The Patapsco River lapped at the foot of Thames Street, a dead end in the posh Fells Point waterfront section of Baltimore, where the tides regularly rise to meet the street. It was the morning of Sept. 1, 2016, and I took a picture of it with my phone: a single, tight shot of a passenger-side front tire of a car, soaking in water next to the base of a streetlamp.
I’d lived nearby since 2007, and I’d noted that this spot was intermittently, and seemingly more frequently, inundated by higher-than-normal tides. Here, where a long-working waterfront had played through the seafaring traditions of the ages to eventually morph into Baltimore’s version of cosmopolitan water-proximate free-spending East Coast culture, the rising sea level was creating an urban intertidal zone, which would sometimes give a good washing to the chassis of vehicles exiting the adjacent apartment building’s parking lot and marina. Drivers could be stranded on one side or the other of the street-spanning tide pool, unwilling to risk the uncertain depths until the waters receded.
I’d long been interested in seeing the effects of sea-level rise on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Among other projects, in 2007 and 2013 I used a GPS and photograph to document, from a kayak, the rapid disappearance of once-inhabited James Island, now abandoned and all but entirely gone from its place at the mouth of the Little Choptank River. The fetch from bay-crossing winds now can slam waves unimpeded against nearby Delmarva Peninsula farmland, calving off acreage like ice breaking off the polar caps. All that pesticide-and-fertilizer infused sediment, clouding up the Bay—well, sea-level rise is effectively a land-removal process.
About two weeks after that first shot at the foot of Thames Street, on Sept. 13, 2016, I captured images of two cars parked in still tidewaters by the elevated waterfront promenade that passes by there, a much-used public footpath for walkers, joggers, and the like, with sailboats docked in the early sunlight behind them. Culverts under the promenade allow the tides to pass back and forth freely. Life goes on as the water continues to move inexorably inland.
After getting another watery car-and-streetlamp shot on the morning of Sept. 18, on the evening of Sept. 30 I grabbed video of one car, then another, braving the inundation of Thames Street as they exited the parking lot. The waves thrown out by their wheels sloshed across the sidewalk that feeds the promenade from Thames Street. When tides are high, there’s no getting on or off the promenade on this side of Thames without getting wet.
The next morning’s video shows vehicles lined up along Thames, noses against the curb, soaking in river water. Nudged up next to the culverts is a motorcycle, encased in sheeting against the overnight rain. Normally, rainfall wouldn’t cause flooding here—as long as the tide’s not high. The motorcyclist, not knowing this was in effect a cobblestone beach, presumably parked at low tide, mistakenly expecting the bike to be safe until morning.
I took my last two videos that night. The tide was higher, deeper this time, and after the large wheels of a tow truck broke through the brackish water’s surface, the rippling wave action reached up onto the motorcycle. After two engine-breaching high tides, it likely was in need of some costly repair.
Back then, my documentary effort didn’t travel beyond the limited audience of my Facebook feed. One of the posts came up in my “Facebook Memories” today, from three years ago. It had gotten two “likes” and two comments: a photo comment from a friend who also took a phone-shot of it, and my response (“Yep, pretty much every high tide now.”).
In early 2017, my family and I moved uphill to a home where I trusted elevation to secure its value past the span of a 30-year-mortgage. I failed to keep documenting the foot of Thames Street—until this week, when I went back and took a photo of a swamped solitary car. By now, the regular tidal intrusions have prompted the apartment building’s owner to build a second point of egress from the parking lot, on the other side. I wrote about that and tweeted it out with the photo. This time, a member of the City Council retweeted it. People may be ready to notice what’s already here.