I AM WRITING FROM FORTALEZA, a city in the north east of Brazil. Our team has traveled here from the UK to collect a message in a bottle, on a journey that has already taken us through Europe and West Africa and across the ocean on a containership.
I'm part of a three person, 18 month expedition called Atlantic Rising. Along with my colleagues Tim Bromfield and Will Lorimer, I'm following the one metre contour line around the Atlantic rim. This is the level to which scientists predict the sea will rise in 100 years, so in effect we're tracing what will eventually be the new Atlantic coastline. The point of the journey is to see how rising sea levels are already affecting people around the ocean in different ways, and to explain this and other issues relating to climate change to children living along the coastline. Along the way we threw a message in a bottle - a buoy equipped with a satellite tracker and containing letters from African school children - into the ocean. Five weeks and 1,000 miles later it arrived in Fortaleza and now we're going to retrieve it.
In the developed world, climate change is often presented to young students as little more than a geography or science lesson, rather than a demonstrable and immediate fact of life. Children in the developing world are rarely taught about climate change in schools, but it is having a dramatic and varied impact on their daily lives: unpredictable rainfall, desertification, flooding, tidal surges or fewer fish in the sea.
Children in Senegal can remember that the ocean used to be further from their houses or that their grandparents lived on land that is now underwater. In Cote d’Ivoire people feel the sun on their heads or puddles underfoot at times of the year that are out of synch with the environmental calendars they've always known. In Gambia children experience storms so severe that their houses collapse. Whether or not they attribute it to "climate change", everybody knows something is happening.
We wanted to combine theoretical knowledge with empirical understanding to create an international community of young people who know and care about what is happening to the environment. To go someway to achieving this ambition we founded Atlantic Rising.
It is an environmental education project that connects children around the Atlantic Ocean, and creates climate change related projects on which they can collaborate in school. We hope the schools network will broaden children’s understanding of climate change, and by encouraging direct contact between students in different locations, we hope to enable a sense of community across the oceans that will give people more reason to act on that knowledge.
To launch the network we are currently travelling overland around the Atlantic. At some points we are right on the coast, but in the Banc d’Arguin in Mauritania we were 50 miles inland in the Sahara – and still on the contour. In the Amazon we'll be almost 300 miles inland and yet, frighteningly, still only one metre above current sea level.
Atlantic Rising is not just for school children. More broadly, it is a journey of exploration to see what places and cultures could be lost if the tide continues to rise. In Mauritania we visited villages that will soon have to move further inland because the sea is already washing away buildings - including, in one case, a school. In Senegal we visited a Dakar suburb where the government’s hard coastal engineering went dramatically wrong. Instead of protecting the town from the ocean, the sea wall funneled water into the Muslim cemetery, washing dead bodies onto the beach.
It is also an investigation into the innovative ways people all around the ocean are adapting to or mitigating the effects of climate change. Elsewhere in Senegal, communities are taking part in the world’s biggest mangrove replanting scheme. An NGO called Oceanium is helping to plant 30 million mangroves, providing not just coastal protection but also a vital habitat for fish and crustaceans. We met a community football team in Keta, a town in Ghana that has suffered dramatic coastal erosion which is using money from the club’s shareholders for projects that help reinvigorate the area.
We are constantly inspired by how engaged and interested the students we have met have been. Along the way, we collected letters from schoolchildren about their lives and hopes for the future. It was these that we launched into the ocean from our containership, just south of the equator between Senegal and Brazil and more than 1,000 miles from the Brazilian coast. The progress of the buoy was trackable via our website. Now that we've arrived in Fortaleza, we are going to collect our bottle and then encourage Brazilian students to reply to the messages.
We've been doing this since September 2009, and we have a lot of exciting plans for the remaining eight months of our journey. We will be doing live internet links between schools in the UK and students in the Amazon. We have just launched a photography competition asking students to take a picture of a piece of the coast that is important to them. We'll use them to construct a map of the Atlantic coastline seen through the eyes of children. We are setting up meetings with climate change experts and environmental researchers throughout the Americas, and we're planning another message in a bottle for our return journey across the Atlantic from Canada to the UK in November.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Readers can visit Atlantic Rising's website at http://www.atlanticrising.org.