A couple of nights ago, I carried a beer outside with me and walked around in the moonlight for a long time. I strolled down the empty, light-dappled road, admiring how the moon flared in the mossy branches above me. I danced around in circles a little because no one was watching and my moonshadow was too perfect to ignore. Eventually I came to the edge of the Salmon River Estuary and sat on the dock for an hour or so, just listening to the night and tanning myself in the eerie light of the moon. I could hear the occasional traffic whooshing past like traincars in the mist way off where the highway cuts across the river. It was low tide, and all the channels carved in the mud by outflowing water shone silver. After a long time, I noticed that the silence I thought was raging in my head was actually the sound of surf echoing in from the mouth of the river. I had been so intent on listening to the little noises all around me on the exposed bottom of the estuary—squirting muck where clams were doing their dark business, the thwap of seals throwing their flippers around in the shallow water, the burble of the turning tide—that I hadn’t even registered the bigger soundscape around me. Clearly, some big forces were at work.
Why has the moon been so exceptionally irresistible these last couple of nights? Why did the estuary seem so especially drained and otherworldly, shining with mud where there should have been water? Well, it turns out it wasn’t just the lonely romantic in me fabricating a night of magic out of ordinary ingredients. Something special really has been going on.
In the early months of winter, the moon is closest to the earth, which means that high tides on the Oregon coast are higher than usual—and, correspondingly, the low tides are particularly low. This explains why, when I drove past it today, the estuary was filled to the brim like a stein of good beer and why, the night of my moonwalk, the whole basin appeared to have been emptied like a bathtub unplugged. The situation puts me in mind of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, in which the narrator reminisces about the days when the moon was much closer to the earth. People would row out in boats and climb ladders into the sky, and the moon’s gravity was strong enough to pull them up (or down, rather?) to its surface. The moon has long since drifted away from our world . . . or has it?
The extreme tides that come when the moon draws closest to our planet are known as “King Tides.” They only occur a few times each year, and they can provide valuable insight into ocean level trends. A little research revealed that there’s a local project called the Oregon King Tides Initiative, which aims to visually document the reach of these highest tides from year to year. The project is designed to “help visualize and understand the impacts of sea level rise in the coming decades. These are especially important to document in the winter when storm surge, and high winds and waves are more frequent, creating even higher water levels,” reads the description on their website. It’s a citizen science project, which means the visual data comes from everyday folk who want to play a hand in recording our changing world, one tidal extreme at a time.
Why would you want to take the time to take a picture of a stupid beach? It’s my belief that shifting baselines are a huge global issue. How many fish, really, were there before the collapse of the Northern Cod fishery? We can never know. The Basque fishermen who harvested cod off the Grand Banks hundreds of years before Columbus ever came to the new world certainly never conducted a population study. Just how big was that glacier a century ago? A decade ago? Without photographs, it’s hard to say. As humans, we perennially experience “cultural amnesia” when it comes to shifts in our environment. If, each generation, our high tideline is just a little bit higher, but no one bothered to record the status quo at the turning point when our world’s polar regions first started boosting sea levels—or made an effort to keep track of it along the way—then we won’t have any way to talk intelligently about what, exactly, has changed, and by how much. I’ve heard it compared to a frog being slowly boiled, such that it doesn’t know to jump out of the pot. We won’t recognize danger if change happens slowly enough.
Additionally, there’s something very striking about seeing—actually visualizing—change over time. Charts and reports are all well and good, but when it comes to big planetary drama (ocean plastic, superstorms, sea level rise), a picture really does speak a thousand words.
In summary: baselines are important. And they can’t be set without participation, so I decided to jump in (literally), and help out:
I snapped a shot down the road from where I’m living at the Sitka Center (this way, even if I’m not around next year to record data for the site I chose, hopefully someone else here can carry the torch without too much difficulty). I recorded my GPS location, noted the direction I was facing, and sent the photo off to the folks at the King Tide website. I even tried setting up a timelapse to capture the change of tide, but when I came back six hours later my phone had died. But points for effort, right?
If you’re intrigued, even if you don’t live in Oregon, you can put in some effort, too! This month’s high tides can be monitored through tomorrow (October 29th), and there will be two more opportunities this year: one from November 24-27 and another from December 23-26. If you do live in Oregon, you can submit your photos right here. And it’s easy enough to look up your own state’s King Tide photo project. The initiative is in place all up and down the west coast (California, Washington, BC), as well as in several states on the eastern seaboard. There’s an international website, too. Essentially, if you live in a tidally-influenced area somewhere on Planet Earth, you can find a way to contribute. And if you don’t live near the coast just yet . . . well, give it a few more years. Winter—er, sea level rise—is coming.