim," which opens December 13, is the rare disaster show with an uplifting twist. Its organizers want to highlight designers who are working to combat, or at least adapt to, the hazards of global warming. Annenberg commissioned photographers to document Japan's hugely expensive new sea walls (pictured above), a sustainable development project in post-Katrina New Orleans, and a stilt house-dwelling community in Benin that is experiencing nasty flooding. Of course, there are also disturbing images of carnage in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan, so we never lose sight of what could become frequent calamities if carbon emissions aren't drastically cut.

Here's a bit more detail on the exhibit:

In the face of increasing global attention on climate change and rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Superstorm Sandy, and the Tohuko tsunami, Sink or Swim is a timely examination of resiliency strategies in architecture and design. Images range from highly complex coastal flood-mitigation in the Netherlands, controversial sea walls in Japan, to innovative homes and community buildings by leading architects including Pritzker prize-winners Thom Mayne, Toyo Ito and Shigeru Ban.

Below, find a selection of photos Annenberg shared with CityLab.

The Watervilla de Omval is a floating domicile in Amsterdam that wouldn't need to be raised to avoid rising waters. (Iwan Baan)
A man does work on the roof of a structure somehow not destroyed by 2013's Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest sea storm known to hit the Philippines. The typhoon's storm surge measured up to 23 feet high inland, while at the coast waves towered at 46 feet above sea level. (Paula Bronstein)
Bangladesh is at the top of the list when it comes to countries threatened by rising sea levels. Local organization Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha operates a fleet of solar panel-clad libraries, clinics, and schools to tend to people trapped by flooding. (Jonas Bendiksen)
In 2011, Thailand was inundated by its worst flooding in five decades; more than 800 died and millions were displaced. Here, flood victims push a raft past a portrait of the King of Thailand. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
The tremendous tidal surge of 2012's Superstorm Sandy sucked a roller coaster into the ocean in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. (Stephen Wilkes)
In New Orleans' hurricane-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward, there's now a community development whose buildings use 75 percent less energy than typical structures. The Holy Cross Project incorporates rain harvesting, solar and geothermal power, and home-monitoring systems that show a resident's real-time energy consumption. (Stephen Wilkes)
The stilt houses in Benin's lake village of Ganvie are both a tourist attraction and an innovative way to survive on a temperamental floodplain. However, even this community was imperiled recently by some of the worst flooding in Benin since the '60s. (Iwan Baan)
A closer look at a stilt house in Ganvie, Benin. (Iwan Baan)
In Bangladesh, jute harvesters seek drier land during a river flood. The Magnum photographer who took this shot says a "simple adaption in flood-prone areas is building every house on a 2-meter tall mud plinth." (Jonas Bendiksen)
Heavy rain led to this de facto river flowing through the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2009. (Jonas Bendiksen)
A lonesome TV washed up on the beaches of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, after 2005's Hurricane Katrina. (Stephen Wilkes)

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.