Patricia Macdonald | Looking at sea-level rise



In October and November 2021 two crucial international conferences – one on the damaged state of ‘nature’, and one on climate change – took the centre of the global stage: the UN Biodiversity Conference (Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP15, Part 1), in Kunming (virtual), from 11-15 October, and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, Glasgow, 31 October - 12 November (COP26). The two topics dealt with in these separate conferences are closely interconnected. It is only due to our human need to divide up the present single global-scale crisis to make it comprehensible that were being discussed separately – nature recognises no such divisions.

In this feature, which has appeared in three parts (of which this is the third – the first appeared in October and the second earlier in November), Patricia Macdonald (University of Edinburgh and Aerographica consultancy) takes as starting points three of her aerial photographic artworks from the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland, to consider environmental issues relating to climate change and biodiversity in the contexts of a series of key Scottish landscapes. 

Saltmarsh channels and wartime concrete coastal defences, estuary of the River Tyne, East Lothian, Scotland, 1989, from series: 'Order & Chaos',

in Airworks (2001):

This image may lead to contemplation of what is being defended here, and from what? There is no realistic general defence against current and anticipated sea-level rise due to anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change; this is likely to drown existing saltmarshes, or to drive them inland,

if topography, or human decisions, allow

A place that is half-land, half water: low tide, rising tide, and flood tide on the saltmarsh, estuary of the River Tyne, East Lothian, Scotland, 2021
Saltmarsh, landward end: panorama, made from position at centre-foot of aerial image above, 2021

> Enlarge image

Saltmarsh plants: sea wormwood (Artemisia maritima), sea plantain (Plantago marítima), common glasswort (Salicornia europaea),

sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) and beach grasses, 2021

Saltmarsh, seaward end: panorama, 2021

> Enlarge image

Sea level 

Four-fifths of the planet that humans call Earth is actually water: sea water – not the earth of the continents on which humanity lives, and which float and move over their own rocky ocean in the planet’s mantle. And some of the most fascinating natural environments are half-land, half-water – places like saltmarshes, or the cnoc-and-lochan landscape of Lewisian gneiss and the multitude of small islands in the Western Isles. And legends abound of shapeshifting mythological creatures like selkies (seal people) that inhabit the two worlds of water and land.

Throughout the geological epoch of the Holocene, the equable time-interval of almost twelve thousand years since the end of the last Ice Age, humans have lived by the seashore for many reasons – to feed on fish, and shellfish from the shore; to make use of the fertile land on river deltas; and so as to have easy access to transport by boat. Today, this is still the case throughout the world.  

And the sea is in our blood, quite literally. Liminal environments continue to fascinate us, and to terrify us – dawn and dusk, the forest’s edge, the water margin. Children love to put a toe into the edge of the sea to be thrilled by the advance and retreat of the waves – a bit like tickling a parent to see what will happen. And for many of us in Scotland today, a walk beside the sea is a thing to value and enjoy, whether in calm, peaceful weather or in stormy conditions with great breakers and heavy surf.  

But in earlier centuries – and still today for those who work at sea, and their families – the sea has been a fearsome presence, literally as well as psychologically – either because of the dangers of making a living upon it, or because it brought invaders, pirates, or the press gang. Coastal settlements have often been hidden from sight from the sea, even if the inhabitants themselves made a living from it.  

The Earth is now widely considered to have moved out of the stable Holocene epoch – the cradle of human civilisations – and into the much less predictable and less hospitable Anthropocene. At this uncertain time, the edge of the sea is beginning to acquire a sense of threat that is distinct from those experienced in recent centuries – this time because of the prospect of sea-level rise, due to the human-caused (anthropogenic) global-climate-heating-related melting of the planet’s polar ice caps, and its mountain glaciers.  

The planet’s overall sea-level has never been fixed, and it has moved both up and down throughout Earth’s long history. Since the end of the last Ice Age, the direction of movement has tended to be upwards, at different rates in different places (although locally mitigated in some parts of Scotland due to ‘isostatic rise’ – a sort of slow, delayed upwards ‘bounce’ of land that had once carried a great weight of ice). If we go back into prehistory, legends tell, for example, of a Hebridean princess whose forested domains extended from the Western Isles out into the Cuan Mòr (the Great Ocean: the Atlantic) as far as the distant western island group of St Kilda, and people speak of more-recently-drowned villages off the western coasts of the Hebrides. With sea-level rise now expected to resume or speed up worldwide, more land is likely to be engulfed in coming decades, as in the immediate aftermath of the Ice Age. And so walking by the sea may feel different in the future, as familiar low-lying coastal places begin to be drowned.

Talamh geal / white (sandy machair) land and talamh dubh / black (peaty clay) land, North Uist, Western Isles, Scotland, from book The Hebrides (2010):

The culturally and environmentally important, low-lying machair land is under threat from sea-level rise. Most of its essential sand component arrived on-shore between about 7000 and 2000 years ago and is not being replaced, although sand does blow inland in winter, and its existing suite of environments cannot everywhere retreat inland due to higher ground lying behind

Machair flowers: red clover (Trifolium pratense), ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and silverweed (Argentina anserina), growing in cart track, North Uist, Western Isles, Scotland, from Airworks (2001) and The Hebrides (2010)
Uist Fords, with distant causeways, Western isles, Scotland, from The Hebrides (2010)
Sandbar in rising tide, North Uist, Western Isles, Scotland, 1990, from series ‘The Levels’, in Airworks and The Hebrides (2010)

What if the tide just kept coming in? 

When we think of sea-level rise, we tend to think first in human terms of the island nations and the great cities that are likely be drowned, and of the human migrants who will be displaced, as a result of our own inability to control runaway global heating and the melting of ancient ice.  

Bob Dylan’s prescient lines from his searing ballad Blind Willie McTell – a seer despite his blindness – have recently acquired a further level of resonance:

‘Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned  
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem.”’ …

… and, we might add, to New York, Glasgow, London, Venice, Bangkok, Shanghai, Sydney …

Most of us may think less often of the transient cities of wild birds that depend on wetlands, saltmarshes and estuaries around the world for food on their great migratory journeys, or of the myriad inhabitants of other coastal habitats that protect the land immediately behind. Are we really prepared to say goodbye, not only to the dodo, the passenger pigeon, and the great auk (all globally extinct, having been hunted for food), and to the nightingale, the cuckoo, the swift, the linnet, the song thrush and the puffin (all vulnerable mainly due to loss of their habitats or food sources), but also to the curlew, the whimbrel, the peewit (lapwing), the ringed plover, the white-fronted goose, the dotterel, the corncrake (all now on British Birds’ Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern) – and then perhaps, over time, even to the sandpiper, oystercatcher and redshank?

The saltmarshes in East Lothian, and the fertile machair land of the Western Isles, seen above, are only two, very different, examples of environments in Scotland – important for both human life and nature – that are threatened by sea-level rise. Their equivalents are to be found around the world, and represent innumerable refuges for other creatures in the increasingly hostile environment that our species has made, and whose destruction increasingly threatens our own well-being, and perhaps even our own existence.

Patricia Macdonald: Shadow self-portrait on saltmarsh pool
Robin Gillanders: Angus & Patricia Macdonald

All photographs © Patricia & Angus Macdonald unless otherwise credited

About the author: Dr Patricia Macdonald FRSE is an environmental researcher; an Honorary Fellow of the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art; and an eminent artist-photographer best known for her powerful aerial imagery, made in collaboration with her partner in the Aerographica consultancy, Professor Angus Macdonald, also of the University of Edinburgh. Her work is exhibited and published internationally, and held in public, corporate and private collections worldwide. She is the author/co-author of more than ten books/catalogues and numerous articles. Her most recent books are: Once in Europa (with John Berger, Bloomsbury / Hanser, 1999 / 2000); Airworks (with Duncan Macmillan, Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh / BCA Gallery, London, 2001); The Hebrides: An aerial view of a cultural landscape (with Angus Macdonald, Birlinn, 2010); and, as author and editor, Surveying the Anthropocene: Environment and photography now (Studies in Photography, in collaboration with Edinburgh University Press, 2021, in press).

Explore further works by Patricia Macdonald on the National Galleries of Scotland website
Follow updates on the Aerographica website
Find out more about:
The Hebrides

Surveying the Anthropocene: Environment and photography now



Recognising an urgent need to play our part in combating the climate and ecological emergency.