Following the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in early 1986, the investigation bogged down in technical detail that made it hard to determine what went wrong. For good measure, certain lines of inquiry were discouraged or even blocked -- President Reagan had instructed the head of the commission, "Whatever you do, don't embarrass NASA." Then, legendary scientist Richard Feynman, a member of the commission, reduced the inquiry to a simple image on national TV.
Feynman -- long a hero of mine, partly because he didn't play by anybody's rules, not even Reagan's -- took a sample of the rubber O-rings that had been the subject of a host of technical discussions and slipped it into his glass of ice water. As the whole country watched, the O-ring stiffened. Game over. No more data needed.
His little demonstration showed that the O-rings used as seals in the Challenger wouldn't function properly in the freezing temperatures in which it was launched and had allowed a leak of gases that blew up the shuttle and killed the seven astronauts.
We may have just been given a similarly galvanizing image about the dangers of rising sea levels.
If you haven't seen it already as it made the rounds online, the video is here. It shows a house in Rodanthe, NC, on the Outer Banks, washing out to sea late last week. A neighboring house had surrendered to a storm hours earlier, and another was swept away by waves back in February.
While we've all been talking about rising sea levels and coastal erosion for years now, this video cut through all the theoretical considerations and made the issue real, at least for me. Here's the kind of second home I might have bought -- a modern home bought just a year and a half ago -- being knocked down by waves and just floating away.
A New York Times article says, "Sea levels in the area have risen roughly one inch every five years, with climate change being one key reason. State officials say that some Outer Banks beaches are shrinking more than 14 feet per year in some areas."
Sea levels are expected to rise by one foot on average along U.S. coastlines in the next 30 years, according to a multiagency federal report released in February, the article says.
It closes with the story of Matt Storey "pacing on the outdoor deck of the beachfront home he had bought in November and christened 'Mermaid’s Dream.' He estimated there were roughly 70 feet of sand between the house and the beach when he closed on the property. On Thursday, the waves were lapping by the pilings of the house.
"Mr. Storey, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., said that he felt somewhat confident buying the house, particularly because it had been moved back from the ocean in 2018 at a cost of $200,000.... While he expected potential erosion problems eventually, he did not anticipate them coming so fast."
While Storey has no real recourse and says he's just going to ride out whatever happens to that house and another he owns nearby, I'm hoping the recent video can serve as a wakeup call. While the article describes attempts to fight back -- building a sea wall to keep sand dunes from forming in the middle of the main road or possibly pumping sand from the bay side of the Outer Banks to the ocean side to replace what's being washed away -- I'm thinking Mother Nature is going to win here.
So, I'm hoping people stop building or buying homes in areas that are vulnerable to being washed out in the next 10 to 15 years. And I hope insurance companies can lead the way. Even if we non-expert home buyers get fooled into thinking a house in Rodanthe isn't that vulnerable, insurance companies can use pricing for homeowners policies to send dollars-and-cents signals about the risks.
Richard Feynman isn't around to help us visualize issues any more. He died of a rare cancer in 1988. But a lot of smart folks at insurers can build on the viral spread of the Rodanthe house video and start shaping the public understanding of the growing dangers from rising sea levels.