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

In “On the Edge,” photographer J. Henry Fair shows how sea-level rise is slowly eating away at coastal communities and landscapes.

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.

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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.

4349-145, Swept Away, Isle of Palms, South Carolina. Info. [Photo: J. Henry Fair]
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.

In the larger series of photographs, Fair has also visited sites like a nuclear power plant in New Hampshire that was built along the coastline in a wetland and is already at risk from saltwater degrading its concrete walls. Another photo shows housing on stilts in the Alabama town of Dauphin Island, on a barrier island of the same name that already regularly floods. Fair plans to work his way West to places like the Bay Area, where $50 billion in housing is at risk from sea-level rise by 2050. It’s a long-term project, like a previous series that documented the strange beauty of industrial pollution from above. “Since this is both art and activism, I can’t just drop it and move on,” he says. “It’s a lifelong project.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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