Life in the Sea Suite
Jeffrey Linn takes a decidedly long view on climate change
By Rob Smith September 7, 2022
Jeffrey Linn blends the mentality of an artist with the mind of a scientist to create what he calls a “steam punk aesthetic.”
Put another way, Linn uses the past to predict the future.
Linn, a Seattle resident, is a speculative cartographer, or someone who uses real world scientific data to create maps of rising sea levels. The maps are based on data from the Intergovernmentnational Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and look thousands of years into the future.
“I think of my work as sort of a time machine,” says Linn, a planner who specializes in urban design, sustainable transportation and geospatial analysis. “A lot of people look at these things and think, ‘Oh, no, this is going to happen immediately.’ It’s a little frustrating. That’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s going to happen over the course of hundreds or thousands of years when all the icecap is melted.”
Linn works as a cartographer for King County but also has a website, “The Conspiracy of Cartographers,” where consumers can view and buy his maps and read about his philosophy. He has recently embarked on what he dubs “a work of parody” by taking old pieces of roadmaps produced by oil companies and charting sea-level rises on them.
Humor aside, Linn’s goal is straightforward but important: He wants people to understand the future ramifications of the changing climate. His influences include the late Oregon author Ursula K. Le Guin and San Francisco activist Burrito Justice, both of whom have created maps of rising sea levels. His work has appeared in the “Washington Post,” “ Foreign Policy,” “Grist” and the “Huffington Post.”
What’s your approach? I’m looking into the past with these antique maps and projecting them into the future with the sea level rise. There’s a real satisfaction that I get from expanding the timeframe that we’re looking at. Somebody said the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past. That’s sort of in my mind when I make these maps, just the way that things have changed and the way that they will change in the future. It’s fascinating.
Why focus on climate change? It’s a very serious topic. We’re not moving nearly fast enough. I mean, if you think that electric cars are the solution, then your thinking is decades behind.
Why take such a long view? I wanted to show the extreme. You see a lot of very practical analysis looking at sea level rise in the next 50 to 100 years. I wanted to go beyond that into the real speculative realm of what would happen if everything melted.
What will happen? The real dangers come well before all the ice caps melt. The changes to the world, the crop failures, the climate heat waves. All of these things are going to happen and be much more disruptive than the ice caps melting.
Is there a shock value to your work? I think showing this extreme scenario really catches peoples’ eyes. And from that I hope that they can look at other things that that might be more immediate that might impact us sooner.
What impact do you think you’ve having? I honestly don’t know. I think that people have noticed the work and I think it has brought attention to climate change. I think in terms of what my skills and talents are, and this probably is the best thing I can be doing.
Are you an activist or an artist? There are definitely activists out there who are doing amazing, incredible work. Every movement hopefully has its artists. That’s what I see my role as being. I take the work of scientists and make art out of it.
How can Seattle influence climate change? I think that Seattle has probably one of the most receptive audiences for this stuff, certainly in the United States.
Will Seattle become a place for climate refugees? People talk about the Pacific Northwest, and people are moving here from Phoenix or Texas to escape. It seems like Seattle’s going to be a destination, but we’re certainly not without our own big impacts. We had the the big heat dome last summer and smoke season has become a real thing.
How optimistic are you about the future? We need to be thinking along the lines of really changing the ways that we live. I don’t really see that happening. I think that there are certain people who are trying to design their lives for resiliency, but overall, we really need to change and rethink our patterns of housing and development. And we’re not really doing much of that. We’re making small steps. Big steps are really needed.
You create maps of various cities. What stands out about Seattle? We have so many hills and such steep terrain that we would lose a lot less of our city. The land that forms could be really fascinating. Seattle has an archipelago, a series of islands.
Are certain places in better shape for the future? Being a city on the West Coast is inherently advantageous. The topography on the East Coast is a long, shallow slope. There are miles and miles of low-lying coastal plains along the East Coast. Generally speaking, on the West Coast we have mountains that go right into the water. The most fascinating thing to me is to see the difference in the world, especially in places I know well. It’s like, this hill becomes an island and this valley becomes a bay.
Through your work, are you saying this is inevitable, or is it a call to action? I don’t know if I’m really saying either one of those things. I just want to sort of plant a seed that this is far future, deep time sort of stuff. But it is happening.
Have you done any shorter-term maps? I’ve done some analysis for King County that shows a more immediate effect of sea level rises. In the next 70 years or so, it is going to really impact the Duwamish River Valley and the industrial areas there. It’s probably within my daughter’s lifetime.
Where did you come up with the ‘Conspiracy of Cartographers’ name for your website? I’ve had a website showing things for about eight years. If you ever saw the Tom Stoppard play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” you know that “conspiracy of cartographers” is a line from that. It sounded more fun. And it’s also kind of mocking folks who might deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change.
Do lots of people buy these maps off the site? I try to sell most of the things that I make. It goes in waves. People discover it and buy things, but it’s not supporting me.
Did you invent the term ‘speculative cartography?’ I felt like I coined it at the time, but I’m sure other people have used it.
What interests you most about this process? It’s really the dream job, working with old maps and combining nostalgia with science fiction. It’s almost a steam punk aesthetic. Or, and this is a term I recently discovered, solar punk, which is a bit more optimistic in its outlook.