Skip to content
Francis Wilkinson

Sanibel Island’s Last Stand Against Rising Seas

In an era of climate change and storm surges, the future of barrier islands — in Florida and elsewhere — is grim.

Sanibel Island: So picturesque, but for how long?

Sanibel Island: So picturesque, but for how long?

Photographer: DANIEL SLIM/AFP

A short video taken this spring on a barrier island in North Carolina followed a narrative arc made familiar by nature programs. First, an oceanfront house buckled on its spindly pilings, like an antelope folding in the jaws of a lion. Then the dismembering began. The sea thrashed the structure with the mindless intensity of an apex predator tearing into the haunches of a helpless prey. It splintered the second-floor deck. It lunged at the first floor and tore away a meaty chunk, leaving the room upstairs suspended above the void. Then the sea ripped the house entirely from the sand, launching it sloshing into the surf. When the feast was over, flotsam from the carcass drifted along a 14-mile stretch of Atlantic Coast.

In an era of climate change and rapidly rising seas, a barrier island is akin to an exhausted, encircled antelope. Of course, houses along the shore have been vulnerable to a voracious sea since long before carbon began branding the wreckage. But the ocean’s volume, appetite and reach are growing. I traveled last month to Sanibel Island, on the Gulf Coast of Florida, to get a sense of how a barrier island in the hurricane zone confronts that peril.