Islands and Whales

In folktales from various cultures there are tales of sea animals so big, that they get mistaken for islands. In some stories, sailors land on them and spend time on “land” before realizing that they are actually on top of a living, breathing animal. These islands accordingly appear and disappear, rise and sink into the ocean frequently. In the Irish Legend of Saint Brendan, Brendan of Clonfert, a monch and fabled navigator, and his disciples land on a giant sea creature called Jasconius. “Because of its size, Brendan and his fellow voyagers mistake it for an island and land to make camp. They celebrate Easter on the sleeping giant’s back, but awaken it when they light their campfire. They race to their ship, and Brendan explains that the moving island is really Jasconius, who labors unsuccessfully to put his tail in its mouth.”

In mythology sea animals often trick humans into believing that they are on safe, solid ground. But equally often, they rescue people from floods and offer their bodies as rescue boats. See for example the tale about the fish Matsya here.

Lighthouse Retreat

In 2019 this 120 year old lighthouse on the denish coast had to be moved 70 meters back

The 23-meter-high lighthouse is located on a cliff about 60 meters above sea level. When it was put into operation, the cliff was about 200 meters from the sea. In the end, it was only six meters to the cliffs.

What seems like a looney idea from a Uncle Scrooge comic, is happening all over the world. (see my post on comics here) We will see many more cultural heritage sites on wheels like this in the years to come.

To read more about the Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse, go here.

There’s a whole series of images from similar buildings here.

Climate Catastrophe pictured in 1986

Already in 1986 the well known German news-magazine Der Spiegel published this image on it’s front page. It depicts the Dome of Cologne, one of the most important cultural heritage sites of Germany, partially flooded. The visual strategies of the media have not changed much in the last 35 years!

This is the same German magazine 10 years later.

I can’t say whether the change in motiv is due to a hightened awareness of the global interconnectedness of the issue or because Germany hosted the 1. UN Climate Change Conference that year.

The last 400.000 years

This is from the New York times in 1959.

thanks to Janet Grau for the lead!

Conshelf or the Precontinent Project

Continental Shelf Station was an attempt at creating an environment in which people could live and work on the sea floor. Precontinent has been used to describe the set of projects to build an underwater “village” carried out by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his team in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea between 1961 and 1963. The projects were named Precontinent I, Precontinent II and Precontinent III. Particularly Precontinent II off the sudanese coast received wide public recognition and was documented in a movie with the somewhat sensationalist yet eerie title “World without sun“. For a good overview of the project see: or

thanks to Lajos Talamonti for the lead!

Underwater City 1969

The british movie “Captain Nemo and the underwater city” by James Hill picks up the themes and main character Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s famous novel and the sucessfull 1954 Disney movie on the same material. While the earlier US-movie develops further the theme of the Atomic Age and it’s promises and dangers, the 1969 movie focuses on the idea of alternative, egalitarian communities and the then popular dome structures (gedesic dome) in architecture, the Montreal Biosphere built by Buckminster Fuller in 1967 being maybe the most influential and notable expample.

The underwater city in the 1969 movie
The Montreal Biosphere

Each movie thus reflects the topics of it’s time. While the 1954 version is stylistically much closer to a Fin de Siecle, 19. Century aesthetic, the 1969 movie is all 60’s glitz and extravaganza. Furthermore, in the 1969 movie life under water seems like a perfectly sane and technically achievable project, while in 1954 Captain Nemo still clings on to life on land.

This is a fundamental not only technical but also political shift: The idea of leaving the known world behind, going up in space or down into the sea or exiling yourself in an alternative community is now fully developed. The Apollo Program that brought humans into space ran from 1968 to 1972. And in 1963 Jacques Cousteau constructed an underwater station where he stayed with a team of scientists for 30 days. The civilized world had thus become one of several options.

While the screen shot above shows a view of a complete city, it remains the only moment in the movie when the underwater city is actually seen. The action almost exclusively takes place in the rooms of Captain Nemo and in a swimming pool leisure area that looks more like it was directly taken from Blake Edward’s Hollywood satire “The Party” from one year earlier than like anything resembling a city. No houses, no streets, no stores or any other features of an urban environment are depicted.

It seems that the city as a theme and topography of movies did not play a big role in the 1960’s, quite to the opposite of the era of pre-war cinema. (Take for example “Metropolis” from 1927 about another model city run by a benevolent autocrat. See my post here) . The same mixture of artificial wilderness, tropical allure and wild west or pirate movie elements, all covered by a huge dome, can also be found in today’s indoor water parks like Tropical Island near Berlin:

A covenant to keep the forces of chaos at bay

The book of Jeremiah in the Hebrew Testament discusses at large an ecological crisis around 600 BC in the so called “Fertile Crescent” (a region encompassing today’s southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and parts of Turkey and Iran). According to Michael S. Northcott in his book “A moral Climate” the crisis was brought about by agricultural over-exploitation of the land. The book of Jeremiah can thus be regarded as another climate narrative. The peoples of the Fertile Crescent were river peoples, their culture thrived on the waters of three rivers: Euphrat, Tigris and Nile. The ocean on the other hand was “seen as the primeval source of chaos, and this perhaps presents a cultural memory of prehistory in which the oceans had covered far more of the land than they have since the end of the last ice age,” writes Northcott. “For Jeremiah, the covenant that Yahweh made with the Israelites after their release from slavery in Egypt was therefore a cosmic covenant in which human work on creation ought to recognise the sustaining creative powers of the Lord of the earth in keeping the forces of chaos at bay:

Do you not fear me? says the Lord;
Do you not tremble before me?
I placed the sand as a boundary before the sea,
a perpetual barrier which it can not pass;
though the waves toss, they can not prevail,
though they roar, they can not pass over it. [Jeremiah 5:22]”

In this passage from the ancient text, the sand on the beach is seen as the creative invention of the deity to keep the ocean where it belongs and the land with it’s human habitats where it belongs. It’s part of a greater deal, so to speak. In 600 BC the ocean did not rise over the beach. In the present however, humans have not only begun to destroy beaches worldwide by extracitivist exploitation, the seas also rise. How do we then read the current situation from a Jewish, Old Testament perspective?

The intertidal zone: New York 2140

What happens to cities when they become half or seasonally flooded? Kim Stanley Robinson draws a picture of an intertidal New York of the future, where New Yorkers still live in high rises and move across the city on boats and bridges. But there is also a jurisdical aspect to the intertidal zone. Here is one of many sections of his book New York 2140 that discuss the politics and philosophy of living in an intertidal zone:

That said, the intertidal zone was turning out to be harder to deal with than the completely submerged zone, counterintuitive though that might seem to people from Denver, who might presume that the deeper you are drowned the deader you are. Not so. The intertidal, being neither fish nor fowl, alternating twice a day from wet to dry, created health and safety problems that were very often disastrous, even lethal. Worse yet, there were legal issues.

Well-established law, going back to Roman law, to the Justinian Code in fact, turned out to be weirdly clear on the status of the intertidal. It’s crazy to read, like Roman futurology:

The things which are naturally everybody’s are: air, flowing water, the sea, and the sea-shore. So nobody can be stopped from going on to the sea-shore. The sea-shore extends as far as the highest winter tide. The law of all peoples gives the public a right to use the sea-shore, and the sea itself. Anyone is free to put up a hut there to shelter himself. The right view is that ownership of these shores is vested in no one at all. Their legal position is the same as that of the sea and the land or sand under the sea.

Most of Europe and the Americas still followed Roman law in this regard, and some early decisions in the wake of the First Pulse had ruled that the new intertidal zone was now public land. And by public they meant not government land exactly, but land belonging to “the unorganized public,” whatever that meant. As if the public is ever organized, but whatever, redundant or not, the intertidal was ruled to be owned (or un-owned) by the unorganized public. Lawyers immediately set to arguing about that, charging by the hour of course, and this vestige of Roman law in the modern world had ever since been mangling the affairs of everyone interested in working in—by which I mean investing in—the intertidal. Who owns it? No one! Or everyone! It was neither private property nor government property, and therefore, some legal theorists ventured, it was perhaps some kind of return of the commons. About which Roman law also had a lot to say, adding greatly to the hourly burden of legal opinionizing. But ultimately the commons was historically a matter of common law, as seemed appropriate, meaning mainly practice and habit, and that made it very ambiguous legally, so that the analogy of the intertidal to a commons was of little help to anyone interested in clarity, in particular financial clarity.

You can read the full book here.

Thomas Cole: The Course of Empire (1833)

English-American painter Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848) created a series of five images depicting the rise and the destruction of an imaginary coastal city. The series is entitled “The Course of Empire”. Above, the fourth painting depicts the catastrophy and destruction of the city. Cole imagined here a junction of various man made and natural disasters: Insurgence, war, fires, storms and a flood.

In the final, fifth image the scene is set several decades after the destruction. Here nature has reclaimed the urban landscape and there is a peaceful, maybe even idyllic calm to the scene. From today’s point of view, this seems like an environmentalist comment on our current debates.

Neromanna – A film about a sunken community

Athens based artist collective Latent Community produced this wonderful film about the story of Kallio in Fokida, Greece, a village that was expropriated in 1969 and was covered in 1981 by the waters of the artificial lake created by the Mornos Dam for use as a reservoir for the city of Athens. The lake has been the main source of water for the Greek capital ever since. The community got dispersed, many of the people of Kallio now living in Athens themselves.

I was lucky to meet Latent Community in their studio in Athens and discuss the impact of flooding on the collective psyche of a community and the political implications of Athens incessant thirst for fresh water.