spectral seas

On the North Carolina coast, sea levels are already up to 11 inches higher than they were in 1950. Spectral Seas, a collaborative installation created by the Arts and Anthropocene Bass Connections team depicts the scale of future sea level rise, with each color in the tapestry representing a different NOAA sea level rise prediction for 2100. The gray section represents the lowest prediction, 7 inches of additional sea level rise, which would require an immediate reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. The light green section represents over 6 feet of sea level rise, the highest prediction. At this level, the Duke University Marine Lab would be almost completely underwater.

Climate change is not the only force altering our oceans. Plastic pollution is entering our waterways at an alarming rate, harming human health, entangling wildlife, and damaging marine habitats. Pollution in our waterways is an issue that is interwoven with all forms of life. To reclaim, and perhaps re-engage, this single-use material, the tapestry is woven from plastic bags. Over 300 bags were collected from the Durham community and processed into “plarn” or plastic yarn.

The soundtrack for the installation is composed of field recordings along the North Carolina coast: the rising tide flowing into a salt marsh, waves breaking onto white sand, birds and insects singing in the distance. These sounds are meant to evoke a sense of the changes facing North Carolina’s coastal ecology. By incorporating images and movement, the video projections add another textural layer to the installation. Lapping waves, shadows of human figures, and photography from the Outer Banks aim to portray the impact of sea level rise on humans and the environment.  

In engaging with many aspects of the Anthropocene, this installation conjures both meanings of the word spectral. In color, we highlight a spectrum of sea-level rise predictions that hinge on today’s climate action. But we are also reflecting on the spectral or ghostly qualities of making art about sea level rise: the eeriness of impending floods from increasing storms, the swathes of skeletal trees killed by saltwater intrusion in North Carolina, the graveyards and homes being washed out to sea, memories adrift in the swelling ocean, carried away with the rising waves.

Video of the installation was filmed and edited by Emily MacDiarmid

For a more in-depth look at the science and local impacts of sea level rise, as well as our artistic process, read more in the Team StoryMaps:

Team Members:
Elizabeth Albright
Chaya Brennan Agarwal
Mingyong Cheng
Will Cioffi
Justin Cook
Ke Ding
Madison Griffin
Joyce Gu
Jonathan Henderson


Kendall Jefferys
Kate Kelley
Sarah Kelso
Ayesham Khan
Lizzy Kramer
Kathleen Mason
Alison Rosenbaum
Raquel Salvatella de Prada
Mila de Souza


Hillary Smith
Mark Olson
Jessica Orzulaz
Jessica Wang
Donovan Zimmerman

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