man in a red jacket standing next to a red sculpture by the water
COURTESY LUKE ODONNOVAN

Six Art Installations Making Sea Level Rise Visible

Around the globe, artists are reckoning with climate change and finding new ways to render the impacts of rising seas legible.

Such is the scale of the climate crisis, and the devastation it is wreaking, that it can be challenging to comprehend. How to bring the centuries of damage we have done, and are doing, to our planet to life, when effects like sea level rise may not be explicitly visible in real time?

“Quite often on the news you’ll see these graphs showing sea level rise and flooding levels, and it can be quite hard to grasp the magnitude of it all,” says architect Andre Kong. “With something that devastating, how can you understand what it actually looks like and what it actually means?

colorful sculptural instillation points to rising sea level
High Water Mark by Curry Hackett and Patrick McDonough in Washington, D.C.

“It got me thinking about how relaying that information with an actual physical object could create a much more meaningful and memorable experience. An experience that might force people to sit down, reflect, and maybe even act.”

Kong is one of several architects, designers, and artists who have taken on the challenge of bringing visibility to the climate crisis through their work. While their projects vary in scale, location and typology—from benches to abstract art installations, light shows, and even typefaces—they all share a common purpose: to warn, to inform, to evoke feeling, and, most of all, to make us realize what we stand to lose by doing nothing.

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Here are six of them.

a red painted bench raised high above ground level
COURTESY LUKE ODONNOVAN

A Cautionary Benchmark

Andre Kong Studio

As a direct response to the London Festival of Architecture’s 2022’s theme “Act”, Kong has designed a modular bench in the city’s Royal Docks. Strikingly, it is set on two levels. One is for use now, while the other is set an unreachable 8.5 feet above. This, scientists predict, is the level the water could reach during a severe tidal storm here in 2030, and as such is where you would need to sit to escape the flood.

Reclaimed metal components—destined to be recycled when the project is one day disassembled—have been used, with a red pattern evoking cumulative high level water marks and suggesting increasing risk level. The bracing itself points towards the higher level, “the wrong trajectory.”

According to Kong, the bench acts as a cautionary tale, “the same way Greek tragedies did in the form of performance, to shape a communal behavior or attitude.” 

a woman dancing on a beach surrounded by clear cylinders filled with sea water
COURTESY ANA TERESA FERNANDEZ

On the Horizon

Ana Teresa Fernández

This touring installation—which has appeared on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach and at Playas de Tijuana on the US/Mexico Border—is formed of sixteen acrylic resin cylinders, filled with seawater. Each stands six feet high at the water’s edge, demarking the future level of the sea.

Fernández, an artist, has said the project is intended to prompt reflection. While beautiful and immersive, with light refracting through the tubes, it asks people to think about who and what they would dive down to rescue if the water is allowed to rise this high.

“I have witnessed art be the ignition for folks to leap into action,” she says. “Unlike the flatness in which statistics and data are often presented to us, the multi-dimensionality, materiality, and true essence of art, architecture and design is what is needed for us to experience things in a somatic way. That is what will awaken us.” 

a sculpture located by a river that flows under a highway overpass
COURTESY CURRY HACKETT AND PATRICK MCDONOUGH

High Water Mark

Curry Hackett and Patrick McDonough

Created by a pair of designers and artists and located across Washington DC, the High Water Mark project consists of a series of sculptures located within a floodplain; encouraging people to consider their readiness for the reality of sea level rise. 

Totemic, color-coded “infographics”—inspired by traditional water marks and maritime flag conventions—stand twelve foot tall on Kingman Island and in Marvin Gaye Park. They indicate historic storms that hit the U.S. capital.

Another sculpture, backed by the city’s Department of Energy & Environment, has opened on The Wharf. It is formed of several buoys that represent future storm scenarios. A 100-year projection is suspended 6.2 feet above ground level, while a 500-year buoy floats 9.6 feet in the air.

a person standing by a light installation
COURTESY OSSIP

Waterlicht

Studio Roosegarde

Dutch design firm Studio Roosegaarde has produced many projects that draw attention to the climate crisis and promote clean air, clean water, clean energy, and clean space. 

One touring project, called Waterlicht, uses a combination of LEDs and lenses to create an ever changing “virtual flood” that moves in response to wind and rain and demonstrates visually how high the water level could reach. 

Studio founder Daan Roosegaarde says: “We first have to imagine a better future. Only then can we create it. People won’t change because of numbers. But if we can trigger curiosity for a better world, that’s how to activate people. Art can be that activator. 

“I don’t believe in utopia, but in protopia; improving the world around us step by step.”

a light installation in a coastal town
COURTESY TIMO AHO & PEKKA NIITTYVIRTA

Lines (57° 59′ N, 7° 16’W)

Timo Aho and Pekka Niittyvirta

Another installation that plays with light, in this case a bright beam that is triggered by a sensor during high tide and which marks how high seas are predicted to rise by the end of the century. 

It was first located in the UK’s Outer Hebrides, and then again on a beach in Miami—both coastal locations where predicted storm surge levels could cause devastation.

According to the two Finnish artists behind it, Lines “explores the catastrophic impact of our relationship with nature and its long-term effects.”

In an interview with Artists & Climate Change, they say: “Art carries the potential to convey complex ideas, concepts and scientific data in a powerful way that other mediums, like texts or graphs, may fall short of.”

COURTESY FIRST STREET FOUNDATION

SeaLevelRise.org

First Street Foundation

In the digital world, too, designers are finding ways to communicate the dangers facing our planet. The First Street Foundation exists to make climate risk easy to understand for individuals, governments, and industry. They have launched a website and toolkit to showcase sea level rise science in a friendly, digestible manner.

Through graphic design, animations, fonts, infographics and simple images, their focus is accessibility, while real life visual examples are used to bring topics to life (for example, the fact that every year the equivalent of over 800,000 Empire State Buildings made of ice fall into the oceans.)

According to First Street: “Many people can grasp concepts and facts much simpler when using imagery and design. Sea level rise is a hot topic issue—but most importantly a topic with a heavy scientific and mathematical foundation that needs to be explained as simply and concisely as possible.”

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