Impact: The Effect of Climate Change on Coastlines, aerial photographer Alex MacLean’s latest book, captures our Atlantic and Gulf coastal communities at their most vulnerable. Even in a media environment inundated with images of climate change, MacLean’s photos have the ability to shock.
Trained as an architect, MacLean is well-known for his decades-long work photographing landscapes from above. A cursory review of MacLean’s aerial photography shows a fixation with the seams and stitches at the edge of our built environment. Those interstitial zones offer valuable insight into our relationship with rising sea levels. Impact’s photos show us pristine lawns and asphalt driveways grafted on to lagoons, mansions pinned to subsiding cliffs, and suburban housing divisions encircled by tumultuous waves.
Impact’s photos are endowed with an instant nostalgia. Knowing that sea level rise is in the process of re-configuring the pictured landscapes, Impact feels similar to a yearbook, freshly published. “Remember when,” one might find themselves saying while flipping through the images years from now. Remember when Casino Pier extended proudly from the boardwalk at Seaside Heights in New Jersey? The Jet Star roller coaster perched on top, not crumpled in the water like it was found after Hurricane Sandy?
MacLean dedicates a portion of his book to the documentation of hurricane devastation, showing what high winds and flood waters can do to the built environment. But we’ve seen these photos before, haven’t we? And after Superstorm Sandy humbled Seaside Heights, Casino Pier was rebuilt, complete with a new roller coaster, Hydrus. So what lessons does Impact have for us that we haven’t already declined to learn? That depends on the reader, but MacLean’s photos will leave an impression, regardless.
Impact’s most sublime photos are those that maximize nature in the frame. It’s easy to cover the strip of land shown in some if his images with a hand, giving the page over to ocean. MacLean has captured the radical flatness of his coastal environments, where buildings and people are co-planar with the sea.
MacLean expresses slight repulsion at the opulence on display at some of the beachfront communities he photographed. The recreational boating, the ostentatious architecture. He seems to desire that nature be re-grafted back over the development.
It’s tough to argue with him given the glut of development MacLean photographs. Faux-Italian villas situated on barrier islands seems comical. So do the beachfront homes supported by more stilts than there is likely lumber in the house’s frame. MacLean cuts any humor though with images of the aftermath of devastating storms. Stilts remain upright, but there’s hardly a house left to support.
What many of us know and have come to accept is that our foothold in coastal areas is precarious. Most would acknowledge our coasts receding and anticipate our structures drowning. But we count on insurance recouping us. We may even choose to rebuild in hazard zones. Whether these two latter statements remain true, this stance underestimates the willful endangerment we’ve engaged in at the coast.
Perhaps Impact’s most striking photo is of the Sabine Pass liquified natural gas production facility in Louisiana, sitting directly in the path of future hurricanes. When critical infrastructure, energy, and waste facilities are impacted by sea level rise, we will be left with very different, less desirable memories than we hoped for.