Eroding Edges

Michael Snyder

2015 - Ongoing

Whether we recognize it or not, climate migration is already part of the American story. Millions have moved inland from hurricane pounded coastlines of the Gulf and thousands are now fleeing from the fire ravaged West. The communities that receive these migrants are changing too, reshaping the very cultural and political fabric of America. But what we are witnessing today is just the leading edge of an unprecedented wave of human migration that is yet to come: by the end of this century nearly 1 in 2 Americans will likely experience a significant decline in the quality of their environment. An estimated 4 – 13 million will be driven from their homes. Millions more will follow, ousted by fires, floods, drought, and extreme weather. The age of the climate refugee has just begun.

Eroding Edges is a documentary project exploring the rapidly changing lives and identities of American communities who are on the frontlines of climate change. While these communities are vastly different in geographic and cultural heritage, they share a tragic commonality: the land that they have called home for centuries will be rendered uninhabitable in less than 50 years. While the project bears witness to unprecedented loss and hardship it also focuses on the quest for leadership on a rapidly warming planet, with an emphasis on courage and community driven solutions that are being implemented to preserve cultural identity and facilitate meaningful migration in the face of unprecedented change. The project explores the process of loss, transition, and rebirth: What will these migrants let go of? What will they hold on to? How will they adapt to survive? What can they teach those who are yet to follow in their footsteps? And how can America prepare for the magnitude of what is yet to come?

The project documents 6 communities around the United States. Each have evolved a profound sense of place over hundreds of years (or, as is the case with Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific coast, thousands of years) and how their cultural existence is being threatened by rising temperatures. We will meet unique characters such as Pal, a seventh-generation waterman from a small Island in the Chesapeake Bay; Kirby, an Alaska Native who is rapidly building berms to hold back the floods and is holding a vote to see if his community will stay or go; Rosina, a Louisiana fisherman who is raising her house and making ready for the next hurricane. These characters must grapple with unprecedented changes, community division, powerful storms, and a local and national culture that seems to be in denial.

The project explores the struggles of communities in the throes of great change and probes the intersections of race, gender, and climate chaos.

Finally, the project will examine the solutions that each community has pursued to retain their cultural identity while migrating away from the place that has cradled it for centuries, finding rallying points of hope, courage, and agency. By holding up the vanguard of climate change as heroes, rather than victims, the project seeks to inspire healing in the impacted communities and engagement regionally and nationally. The broader outcome of the project - its core purpose - is to show that climate change is already a reality for people who are our neighbors, friends, family and countrymen. The impacts of climate change are common to us all, regardless of our income, race or party identity. This is a problem that we have to work together to solve. And it is one that we are – at present – woefully unprepared for.

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  • It is not yet dawn, but Mike Winkler, a Quinault Indian, has already been digging in the wet sand along the edge of the ocean for hours. He is looking for Razor Clams, a protein staple that the Quinault Indian Nation have been harvesting from these coastal flats for over 10,000 years. The big ones he tosses into the net which he drags behind him. The little ones go back to the sea. The fisheries here are carefully managed to keep the traditional harvest sustainable. As Climate Change continues to increase ocean temperatures, toxic algal blooms and storms have become more common. When the surf is heavy, the tide can run quickly up on to the flats, making the clam harvest dangerous. Just last year the Tribal Council decided to permanently relocate the village of Taholah away from the coastline and the mouth of the Quinault River. The growing risk of inundation had become too great.

  • Jason Jones and Wade Murphy III raise the sails at dawn on the Rebecca T. Ruark, who, since 1886, has dredged oysters from the Chesapeake Bay of Maryland using only power from the wind. Oysters, once the cornerstone of the regional economy, have declined by more than 98% since colonial times. Despite a recent comeback, the oyster stocks, and the watermen who depend on them, remain threatened by changing temperatures and rising tides.

  • A young Stó:lō Indian girl stands in the Fraser River in British Columbia. New reports from the Canadian Government say that 42 percent of the Fraser River valley could flood in the coming years due to climate-changed induced spring runoffs. This would include much of suburban Vancouver and treaty lands that indigenous peoples have lived in for thousands of years.

  • A lone truck crosses the island road to Isle De Jean Charles, in the Louisiana bayou. Soon, the island will cease to exist: in the last half century alone, 98% of the island has disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving behind a tiny strip of land. But the 40 residents that remain (of the original 300) refuse to go.

  • Charlie Clark, a scientist with RainCoast Conservation Foundation, uses a sein net in a marsh to capture juvenile salmon in a marsh as part of the group’s Fraser River Estuary Juvenile Salmon Project. The Fraser River, which flows through urban Vancouver, was once the world’s most productive salmon river. Now, only a tiny fraction of its stock remain and the multifarious impacts of climate change seem largely to blame.

  • Patrick Donaway rides his dirt bike through the flooded streets of Smith Island (pop.267). Donaway is a newcomer on an island that can trace its heritage back to the English Colonists who settled here in the 17th Century. While flooding is commonplace and events like this hardly raise alarm (“It just comes in and goes out. We don’t worry.” says one resident), others note that the water steadily continues to rise and publicity is having an adverse effect on the local population and economy.

  • Audrey Siegl is a member of the Musqueam First Nation. Fifteen years ago, she reconnected with her community and poured herself into rediscovering and preserving the language of her ancestors. Siegl now advocates for the land, for indigenous sovereignty, and for an end to violence against women. After many years of feeling shamed about her cultural identity, Siegl says that most of the peace she has found within comes from her drum, which carries the songs of her ancestors; her job now is to carry the voices of her ancestors and her community that have been silenced. Today she is drumming for an end to the industrialization of the Fraser River and solutions to climate change, which threatens indigenous lifeways.

  • A Quinault Indian leader looks out into the Pacific Ocean before sunrise.

  • Dalton Fisher takes a break from a long day of harvesting oysters on the Chesapeake Bay. Here, the amount of land that will be lost to sea level rise is among the highest in the nation.

  • "There are some things that can be controlled and alleviated and there are some things that are just beyond our control." Says Pastor Rick Edmund. "Will we be here in a 100 years? We feel pretty secure that we will be here a good while because a lot of people rely on their faith. Their faith that the good lord is going to keep people here as long as he wants to."

  • Francis “Hoss” Parks, a lifelong resident of Smith Island, Maryland, stands beside a raised walkway that he built to move between his house and the nearby water gauge that he monitors. “I’ve seen lots of flooding” he says, “Up to four feet or more through here. It’s been in my house. I sit here and watch it come in. I don’t leave. It ain’t no use to leave and then come back to disaster”.

  • “While others partied, I stayed at home and worked” says Sean Markishtum, who has been fishing his uncle’s grounds on the Quinault River since he was 14. In recent years, the glacier that feeds the river has shrunk due to warmer temperatures and decreased rainfall due to climate change. “When it don’t snow, the river gets weak”, he says “and riptides come up from the ocean and break our nets. A single net can cost us more than $700.” On this day, Sean pulled two broken nets from the water.

  • A house for sale on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay. The island is projected to be fully underwater in 30 - 50 years. Land values have plummeted.

  • Demonstrators supporting indigenous rights and food systems, salmon conservation, and ecological preservation march through downtown Vancouver. For the past three years, First Nations communities and their supporters across British Columbia have worked to educate residents of the area on the challenges of restoring wild salmon in the Fraser Basin and Salish Sea corridor. The group has traveled caravan-style along the length of the river, performing ancient song, dance and salmon ceremonies.

  • For more than 10,000 years Canada’s coastal First Nations have built lives and cultural identities dependent on the ecological gifts of the Fraser – the greatest of all, a beautiful ugly fish called the salmon. Members of the Stó:lō community (The River People) and other First Nations tie their past, present and future to the river and the sockeye, pink, chum, coho and Chinook species that rely on this stretch of the Lower Fraser to traverse from spawning ground to sea. But for community elders like Brian Grandbois, the future of indigenous sovereignty often looks as threatened as the fish now are.

  • Dalton Fisher sorts oysters from muck on the deck of the Rebecca Ruark II. It’s hard work and after a 16-hour day that began before dawn, Dalton takes a break. Dalton skipped out on going to college, opting to become a waterman like his father before him. He remains hopeful that he can make a living on the water, but he is part of a new generation of working class youth that are becoming doubtful.

  • A lone Quinault Indian hunts for razor clams at dawn.

  • 15 years after Hurricane Katrina people in the bayou region are still recovering. But it is not all a story of tragedy, says one resident "what we lost in property we gained in community solidarity."

  • Pointe Aux Chênes, Louisiana: a fishing community at the very end of the road in bayou country. The region is chronically inundated and, during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, was under nearly 8 feet of water. Today, most of the houses are raised on stilts, the land is quickly retreating, and projections suggest that the region will be fully underwater within 30 - 50 years. Here, local leaders meet to discuss ways to preserve their culture in the face of migration. With frequent storms pounding the coast, there has been a mass exodus of residents. Tens of thousands have already left.

  • Pointe Aux Chênes, deep in the southern Louisiana bayou. The name translates as 'Oak Point' in English, and refers to the region's once-great oak trees. Today, however, the trees are little more than dead husks stuck in the marsh... as salt water (incursion from the cutting of many canals for shipping) has poisoned their roots. Pointe Aux Chênes is home to one of three Houma Indian tribes, who have lived in the marshlands since time immemorial. Like the trees, their ability to thrive in the bayou is being challenged: flooding, due both to erosion from the cutting of canals, and to sea level rise, has become a common occurrence. Some members of the tribe have built their houses on stilts. But many now believe that moving inland will soon become inevitable. When that happens, the question then becomes, 'how can we retain our identity as a people, even as we change?'