Almost three months after Hurricane Michael leveled Mexico Beach, Florida, the remains of the destroyed homes still litter the town. Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and was the third strongest (by pressure) and fourth strongest (by wind speed) landfalling storm in the continental United States. It's also emblematic of the increasing strength of hurricanes due to climate change and the ever-increasing temperature of our oceans.

The Sea in the Darkness Calls is a travelogue along the coast of a Florida suddenly and psychically charged by the shadow of irreversible climate change. In 2015, the year following the discovery that the decline of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) had “reached the point of no return,” (1) I began traveling beside the more than 1,300 miles of Florida’s coastline to survey how Florida had been changed by its own inescapable future. In a state where three-quarters of Florida’s 18 million residents live within coastal counties that generate almost four-fifths of its economy, (2) how does life continue, let alone thrive, in an environment whose future has been so gravely foretold? Climate change and sea-level rise were once slow-motion disasters whose timelines were difficult to comprehend and easy to casually deny. But now, given the certainty of the WAIS’ decline, one of nature’s most destructive forces has finally arrived and there is little that can be done about it. The collapse of the destabilized ice sheet—along with the many additional factors contributing to sea-level rise—could raise global sea levels by as much as 6 feet by 2100, (3) causing Florida’s population living below sea level to increase to 2.39 million. (4) As long as humans have stood along the shore, staring toward the horizon, they have felt fear but, often, possibility. Now there is only fear. We no longer look across the ocean. We wait for it to come to us.

A storm gathers above the Indian River in Titusville, Florida. As the earth warms and sea level temperatures rise, the overall number of hurricanes has dropped but their size and intensity has increased.

People play in the Atlantic Ocean in Miami Beach, Florida.

Given climate change’s newfound inevitability, depicting climate change isn’t just about showing that it exists (it does) and has affected our lives (it has), it’s also about using photography to understand how the irrevocable state of environmental decline has changed us emotionally and psychologically. A billboard depicting a surfer gliding along a breaking wave becomes a premonition; a family, chest-deep in the Gulf of Mexico on a holiday weekend, becomes a portent. An idyllic postcard sent home from a bygone Florida vacation? Another piece of an expanding archive of blind folly in the face of great tragedy.

Construction begins on the Auberge Beach Residences & Spa in Fort Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. The residences, which feature the artwork of Fernando Botero, range from $1.5 million to $9 million. The streets of nearby Fort Lauderdale regularly flood during "king tides" and, according to Climate Central researcher Benjamin Strauss, "even if we could just stop global emissions tomorrow on a dime, Fort Lauderdale, Miami Gardens, and Hoboken, New Jersey will be under sea level."

The sun sets over Daytona Lagoon water park in Daytona Beach, Florida. By 2030, up to to $69 billion in Florida coastline property, not at risk today, will likely be at risk of flooding during high tide. By 2050, that value will increase to almost $152 billion.

Tarisha Johnson poses for a portrait on the Daytona Beach Boardwalk in Daytona Beach, Florida. Florida's tourism industry, the main economic generator in places such as Daytona Beach, could lose as much $178 billion annually due to climate change related issues.

When I return to Florida’s coast, I see the shadows of the memories that I made there. Shadows that lighten in relation to the certainty that these places will, one day, cease to exist. Photographing Florida now—through the lens of this foreboding research—is not only an attempt to illustrate that we will lose something, but also an indictment that we already have. When the water comes, we will lose homes, family, and friends, but the great sadness of climate change is that humanity—facing a disaster of its own making—now appears to be hardwired for loss itself. Driving along the Gulf of Mexico, across the Everglades, and up the Atlantic Coast, The Sea in the Darkness Calls is a personal meditation on these melancholy whispers through the people and places of “The Sunshine State.”It’s a search for the somber truths about the inevitability of loss, the shame of inaction, and the heavy burden of guilt left in climate change’s now ineludible path. It’s a love letter and a eulogy to a place that will soon be as spectral as the very memories of it.

Erik Tatum holds a lizard in Apalachicola, Florida. Tatum, an oysterman and shrimper, camps in a small tent next to the boat he works on because Apalachicola's famed seafood industry has been decimated by drought and rising sea levels caused by climate change.

A sand sculpture sits on Miami Beach in Miami, Florida. Miami has been referred to as “ground zero when it comes to sea-level rise" and, with more people living less than 4 feet above sea level than any U.S. state other than Louisiana, Miami Beach recently spent $400 million on new stormwater pumps to help an outmoded sewer system keep out seawater.

RJ Bailey and his uncle, Wayne Bailey, pose for a portrait outside of Carrabelle, Florida. Like the nearby Apalachicola - once renowned for its oysters - Carrabelle's oyster industry has been decimated by drought and rising sea levels caused by climate change.

Esmeralda Garcia, Kali Cedeno, and Anthony Cedeno pose for a portrait in Destin, Florida. As humans continue to pollute the environment, our "sea level debt" grows. Sea level debt is the long-term sea level rise that we cannot avoid. In Destin, given current trends in pollution, 50% of the city will be underwater by the year 2070.

Kathy Hall is baptized on Easter Sunday in the Atlantic Ocean at Crescent Beach, Florida. Several miles from this beach, Old A1A - the highway that runs along Florida's east coast - ends abruptly due to erosion from ocean tides. If projections are correct and there's a sea-level rise of 9 ft when the destabilized West Antarctic ice sheet collapses, this beach would become a thin sliver of sand amongst the ocean.

A mural on a bedroom wall at the Magic Beach Motel in Vilano Beach, outside of St. Augustine, Florida.

1. “Ice Sheet In Antarctica Has Melted Past ‘Point Of No Return,’ NASA Says.” Interview. Audio blog post. PBS Newshour. PBS, 12 May 2014. Web. 06 July 2016.

2. “Climate Change And Sea-Level Rise In Florida: An Update Of The Effects Of Climate Change On Florida’s Ocean & Coastal Resources.” The Florida Oceans And Coastal Council,Dec. 2010. Web. 06 July 2016.

3. Gillis, Justin. “Climate Model Predicts West Antarctic Ice Sheet Could Melt Rapidly.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Mar. 2016. Web. 06 July 2016.

4. Climate Central. “Risk Finder: Florida.” [Data File] The Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flood Web Tools Comparison Matrix. Web. 06 July 2016. 


Bryan Thomas is a Brooklyn-based photographer and a recent recent finalist for The 2019 Arnold Newman Prize For New Directions in Photographic Portraiture. Bryan graduated from Dartmouth College and worked at GQ Magazine before earning his Master of Arts at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication. His most recent body of work, “Sunrise/Sunset,” was featured in 2019’s PDN Annual, awarded the Daylight Photo Award, and exhibited at The Aperture Foundation and The Griffin Museum of Photography. Bryan’s self-published zine, “The Sea in the Darkness Calls,” is held in the libraries of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. His work has been recognized by PDN's Photo Annual, American Photography, and the NPPA's Best of Photojournalism as well as exhibited at The Museum of The City of New York and The Getty Images Gallery in London. Bryan is a regular contributor to The New York Times and has been published by TIME, The New Yorker’s Photo Booth, Bloomberg Businessweek, Topic, The Intercept, The Wall Street Journal, Los AngelesTimes, CNN, National Public Radio (NPR), PBS’s Frontline, Harper’s Magazine, Newsweek, WIRED’s Backchannel, The Guardian, The Chronicle of Higher Education, BuzzFeed, and Harper Collins, among others. 

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