In 2017, Susan Israel boarded a six-seater plane in Panama City bound for the San Blas Islands (Guna Yala). As she photographed the rainforest passing underneath, she knew that she had no idea what she was flying into. However, she came prepared to bring her project, Rising Waters, to these island communities, making visible the flood levels that would result from sea level rise and storms in the years and decades ahead.
The archipelago of San Blas is located off the Northwest coast of Panama. Of the 378 islands comprising Guna Yala, approximately 50 are inhabited. The indigenous Guna who live on these tiny coral atolls arrived on the islands 125 years ago after fleeing from conflict in the highlands. They gained autonomy from Panama in 1925, and have largely self-governed ever since. Today, however, they face imminent threats from climate change-related flooding.
When interviewed, island residents and elders recounted how the surf reaches the main street in the center of the island in October, when the tides are highest. Susan herself witnessed the tenuous hold these communities have on the islands, teaching workshops in a building that had lost its roof and listening to the wind tear through the “tourist island” where she slept. The Guna Yala islands have little infrastructure, and rest just a few feet above sea level. The entire population, an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 people, will need to relocate within the next 20 years.
Susan first visited Panama in 2016 to attend a HATCH Summit, which is where she learned about the islands. She knew immediately that she wanted to use Rising Waters to help bring their story to the wider public, and she was able to return the following year with a group of “HATCHERS.” Rising Waters is a conceptual art project that translates complex data into simple visuals that people can immediately understand. By marking future flood levels on landscapes and buildings, these installations render the abstract idea of climate change deeply visceral.
Rising Waters has been installed over 20 times in the U.S., Panama, and Hong Kong, with photographs displayed at the United Nations, EarthDay Texas, and the BioMuseo in Panama.
I must admit that I know more about the story behind Rising Waters than most. As Susan Israel’s niece, I have watched her story unfold from a unique vantage point. My admiration for what she has created, however, is as professional as it is personal. After a 20-year career leading her own practices as an architect, Susan came to an important realization: The data on climate change was all there, but people couldn’t relate to it—and therefore, they didn’t care. If the data was going to have a real impact, it was necessary to make it relevant.
Rising Waters is one initiative of Climate Creatives, which Susan began in 2009 to educate people about climate impacts and empower them to act. In addition to a variety of public art projects, she also provides innovation training programs for businesses, communities, and organizations inspired by experiential art and design. After a leadership workshop for Harvard Business School, Susan expanded the offering to suit a variety of businesses, organizations and universities, including Emerson College, Fidelity Investments, and Blue Cross Blue Shield MA. These workshops are custom designed to support team development in leadership, strategy, communication, and innovation, both digitally and on the ground. The same innovation taught in these events has led Susan to travel around the world for conferences and installations.
Finding accurate, accessible and digestible data on sea level and storm surge can be extremely difficult, so Susan always tries to find a local research institute to corroborate her data. In Panama, she visited the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and in Hong Kong she used data from the Hong Kong Observatory and local news articles from China. Before beginning a Rising Waters installation, Susan always looks at Climate Central’s Surging Seas tools to get an idea of where flooding will be, but it often is very generalized outside the US. So she also conducts further research, which she corroborates with the most accurate data available for the location in question.
The Power of Art
Art, unlike many other means of communicating climate change data, does not require literacy or shared language. In Guna Yala, Susan marked rising sea levels on two of the islands with the help of enthusiastic residents, using colorful fabrics inspired by local crafts. In addition, she led about 25 children through a day of art-making to connect them tactilely with the reality of rising sea levels. She used a similar format in Hong Kong, where she worked with three different schools. Despite the lack of a common language, all participants were able to connect with the activities through the universal language of art.
In an Air Quality Public Health Project currently under development, Susan is working to bring air quality data to the multicultural and multilingual residents of East Boston. Located next to Logan International Airport and several highways, the neighborhood is exposed to air pollution from ultrafine particles, which pose a particularly high health risk. Visual representations of air quality (the technology to map and track this data is already in use) can empower all community members, regardless of language barriers, to protect their health. The project will support those living in East Boston to make informed decisions about where to walk, when to open their windows, or which playgrounds to avoid, for instance. It is critical to present this kind of information in public locations, and in a manner that makes it accessible to those who may otherwise remain uninformed.
As with many communities around the world most vulnerable to rising sea levels, the Guna Yala community in Panama is aware that they need to vacate the islands, but lack the necessary funds to do so. Susan understands there to be a strong social justice element to the work she does with Rising Waters. Bringing climate change data into the public sphere can successfully engage stakeholders who are less informed or engaged. Participatory public art puts data directly into the hands of the community, empowering them to advocate for themselves with local governments, prepare for impending climate outcomes, and cultivate adaptability and resilience. It also helps people understand why it is so important to reduce consumption, emissions, and waste in the interest of mitigating climate change.
The Rising Waters approach to climate change art uses a scalable model. In Guna Yala in 2017, Hong Kong in 2019, and many of her other installations, Susan engaged local stakeholders through workshops, participatory art installations, and interviews and conversations. In January of 2020, she installed Rising Waters at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Broward County, Florida for a sea level rise summit attended by 800 students, and then taught the students to create their own installations. In collaboration with Lisa V. Melenkovic and the Environmental Planning and Community Resilience Division, Susan created a pilot model that will soon be scaled across the district. Thirty schools have already acquired the required materials, and are waiting for health conditions to be safe enough for students to make their installations.
The current global situation with COVID-19 has been challenging, with several major installations cancelled, but it has also offered a chance to develop digital tools. For instance, a recent virtual workshop for UN World Oceans Week in June of 2020 empowered participants from Connecticut to California to Singapore to India to create their own Rising Waters installations—digitally and on-site—and trained them to find reliable data on sea level changes and land elevations.
Susan is currently collaborating with the Hatch Impact Labs to scale the project significantly, leading to installations around the world for United Nations World Oceans Day 2021. The project will scale by training nonprofits, community groups, and university students to implement the project on their own, with some guidance. Sri Lanka, India, the Marshall Islands, Pulau, and Puerto Rico could soon be locations for the next installations of Rising Waters. As she brings this project to all corners of the globe, Susan hopes to collect the stories of those communities most vulnerable to sea level rise and storm flooding. The more they can connect through stories and resource sharing, the better prepared they may be for the challenges ahead.
The data for solving climate issues exists. However, it is difficult to find and corroborate accurate data, let alone bring that information to local stakeholders in an impactful and empowering way. Susan Israel of Climate Creatives is doing just that with the Rising Waters project, as well as ASK, Missing, and several other innovative initiatives. As an artist, architect, and facilitator, she addresses a key missing link in the work of climate change researchers around the globe: connection.
The dangers of climate change—from rising sea levels and flooding to biodiversity loss and health risks—affect our global community more every day. Those communities most vulnerable to these issues need more than data. They need art, awareness, and advocacy. Models like Rising Waters offer a necessary bridge between climate experts and the people who stand to lose the most from the issues they research—and most benefit from their work.
Susan is currently working on developing an app that will allow users to find their land elevation and flooding data from sea level rise, storms, or river flooding, and create their own installations of Rising Waters. The app would train users, display their installations and stories on a user-friendly website, and encourage participants to share their projects, connect with one another, and engage with additional resources.
Up to this point, Rising Waters has largely been a self-funded project. Funding and partnerships will be critical to scaling up in the year and years ahead. Susan welcomes collaborations or partnerships with investors, organizations, or institutions that are inspired by the project.