Spotlight on… heart disease

Coronary heart disease is the single biggest killer in the UK today. While some risk factors are non-modifiable, there are many lifestyle choices you can make that can help to keep your heart healthy. Nutritionist Jo Lewin explores the effect different foods have on heart health and suggests recipes to help you on your way…

A red heart-shaped bowl with a knife and fork

We are repeatedly told that eating a balanced diet can improve our health, both now and in the future. Diet plays an important role in the prevention of coronary heart disease. Maintaining a healthy weight can also help keep blood pressure within the normal range.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease or cardiovascular disease (CVD) includes all diseases of the heart and circulation including coronary heart disease (angina and heart attack) heart failure and stroke. CHD and stroke may be caused by the process of atherosclerosis, which happens when the arteries (that supply the heart and brain with oxygen-rich blood) become narrowed by a gradual build up of fatty material within their walls. In time, the arteries may become so narrow that they cannot deliver enough oxygenated blood to the heart muscle when it needs it. The pain or discomfort that this can cause is called angina. A heart attack can cause permanent damage and happens when a narrowed coronary artery becomes blocked by a blood clot, so oxygenated blood cannot reach the heart. A stroke happens when a blood clot blocks an artery that carries blood to the brain or when a blood vessel bursts and bleeds into the brain – starving brain cells of oxygenated blood.

What causes heart disease?

There are certain things about you and your lifestyle that can increase your risk. Risk factors that you can do something about include:

Risk factors that you can’t control include:

  • Family history of cardiovascular disease
  • Your ethnic background
  • Your age – the older you are, the more at risk you are of developing cardiovascular disease
  • Your sex – research shows that men are more likely to develop CHD at an earlier age than women

Food for a healthy heart

Get your five-a-day

A brightly coloured rainbow tuna salad

Eating a diet rich in a range of fruits and vegetables can help to lower the risk of heart disease. Fruit and vegetables are full of vitaminsminerals, fibre and other nutrients, all of which may play a role in helping to reduce our risk of coronary heart disease in different ways. Fresh, frozen, chilled, canned or dried fruit and vegetables along with beans, pulses and 100%, unsweetened juice (not from concentrate) all count. Aim to eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day.

Recipe suggestions – get on your way to five-a-day:
Tuna rainbow salad
Shredded green salad
Red lentil & squash dahl

Fruit and vegetables are rich in antioxidants and potassium, a mineral that may help to control blood pressure and regulate your heartbeat. Fruit, green leafy vegetables and root veg are also rich in folate, which is essential for the formation of blood cells and helps control the level of a compound called homocysteine in the blood. There is growing evidence that people with high levels of homocysteine may have a higher risk of CHD.


The message regarding this macronutrient is clear. Keep saturated fat within Reference Intakes (RI) or guideline daily amounts and focus on heart-friendly fats. Heart-friendly fats include the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds (and their oils) and oily fish. Cut down on pastries, crisps and biscuits and eat more fruit and vegetables.

Saturated fat is frequently vilified as it is linked to cardiovascular disease. Red meat, butter, cheese, burgers and sausages, are high in saturated fat, as are ghee, coconut and palm oils. A diet high in saturated fat can increase blood fats including triglycerides as well as increase your risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. However, recent studies are now suggesting that the saturated fats in certain foods such as those in dairy products including cheese, do not appear to be as harmful as once thought. This may be because other nutrients in dairy, like calcium, may modify the effects on blood fats such as triglycerides.

Recipe suggestions – fill up on healthy, unsaturated fats:
Avocado salad
Broccoli lemon chicken with cashews
The health benefits of nuts

Oily fish

A super healthy salmon salad dish with couscous

Aim to eat two portions of fish a week, at least one of which should be oily. Oily fish provides the richest source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats that can help lower blood triglyceride levels. Eating oily fish regularly can help to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.  Choose oily fish such as herring, mackerel, pilchards, sardines, salmon and trout.

Recipe suggestions – heart-healthy fish suppers:
Tangy trout
Super healthy salmon salad
Grilled mackerel with soy, lime & ginger

If you don’t like oily fish, there are some vegetarian sources of omega-3 fats that you can include in your diet. These include flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, rapeseed and walnuts. The type of omega-3 fats in these foods is a less potent form than you find in oily fish, so you will need to eat them regularly.


Fibre can also help reduce the amount of cholesterol absorbed into your bloodstream. Try to include, porridge oats, beans, pulses, lentils, nuts, fruits and vegetables. They are all high in soluble fibre, which can help lower cholesterol. A high fibre diet also helps fill you up, making you less likely to snack on fattening foods.

Recipe suggestions – high-fibre favourites:
Vegetable & bean chilli
Courgette, pea & pesto soup
Apple & blueberry bircher


Asparagus soldiers with a soft boiled egg

Try to reduce the amount of salt you eat as regularly eating too much is linked to raised blood pressure. On average, people in the UK are eating more salt than they need. It is recommended that adults have no more than 6 grams of salt a day. That is about one teaspoonful.  Don’t add salt to your food at the table and try to use herbs, garlic, spices or lemon juice to add flavour.

Salt is hidden in foods such as packet/canned products, instant noodles, soups, ketchups, sauces and salty savoury snacks, as well as the everyday foods we eat like bread and breakfast cereals, so it’s important to use nutritional information on the front or back of packs to make low salt choices. Many everyday foods such as bread and cereals contain a lot of salt too.

Recipe suggestions – slash the salt in all your meals:
Low-salt breakfast recipes
Low-salt lunches
Low-salt dinner ideas
Processed foods

Often high in saturated fat, salt and sugar, processed foods can pose a quandry when trying to eat healthily. Try cooking from scratch, using basic, fresh and if possible, seasonal ingredients. Also check food labels.


It is important to stick to recommended limits for alcohol – 14 units a week. Avoid binge drinking and if you do over indulge, avoid alcohol for the following 48 hours.  Alcohol is also high in calories and even a small amount can increase your appetite and so can be linked to weight gain. For more information on healthy drinking habits, visit

For more information visit…

The British Heart Foundation
The Stroke Association
Diabetes UK

More ways to keep your heart healthy…

The best heart-healthy recipes
What to eat for a healthy heart
Top 10 tips for a healthy heart
Heart-healthy portions
More health and nutrition tips

This article was last reviewed on 27th September 2017 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

Jo Lewin works as a Community Nutritionist and private consultant. She is a Registered Nutritionist (Public Health) registered with the UKVRN. Visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.



A Serbian flight attendant who survived a plane crash from 33,000 feet in the sky afterward asked to return to her job

Featured image
Photo: clipperarctic CC BY-SA 2.0

Italian master fantasist Dino Buzzati in 1966 wrote about the Ragazza Che Precipita or “The Falling Girl,” a story about Marta and her great descent from the rooftop of a gigantic skyscraper.

Buzzati masterfully used Zeno’s mathematical paradox in his narrative to slow down time as if it were not passing at all for the little girl, forcing her to contemplate her life. Many say that when people are in a state of emergency and faced with grave danger, time moves very slowly for them as well. In truth, the feeling is just an illusion and our brains are simply working faster on such occasions.

That being said, who knows how fast was it going for Vesna Vulovic in 1972 and what dreams and goals she felt she would miss as she was descending, not from a tall skyscraper, but while stuck within an airplane that burst into flames 33,000 feet up and falling ablaze, quickly accelerating towards the inevitable crash that was getting closer and closer with every passing second.

Was she thinking about all the things she would never have a chance to have? Was she thinking about her parents, about her loved ones? About everything she was about to lose. Of kids perhaps? She was 22.

All memory of the plane crash stayed forever suppressed as fragments tucked away in a far corner of her brain–a brain that luckily survived intact after her skull was completely shattered along with both of her legs, two vertebrae bones, her whole pelvis, and several ribs. She was smashed, shattered, and broken all over, yet she survived and miraculously recovered. She had no memory of what went wrong or what happened on the way down. Nor of what she was doing the whole time. Remarkably, she asked to be reinstated in her old position as a flight attendant.

Vulovic was working on board the McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 aircraft, Flight 367 for JAT Yugoslav Airlines, that exploded mid-air and split into two over Czechoslovakia. She was not even supposed to be on the plane. She had had a day off but was mixed up with another flight attendant with the same name and was called by mistake. An hour into the flight, as they were headed from Stockholm to Belgrade, a bomb went off in the cargo hold. Twenty-seven of the 28 passengers and crew members on-board died–either in the initial explosion, sucked out of the jet plane into subfreezing temperatures on the way down, or killed when they hit the snow near the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany, in the small village of Srbská Kamenice.

Roughly 250 people lived in the village that frosty day of January 6, 1972. One of them heard the helpless women screaming for help in agony. His name was Bruno Honke and he found her nearly dead with her legs visible in the plane wreckage. She was losing a lot of blood, but a rescue team arrived quickly and took her to a hospital.

“The first thing I remember is seeing my parents in the hospital. I was talking to them and asking them why they were with me,” she said to Green Light Limited, a London based security training firm who approached her for an interview in 2002, three decades after her devastating crash.

“When I saw a newspaper and read what had happened, I nearly died from the shock,” she said in the New York Times in 2008. An investigation concluded that when the bomb went off and detached the cockpit from the rest of the plane, she found herself trapped in her seat by the food cart that miraculously kept her stuck in place the whole time.

 She was in a coma for a couple of weeks after the incident but fortunately for her, the snow was thick and the plane crashed in the trees of a forested hillside that probably softened the blow enough to spare her life.

Though she was paralyzed from the waist down at first, within months she made a full recovery and went on to live a normal life (with a limp though), for the next 40 years, or until December 23, 2016, when a neighbor found her dead in her apartment in Belgrade.

“I was broken and the doctors put me together again. Nobody ever expected me to live this long,” she confessed in the same interview for the New York Times.

And nobody did indeed expect her to survive the injuries. As nobody ever imagined that, right after her recovery, she would ask her employer to resume working as a flight attendant. However, JAT Yugoslav Airlines believed that putting her back up in the air could bring bad press and risk terrifying the passengers who would be with her on the same plane and would recognize her. “They didn’t want me because they didn’t want so much publicity about the accident,” she said for Green Light.

Instead, they gave her an office job, and Vesna Vulovic, who continued to travel by air, never really was seen as a threat by passengers. On the contrary. “People always want to sit next to me on the plane,” she said. After all, she was a real hero in her country and was recognized as “the woman who cheated death” throughout south-east Europe. So in a way perhaps they saw her as a lucky charm on their flights.

As of what might have happened, it is still unclear to this day. One theory states that a bomb was placed in the luggage compartment right below the cockpit during their stop-over in Copenhagen, and another one stipulates that the plane had some problems and was looking for a safe landing in Czechoslovakia but got really low, really fast–and close to a nuclear weapons storage facility and was shot down by fighter jets. However, black boxes were never recovered, no one was arrested, and nothing was ever proven.

For what is worth, Vulovic, who unintentionally holds the record for surviving the highest free fall without a parachute, and was credited in the Guinness Book of Records of 1985, made sure to live a life worth living and make every second count.

After the devastating accident, she used all her popularity and public persona to fight against injustice and the dictatorial governance in her home country, led by President Slobodan Milosevich, who later stood trial in Hague accused of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, and was labeled as the “Butcher of the Balkans.”

 Martin Chalakoski

Miami’s fight against rising seas

Just down the coast from Donald Trump’s weekend retreat, the residents and businesses of south Florida are experiencing regular episodes of water in the streets. In the battle against rising seas, the region – which has more to lose than almost anywhere else in the world – is becoming ground zero.

The first time my father’s basement flooded, it was shortly after he moved in. The building was an ocean-front high-rise in a small city north of Miami called Sunny Isles Beach. The marble lobby had a waterfall that never stopped running; crisp-shirted valets parked your car for you. For the residents who lived in the more lavish flats, these cars were often BMWs and Mercedes. But no matter their value, the cars all wound up in the same place: the basement.

When I called, I’d ask my dad how the building was doing. “The basement flooded again a couple weeks ago,” he’d sometimes say. Or: “It’s getting worse.” It’s not only his building: he’s also driven through a foot of water on a main road a couple of towns over and is used to tiptoeing around pools in the local supermarket’s car park.

Ask nearly anyone in the Miami area about flooding and they’ll have an anecdote to share. Many will also tell you that it’s happening more and more frequently. The data backs them up.

It’s easy to think that the only communities suffering from sea level rise are far-flung and remote. And while places like the Solomon Islands and Kiribati are indeed facing particularly dramatic challenges, they aren’t the only ones being forced to grapple with the issue. Sea levels are rising around the world, and in the US, south Florida is ground zero – as much for the adaptation strategies it is attempting as for the risk that it bears.

Florida State Road A1A runs the entire length of Florida along the ocean

Florida State Road A1A runs the entire length of Florida along the ocean, making it vulnerable to flooding – as shown here in Fort Lauderdale in 2013 (Credit: Alamy)

One reason is that water levels here are rising especially quickly. The most frequently-used range of estimates puts the likely range between 15-25cm (6-10in) above 1992 levels by 2030, and 79-155cm (31-61in) by 2100. With tides higher than they have been in decades – and far higher than when this swampy, tropical corner of the US began to be drained and built on a century ago – many of south Florida’s drainage systems and seawalls are no longer enough. That means not only more flooding, but challenges for the infrastructure that residents depend on every day, from septic tanks to wells. “The consequences of sea level rise are going to occur way before the high tide reaches your doorstep,” says William Sweet, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The flooding would be a challenge for any community, but it poses particular risks here. One recent report estimated that Miami has the most to lose in terms of financial assets of any coastal city in the world, just above Guangzhou, China and New York City. This 120-mile (193km) corridor running up the coast from Homestead to Jupiter – taking in major cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach – is the eighth most populous metropolitan area in the US. It’s also booming. In 2015, the US Census Bureau found that the population of all three counties here was growing – along with the rest of Florida – at around 8%, roughly twice the pace of the US average. Recent studies have shown that Florida has more residents at risk from climate change than any other US state.

Along with new developments, south Florida is home to historic properties

Along with new developments, south Florida is home to historic properties which are at risk, as in the Art Deco district of Miami Beach (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

It has more property at risk, too. In Miami-Dade County, developers had 1.6 million sq ft (149,000 sq m) of office space and 1.8 million of retail space under construction in the second quarter of 2016 alone. Sunny Isles Beach, home to 20,300 people, has eight high-rise buildings under construction; swing a seagull in the air, and you’ll hit a crane. As you might imagine, the value of development in this sun-soaked part of the country is high, too. Property in Sunny Isles alone is now worth more than $10 billion. Many of the wealthiest people in the US reside in Florida, including 40 billionaires on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans; on a recent week, the most expensive real estate listing in the US was a $54 million mansion in Palm Beach.

Despite his history of referring to climate change as a “hoax” and his recent rollback of emissions-slashing initiatives, President Donald Trump is one of these property owners with a stake in the issue. The president frequently visits his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, 75 miles (121km) north of Miami, which is itself an area experiencing flooding from high tides. There also are six Trump-branded residential buildings in Sunny Isles, one of which still provides the president with income, and a Trump-branded condominium complex in Hollywood.

Sunny Isles Beach is home to $10 billion in property

Sunny Isles Beach is home to $10 billion in property, including six Trump-branded buildings (Credit: Alamy)

Look beyond all the glass and steel, though, and – despite the federal government’s sidelining of the issue – there’s another thrum of activity. It’s the wastewater treatment plant constructing new buildings five feet higher than the old ones. The 105 miles (169km) of roads being raised in Miami Beach. The new shopping mall built with flood gates. The 116 tidal valves installed in Fort Lauderdale. The seawalls being raised and repaired. And the worried conversations between more and more residents every year about what the sea-rise models predict – and what to do about it.

The communities aren’t short of solutions. “Nobody’s doing better adaptation work in the country than south Florida,” says Daniel Kreeger, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Climate Change Officers. But the question isn’t whether this work will save every community: it won’t. Even those tasked with making their cities resilient admit that, at some point in the future, certain areas here will no longer be “viable” places to live. Rather, the challenge is to do enough to ensure that the economy as a whole continues to thrive and that tourists still come to enjoy the sun, sand – and swelling sea.

Signs like these have become ubiquitous in Miami Beach

Signs like these have become ubiquitous in Miami Beach, where officials are determined to fight flooding and have launched a multi-pronged plan (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

It’s a challenge that many officials and experts are determined to meet. Getting there, though, requires a shift in how everyone from mayors to taxpayers, insurers to engineers, property developers to urban planners thinks about their communities – and the everyday decisions that shape them. The eyes of the world are on them: if one of the richest communities on the planet can’t step up, what hope is there for everyone else?

“If the science is correct on this – which it is going to be – the question is, ‘How extreme are the implications?’” says Kreeger. “We are literally going to have to rewrite how businesses function, and how cities are designed. Everything’s going to change. And that’s particularly going to be exacerbated in coastal communities.

“This would be no different than if I came to you and said ‘Hey, in 40 years, gravity’s going to change. I can’t tell you exactly what it’s going to be. But let’s assume roughly between 50% and 80% stronger or weaker than it is now.’ You’d look around and say ‘Shoot, what’s that going to affect?’

“And the answer is: it affects everything.”
Sea level rise is global. But due to a variety of factors – including, for this part of the Atlantic coast, a likely weakening of the Gulf Stream, itself potentially a result of the melting of Greenland’s ice caps – south Floridians are feeling the effects more than many others. While there has been a mean rise of a little more than 3mm per year worldwide since the 1990s, in the last decade, the NOAA Virginia Key tide gauge just south of Miami Beach has measured a 9mm rise annually.

That may not sound like much. But as an average, it doesn’t tell the whole story of what residents see – including more extreme events like king tides (extremely high tides), which have been getting dramatically higher. What’s more, when you’re talking about places like Miami Beach – where, as chief resiliency officer Susanne Torriente jokes, the elevation ranges between “flat and flatter” – every millimetre counts. Most of Miami Beach’s built environment sits at an elevation of 60-120cm (2-6ft). And across the region, underground infrastructure – like aquifers or septic tanks – lies even closer to the water table.

When every foot of elevation matters

When every foot of elevation matters, even raising a driveway – as the owners of this Fort Lauderdale property have done – can help keep property dry (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)


On a nearly two-hour tour of Fort Lauderdale’s adaptation strategies, the city’s head of sustainability, Nancy Gassman, points out incremental differences in elevation: slight rolls in the sidewalk or paving that usually go unnoticed. “That might seem weird that I’m pointing out a couple of feet difference,” she says. “But a couple feet in south Florida – it’s time. Elevation is time for us.”

Not only are sea levels rising, but the pace seems to be accelerating. That’s been noted before – but what it means for south Florida was only recently brought home in a University of Miami study. “After 2006, sea level rose faster than before – and much faster than the global rate,” says the lead author Shimon Wdowinski, who is now with Miami’s Florida International University. From 3mm per year from 1998 to 2005, the rise off Miami Beach tripled to that 9mm rate from 2006.

An uptick also happened between the 1930s and 1950s, says Wdowinski, making some question whether this is a similar oscillation. But that’s probably wishful thinking. “It’s not necessarily what we see now. This warming of the planet has been growing for a while,” he says. “It’s probably a different process than what happened 60 years ago.”

Miami Beach is a narrow barrier island

Like other popular areas including Sunny Isles and Hollywood Beach, Miami Beach is a narrow barrier island with the ocean on one side (Credit: Alamy)

“Can we definitely say it’s the ocean warming?” says Sweet, who has authored several sea-level rise studies. “No. But is it indicative of what we’d expect to see? Yes.”

Modelling specific future scenarios is difficult – partly because scientists are still collecting and analysing data, partly because there are so many variables. What if the US or China reverses its trend on stabilising emissions? What if a major volcano erupts? What if a glacier melts more quickly than expected? But enough credible projections have been done to put together a range of scenarios that researchers are confident about.

One graph compiled in 2015 by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a non-partisan initiative that collates expertise and coordinates efforts across Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties, is especially revealing (see below). At the bottom is a dotted green line, which rises slowly. Before you get optimistic, the footnote is firm: “This scenario would require significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in order to be plausible and does not reflect current emissions trends.” More probable is the range in the middle, shaded blue, which shows that a 6-10in (15-25cm) rise above 1992 levels is likely by 2030. At the top, the orange line is more severe still, going off the chart – to 81 inches (206cm) – by the end of the century.

This oft-used range of estimates puts a 6-10in rise by 2030 as a likely scenario

This oft-used range of estimates puts a 6-10in rise by 2030 as a likely scenario (Credit: Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact)

But as more data comes in, even the worst-case estimates may turn out to be too low: for example, researchers recently discovered that ice is melting more rapidly than expected from both Antarctica and Greenland, plus gained a better understanding of how melting ice sheets actually affect sea-level rise. “The unlikely scenarios are now, all of a sudden, becoming more probable than they once were thought to be,” says Sweet.

The most dramatic impacts may not be felt for 50 or 100 years. But coastal communities are already experiencing more storms and extremely high tides known as king tides. In the same study, Wdowinski found there were a total of 16 flood events in Miami Beach from 1998 to 2005. From 2006 to 2013, there were 33.

Although the timing of king tides results from the positions of the Sun, Moon and Earth, rising seas heighten their effect. At extreme high tides, water levels have surged to an inch below the Intracoastal Waterway, says Jennifer Jurado, Broward County’s chief resiliency officer. “Once that’s breached, you’re open to the ocean – the supply of water is endless. The system is really at capacity. These are flood conditions, even with just the high tide and supermoon… You see men in business suits trying to trudge through water.”

Taken in 2012, before Miami Beach’s current initiatives

Taken in 2012, before Miami Beach’s current initiatives, this photograph shows one of the city’s sidewalks during a flood (Credit: Alamy)

Even without floods, the rising water table affects everything. The cities here are built on porous limestone. The water doesn’t just come over seawalls; it seeps up from beneath the streets. Nearly 90% of the drinking water in south Florida comes from aquifers, and these are finding their fresh water pushed further and further inland as the salt water exerts more and more pressure. Take Hallandale Beach, a small city of just under 40,000 residents. Saltwater already has breached five of the eight freshwater wells that the city draws from, says Vice Mayor Keith London. And around a quarter of Miami-Dade residents use septic tanks. If these don’t remain above the water table, the result could be thoroughly unpleasant.

Rising sea levels also create a potential problem for Florida’s beaches

Rising sea levels also create a potential problem for Florida’s beaches (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)


Another issue is beach erosion. Florida’s sand may be one of its biggest draws for tourist dollars, but it, too, is vulnerable: though sand never stays put, rising sea levels and worsening storms mean the need to replenish is intensifying. A massive town-by-town project is currently underway; Miami Beach (which, famously, was manmade from the startjust wrapped up its 3,000ft (914m) section, to the tune of $11.9 million.

Of course, another part of the problem is that south Florida is built on a swamp. “The only reason we live here is we learned how to drain it, we learned how to kill mosquitos, and we created air conditioning,” says Jim Murley, chief resilience officer for Miami-Dade County. Residents cut canals to drain inland areas, using the fill to raise the land and build properties. These canals are now open doors for tidal flooding and storm surge. They also cut down mangrove forests and levelled sand dunes – both natural barriers to flooding.

“There is going to need to be a very serious conversation about how we deal with this,” says George Vallejo, the mayor of North Miami Beach. “The development that has happened here over the last 40 or 50 years has not been helpful to this situation. We’ve paved over a lot of the Everglades, we’ve paved over a lot of greenage.

“We’ve done a lot of things that, in retrospect, we would have done differently, knowing what we know now.”

That’s the bad news. But there’s good news, says Gassman, whose no-nonsense demeanour and doctorate in marine biology (with a focus on coastal ecosystems) makes her particularly convincing. “That’s all if nothing changes. I think that’s another thing that the public doesn’t necessarily understand: the predictions that they’re hearing, time and time again, are if we do nothing. But we’re not doing nothing.”

That’s point one. Point two is that the topography of the area isn’t quite what you’d expect. She brings out a map of Fort Lauderdale dotted with squares of purple and orange. Purple means an area is likely to be underwater at 2ft (61cm) of sea level rise; orange means it’s possible. A surprisingly small amount of the map is splashed with colour. And the at-risk areas – which are mostly by the bay, not the ocean – aren’t where you might think. “It’s not the whole city,” she says. “While there are problems in some areas, we’ll have to adjust, but these areas are not in places you’d expect – and we’ll have time to address some of these issues.”

Fort Lauderdale’s canals make some of its neighbourhoods especially vulnerable

Fort Lauderdale’s canals make some of its neighbourhoods especially vulnerable (Credit: Alamy)

Not every community might be so lucky. Play the inundation game with Noaa’s perversely addictive mapping tool in Hollywood, just 10 miles (16km) south of Fort Lauderdale, and you’ll find that the same 2ft (61cm) rise could put streets and most properties of an entire square-mile swathe underwater – not insignificant for a city measuring just 30 sq miles (78 sq km). (Hollywood also has its own intervention programme underway, including the installation of 18 flap gates to keep seawater from coming up through the drainage system). Still, it’s a good reminder that the problem, as overwhelming as it seems, can be broken down into smaller pieces.

Which is exactly what Gassman and others are trying to do. Touring the city with Gassman is to see it in an entirely new way: not just a city of graceful mansions and pretty canals, but of seawalls that are leaking or too short, fire hydrants that are made of iron (“a fundamental, emergency-based infrastructure that’s made out of a material that’s potentially corrosive from saltwater”), drains that are overflowing and electrical boxes that need to be raised.

During king tides, the water has come up to the steps

During king tides, the water has come up to the steps of Fort Lauderdale’s nearly 125-year-old Stranahan House, shown here (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

“See, those cars are disappearing from view,” she says, pointing to the dip in the road in front of us. We turn onto Isle of Capri Drive. “Look what’s happening. Look how far I’m going to go down. This area floods all the time.”

Fort Lauderdale is dubbed the Venice of America. That’s supposed to be because of its 165 miles (266km) of canals, but recent flooding has made the nickname more on the nose than residents would like.

For both Fort Lauderdale and other communities across south Florida, the main problem is drainage. The systems here were designed to let stormwater drain into the ocean when it rains. Because homes and gardens are higher than the crown of the road, the streets flood first in a storm, by design. Water runs into the storm drain and is piped into the ocean or waterways that lead there.

At least, that’s what is supposed to happen. With sea levels now often higher than the exits to the run-off pipes, saltwater is instead running up through the system and into the streets. To make matters worse, when the sea gets even higher, it can breach the seawall, flood people’s yards and flow down to the road – where it stays.

This outfall shows a common issue

This outfall shows a common issue: right now, it is lower than the water level, meaning it can’t drain (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

Since 2013, Fort Lauderdale has been installing tidal valves to deal with the problem. Each of the one-way valves, which allows stormwater through but not saltwater, looks like a big rubber tube and can be attached inside the storm drains. Gassman pulls one out to show me. “If you stick your hand in there and push a little bit, see how it opens?” I do. “Right there, you were fresh water. Now you’re about to be salt water.” She flips the valve around. I push: sure enough, it’s a no-go.

In some areas, the valves alone have been enough. But there’s a catch: the floodwater still can’t leave if the tide is above the level of the outflow pipes. That happened early on at one of the first places they installed a valve, Gassman says. A king tide came over the tops of the seawalls, flooded the street – and then remained higher than the outfall. “The valve wouldn’t open. So the roads stayed flooded 24/7,” she says. “We have had complaints that the valves aren’t working. But no. The valves are working.”

As these workers show, each valve comes with more of an expense

As these workers show, each valve comes with more of an expense than its purchase price; it also needs to be regularly inspected and maintained (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

Despite the limitations of the valves, it doesn’t take an engineer to figure out that raising seawalls would fix flooding that resulted from high sea levels, if not from rain. But until recently, Fort Lauderdale had a height requirement for seawalls that was a maximum, not a minimum – for aesthetic reasons. Though some now do specify a minimum height, enforcement remains difficult. A new seawall runs from $600 to $2,000 for a linear foot; adding a 12in (30cm) cap costs about $60 per foot. For the average homeowner, a seawall measures 75-100ft (23-30m). “How are you going to force everyone to put in money?” asks Gassman.

It turns out you can’t, at least for now. Last year, Fort Lauderdale proposed that everyone should be made to raise their seawalls to a certain height by 2035. Thanks to opposition from the public, the proposal failed. Instead, property owners are required to keep their seawalls in a state of good repair. Someone can be reported to the authorities if their seawall is breached by the tide, but the specific new height requirement only kicks in if someone came to ask for the permit – which is required to do significant repairs, or to build a new wall. And Fort Lauderdale makes an interesting test case: if costs seem prohibitive in this relatively well-off area, it’s not going to work in south Florida’s less affluent communities – some of which also are suffering from similar flooding.

Despite Fort Lauderdale’s best efforts, seawalls here remain a patchwork of heights and states of repair. At Cordova Road, Gassman and I look over the finger isles pointing into the Stranahan River. Across the road from the marina, one house has bright-green grass: it’s new, put down after a flood last spring swamped their property with salt water.

Gassman points to an older house on the corner. Their seawall is about a foot lower than their neighbour’s. “That foot of difference allows water to run over their property and flood the road,” she says. “That one property, if we could fix that seawall, we could reduce a lot of flooding, right here.”

Fort Lauderdale

With its varying seawall heights, new decks and bridge, this corner of Fort Lauderdale shows the domino effect of changing one piece of infrastructure (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

It’s not just residents who need to make changes. The city also owns a seawall along this stretch; it, too, was breached recently. Replacing the nearly half-mile stretch could cost up to $5 million. But getting the funds is just the first challenge. The end of the seawall meets a bridge. If you raise the seawall two more feet, what do you do with that bridge to protect it? And what about the docks that residents are currently allowed to have here, all of which will have to be re-done? “The people that live here want a solution and they want it now,” says Gassman. “But there’s both a public and a private cost. And changing one piece of infrastructure starts to domino into needing to change all sorts of things.”

As well as seawalls, cities are investing in pumps. Many have put pump stations in the worst-hit neighbourhoods. But only Miami Beach has adopted an integrated, major pumping system as part of an aggressive overall defence strategy. Starting in 2013, the programme – which Torriente estimates will cost between $400 and $500 million – is multi-pronged. Pump stations have sprouted across Sunset Harbour, an industrial-turned-hip neighbourhood on the barrier island’s bay side, and are moving south.

A maintenance worker repairs one of the pump stations in Sunset Harbour

A maintenance worker repairs one of the pump stations in Sunset Harbour, the first neighbourhood in Miami Beach to launch the city’s defence strategy (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

Roads are being raised, too, sometimes by up to 2ft (61cm), to an elevation which the Southeast Florida Climate Compact’s projections put as a likely sea level height around 2065. Seawalls are being raised to a new minimum – something that residents in Miami Beach were more amenable to than in Fort Lauderdale. The city also is requiring that all new properties build their first floor higher.

One of the roads in Miami Beach being raised

One of the roads in Miami Beach being raised by about 2ft (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

It’s an ambitious agenda. And it’s one that’s working. Areas where roads have been raised and pumps installed have been much drier. But, as Gassman noted, it’s not enough to change one piece of infrastructure without changing everything else. In this case, what happens when you raise a road without raising all of the properties around it? Water can go into the properties.

That’s not supposed to happen when the pumps work. But they can fail. Antonio Gallo’s Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante is one of a number of businesses that have found their ground floors are now below the current road and sidewalk height. Last year, the pumps failed to kick in after a brief period of rain; the restaurant flooded, with diners stuck inside. When Gallo went to file his insurance claim, it was turned down. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), which runs a national flood insurance programme for at-risk business and property owners like Gallo, anything below street level is considered a basement. Until Fema changes their policy, that includes all of the businesses now below the raised streets. Miami Beach is working closely with Fema to get not only Gallo’s situation, but the general basement classification, re-assessed.

When Miami Beach raised its roads

When Miami Beach raised its roads, a number of businesses, like the restaurant shown here, found themselves below street level (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

Miami Beach’s efforts are the most aggressive. But resilience also can be built into existing projects. A lot of public infrastructure is built to last for at least 50 or 75 years, and that means planning for what the world will look like then. This is where the Compact’s range of scenarios comes in handy. If you’re laying down something easily replaceable, like a sidewalk, you could build for one of the more optimistic scenarios. An airport? It’s a good idea to go for a higher-risk scenario.

Murley, the chief resilience officer of Miami-Dade County (the county’s first), points to a 4,200ft-long (1280m) tunnel that runs from the Port of Miami to highway I395. Opened in 2014, its main objective was to re-route lorries that previously went through downtown Miami. But the tunnel was also given a huge gate that, in a hurricane, drops down to seal it at both ends. “That’s an example of resilience. We wouldn’t have built that 10 years ago,” says Murley. “We would have built the tunnel, but it would have had an open front. We might have had sand bags.”

A larger-scale example of built-in resilience is going on at the Central District Wastewater and Treatment Plant on Virginia Key, a barrier island where Biscayne Bay and the ocean meet, just east of downtown Miami. It is one of three wastewater treatment plants run by the largest utility in Florida, which serves 2.3 million of the county’s 2.6 million residents. Like the other two, it sits right by the water.

One of many aspects of south Florida’s infrastructure

The Central District Wastewater and Treatment Plant is one of many aspects of south Florida’s infrastructure which is vulnerable to rising seas (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

The plant already had a $500 million project on the go, making changes to comply with new Clean Water Act requirements. But because parts of the facility are expected to last 75 years or more, resilience to higher sea levels and storm surge has been baked into the design. Analysts ran what would be needed in a worst-case scenario: a category five hurricane during a king tide, with maximum rainfall. “What the results told us was that we ought to be building stuff at 17-20ft (5-6m) above sea level on the coast. Our current facilities, by and large, range from 10-15ft (3-4.5m),” says Doug Yoder, deputy director of Miami-Dade’s water and sewer department. The new design standards prioritise building at those elevations first for parts of the plants that convey flow – like the electrical wiring and pumps. “At least we won’t have raw sewage flooding the streets,” says Yoder.

The new chlorine building, currently under construction

The new chlorine building, currently under construction, is designed to start at 16ft (4.8m) above ground level (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

Private developers will need to think about these issues, too. According to the non-partisan research organisation Risky Business, current projections put between $15 billion and $23 billion of existing Florida property underwater by 2050. By the end of the century, that leaps to between $53 and $208 billion.

But many developers aren’t thinking to 2050 or 2100. Their focus is on the time from construction to sale. In a hot real estate market like south Florida, where a lot of investors are foreign or periodic visitors, that timeframe is far shorter – a few years at most.

Cranes are at work and buildings under construction in Brickell

Cranes are at work and buildings under construction in Brickell, a trendy corner of Miami just over the water from the heart of downtown (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

Until regulations enforce common building standards, few private developers are likely to adopt resilient designs. “I think it’s very hard for a developer or builder to do something the code or government doesn’t require in their zoning or building code,” says Wayne Pathman, a Miami-based land use and zoning attorney and the chairman of the new City of Miami Sea Level Rise committee.

The $1 billion Brickell City Centre is one of Miami’s many buildings to go up

The $1 billion Brickell City Centre is one of Miami’s many buildings to go up in recent months (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

One exception is Brickell City Centre, a $1 billion, 9-acre complex of stores, restaurants, offices, condominiums and hotel in Brickell, a corner of downtown Miami filled with cranes and skyscrapers. Developed by Hong Kong-based Swire Properties, the complex is sleek and airy – and, says Chris Gandolfo, vice president of development for Swire’s US operations, resilient. “Starting years ago, Swire was progressive in its thinking on rising tides,” he says.

Gandolfo ticks off some of the adaptation strategies that were used: building higher than the current flood plain; flood gates that can seal off the underground car park; an elevated seawall. It also has sustainable features like green roofs, native plants and what the developers have dubbed a “climate ribbon” – a walkway that captures the bay winds to cool the structure and lower energy costs, and works as a cistern to re-use rainwater for irrigation. “We may not make immediate returns,” Gandolfo says. “But I think it’ll have long-term returns.”

As well as sleek and airy, developers say that Brickell City Centre is resilient

As well as sleek and airy, developers say that Brickell City Centre is resilient (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

All of this puts a catch-22 at the heart of south Florida’s development. The state levies no personal or business income taxes and has a low corporate income tax, meaning property taxes provide a major source of revenue. But unless it is managed very carefully, new development brings new challenges.

“Every one of these buildings that goes up expands your vulnerability and magnitude of risk,” says Kreeger. “On the flip side, you’re not getting help from the state, because the state legislature and governor are in total denial about climate change. So you’re bringing in money today which is going to help you. But you’re also bringing a bigger problem tomorrow.”

Thinking about any of this is a relatively new trend. Although scientists began speaking about sea level rise for several decades, the topic only saw real traction among local governments and businesses a few years ago.

Part of the reason is that the issue was being ignored by so many others. Most officials say that the Compact, signed in 2010, has been a major driver in helping local governments collect the data they need and coordinate together on what to do about it – and it was signed after the realisation that, despite concrete problems that had to be solved today, state, federal and international governments weren’t doing what was needed to address them.

The Florida governor is a climate change sceptic and has directed attention away from the issue. Former employees have said they even were told not to utter the phrase “climate change”. Ignoring the issue now appears to pervade the highest levels of US government: the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief doubts whether carbon dioxide plays a primary role in climate change, while President Trump recently signed an executive order overturning emissions-slashing regulations. Draft versions of the White House budget propose cutting the EPA budget by 31% and employee numbers by 20%, as well as steep cuts to Noaa – including 26% of the funds from its Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and entirely eliminating the Sea Grant programme, whose Florida section brings together 17 different universities to study sea level rise challenges and solutions.

This part of Hollywood, which sits on the city’s North Lake

In the North Lake neighbourhood of Hollywood, which experiences frequent flooding, a berm has been built (at right) to try to protect the houses (at left) (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

Local governments are forging on, but such circumstances make the challenge even greater. With budgets that run in the tens of millions, not billions, local governments already need to be fiscally creative. Meanwhile, planning depends on up-to-date data – there’s no point in raising seawalls if you don’t know how high they need to be. And some of the most reliable projection scenarios, as well as sea level rise data, is gathered from Noaa.

Yet the impact from these changes won’t stop at party lines. Even President Trump’s family isn’t immune. Three feet of sea level rise – which the range of predictions put together by Compact estimates is likely to happen within the next 60 years – will flood Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican commissioner when a neighbour calls you and tells you that their lawn is flooded,” says Gassman. “The water doesn’t care about politics. The water goes where the water goes. And someone who has a flooding problem that’s impacting their quality of life or their property values, they don’t care what flavour their politician is. What they care about is that the city is thinking about it, and that they’re planning to do something about it.”

Some of the communities in south Florida doing the most to adapt to the effects of sea level rise are doing so largely because of public pressure. In 1993, Miami-Dade put together its first plan to reduce carbon emissions. Hardly anyone came out for the committee hearing, Yoder says. Fast-forward to 2015: a hearing on the county’s budget was dominated by one resident after another asking why the county wasn’t doing more about sea level rise.

So much so, in fact, that the county decided to hire Murley, its first resilience officer. One of his immediate tasks was to look into getting onto the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities programme. Accepted cities receive funding and tailored guidance on how to make themselves adaptable to future challenges, from high unemployment to earthquakes and sea-level rise.

Greater Miami is just at the start of the process, Murley says. But he’s not the only one hoping that the resources made available will help guide the area far into the future. When I try to get in touch with the commissioners or mayor of Sunny Isles, I get a call back from Brian Andrews, a crisis PR consultant. He says sea level rise is something the city is aware of, but that “we’re waiting for the county” to gather data and send guidelines for an action plan. “They’re getting millions and millions from the Rockefeller Foundation for this,” he says. “We’re a little city. We couldn’t do it on our own.”

Some property owners have taken matters into their own hands

Some property owners have taken matters into their own hands: this house was built on a raised pad, as you can see from the four steps up to the door (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

Despite how awareness of the issue has grown in some communities – particularly those, like Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale, that have seen the most flooding – it’s still common for sea-level rise to get shunted to the end of the list of priorities. “As an elected official, when I go knock on doors, resiliency and sea level rise is never discussed,” says Esteban Bovo, chair of the Miami-Dade County Commission. “It’s never talked about. It’s crime, how much we’re going to invest in police, how much we’re going to invest in traffic, how much we’re going to invest in public safety, libraries – those are the topics of conversation.”

Later, I find myself playing with the Noaa sea-level tool again. I zoom in on Sunny Isles. At 1ft, the low-lying mangrove swamps of the Oleta River State Park, just over the water, are submerged and the wooded backyard of the Intracoastal Yacht Club disappears. At 2ft, the St Tropez Condominiums and the newly-built Town Center Park are underwater, as are many shops around 172nd Street. At 3ft, things start to get serious. Blue blots out the entire shopping plaza and the Epicure Market. At 4ft, the entire west side of Sunny Isles is uninhabitable. At 6ft, it’s gone. Only the spine near the beach – where my father lives – remains.

Adaptation strategies like those being undertaken in Miami Beach are just one part

Adaptation strategies like those being undertaken in Miami Beach are just one part of the solution (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

It’s easy to look at Compact’s range of estimates and think that, since a 3ft or 4ft rise may remain fairly far off, everything will be fine for a few more generations. But it’s not. With public infrastructure – from fresh water to flushing toilets to roads – woven between communities, if just one area gets affected, others may suffer. Meanwhile, resilience is only one piece. As shown by the Compact chart’s steep orange line, if emissions continue to rise, adaptation will become increasingly difficult – if not impossible. And unlike raising seawalls or installing tidal valves, that, of course, can’t be controlled by a community or region alone. “Climate change mitigation to reduce greenhouse gases is a global issue and has to be dealt with globally,” says Gassman. “Adaptation to the inevitable effects of climate change is a local issue.”

Later, peering out the window as my plane takes off over Miami, I no longer see the dense green squares of the city’s western edge, the sharp skyscrapers downtown and the surprisingly slender line of barrier islands. Instead, I see what might be lost. From here, the ocean looks vast.

But as the plane climbs, I remind myself that human innovation was enough to drain the swamp and make Florida what it is today. It was great enough to get me here, 15,000ft in the air. And it just might be enough to save what I see below.

By Amanda Ruggeri

Anthropology: The sad truth about uncontacted tribes

(Funai) (Credit: Funai)

On July 1,, the Brazilian governmental agency in charge of indigenous Indian affairs, quietly posted a short press release on its website: two days earlier, they said, seven members of an isolated Indian tribe emerged from the Amazon and made peaceful contact with people in a village near the Peruvian border.

As the first official contact with such a tribe since 1996, the event was out of the ordinary. But the event itself could have been anticipated. For weeks, local villagers in Brazil’s Acre state had reported sightings of the tribesman, who supposedly came to steal crops, axes and machetes, and who “mimicked monkey cries” that frightened women and children.

Two members of an isolated indigenous tribe from the Amazon (Funai) (Credit: Funai)

Two members of an isolated indigenous tribe from the Amazon investigate a settled community of villagers in Acre, Brazil (Funai)

The Indians’ decision to make contact was not driven by a desire for material goods, however, but by fear. With the help of translators who spoke a closely related indigenous Panoan language, the Acre Indians explained that “violent attacks” by outsiders had driven them from the forest. Later, details emerged that their elder relatives were massacred, and their houses set on fire. Illegal loggers and cocaine traffickers in Peru, where the Indians are thought to come from, are likely to blame, according to the Brazilian government. Indeed, Funai’s own nearby monitoring post was shut down in 2011 due to increasing escalations with drug traffickers.


After they decided the situation called for drastic measures, the Indians did not just stumble upon the Brazilian village by chance – they probably knew exactly where to go. “They know far more about the outside world than most people think,” says Fiona Watson, research director for the non-profit organisation Survival International. “They are experts at living in the forest and are well aware of the presence of outsiders.”

This gets to the heart of a common misconception surrounding isolated tribes such as the one in Acre: that they live in a bubble of wilderness, somehow missing the fact that their small corner of the world is in fact part of a much greater whole – and one that is dominated by other humans. “Almost all human communities have been in some contact with one another for as long as we have historical or archaeological records,” says Alex Golub, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Human prehistory is not like that game Civilizationwhere you start with a little hut and the whole map is black.”

Fear factor

Today’s so-called uncontacted people all have a history of contact, whether from past exploitation or simply seeing a plane flying overhead. The vast majority of an estimated 100 or more isolated tribes live in Brazil, but others can be found in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and northern Paraguay. Outside of the Americas, isolated groups live in Papua New Guinea and on North Sentinel Island of India’s Andaman Islands, the latter of which is home to what experts think is the most isolated tribe in the world, the Sentinelese. Nothing is known about their language, and Indian authorities have only rough estimates of how many of them exist today. But even the Sentinelese have had occasional brushes with other societies; members of their tribe have been kidnapped, helicopters sometimes fly over their island and they have killed fishermen who have ventured too close.

A member of the Yora tribe from the border between Bolivia and Peru - 1986 (Kim Hill) (Credit: Kim Hill)

A member of the Yora tribe from the border between Bolivia and Peru – 1986 (Kim Hill)

It is almost always fear that motivates such hostilities and keeps isolated groups from making contact. In past centuries and even decades, isolated tribes were often murdered and enslaved by outsiders. From the time white Europeans first arrived in the Americas, indigenous peoples learned to fear them, and passed that message down generations through oral histories. “People have this romanticised view that isolated tribes have chosen to keep away from the modern, evil world,” says Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State University. But when Hill and others interview people who recently came out of isolation, the same story emerges time and time again: they were interested in making contact with the outside world, but they were too afraid to do so. As Hill puts it: “There is no such thing as a group that remains in isolation because they think it’s cool to not have contact with anyone else on the planet.”

Some have personal memories of traumatic encounters with outsiders. In the 1960s and 70s, Brazil largely viewed the Amazon as an empty place in need of development. Indigenous people who stood in the way of that progress were given little or no warning before their homes were bulldozed over – or they were simply killed. In one case in Brazil’s Rondônia state, a single man, often referred to as “the Last of His Tribe,” remains in a patch of forest surrounded by cattle ranches. His people were likely killed by ranchers years ago. When he was discovered in 1996, he shot arrows at anyone who dared to approach his home. Funai officials sometimes check up on his house and garden, and, as far as anyone knows, he’s still living there today. “It’s a really sad story of this one little pocket of forest left where this one lone guy lives,” says Robert Walker, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri. “He’s probably completely terrified of the outside world.”

People from Brazil's Guaja tribe (Rob Walker) (Credit: Rob Walker)

People from Brazil’s Guaja tribe (Rob Walker)

In some cases in the 70s and 80s, the Brazilian government did try to establish peaceful contact with indigenous people, often with the aim of forced assimilation or relocation. They set up “attraction posts” – offerings of metal tools and other things indigenous Indians might find to be valuable – to try and lure them out of hiding. This sometimes led to violent altercations, or, more often than not, disease outbreaks. Isolated people have no immunity to some bugs, which have been known to wipe out up to half of a village’s population in a matter of weeks or months. During those years, missionaries traipsing into the jungle also delivered viruses and bacteria along with Bibles, killing the people they meant to save.

In 1987, Sydney Possuelo – then head of Funai’s Department of Unknown Tribes – decided that the current way of doing things was unacceptable. After seeing tribe after tribe demolished by disease, he concluded that isolated people should not be contacted at all. Instead, natural reserves should be placed aside for them to live on, and any contact attempts should be left up to them to initiate. “Isolated people do not manifest among us – they don’t ask anything of us – they live and die mostly without our knowledge,” he says. When we do contact them, he says, they too often share a common fate: “desecration, disease and death.”

Viral event

Unfortunately, history seems to be repeating itself. Three weeks after the Indians in Acre made contact, Funai announced that several of them had contracted the flu. All of them subsequently received treatment and vaccinations, but they soon returned to the forest. The fear, now, is that they will carry the foreign virus back with them to their home, spreading it to others who have no natural immunity.

“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen, other than to make doomsday predictions,” Hill says. “So far, things are looking just like they looked in the past.”

Possuelo – who was fired from Funai in 2006 after a disagreement with his boss over some of these concerns – issues a more direct warning: “What they do in Acre is very worrying: they are going to kill the isolated people,” he says. “The president of Funai and the Head of the Isolated Indians Department should be held accountable for not meeting established standards.” (Funai did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

Surprisingly, no international protocol exists that outlines how to avoid this predicament. “Every government and group involved in making contact just wings it according to their own resources and experiences,” Hill says.

The common problem is a lack of institutional memory. Even in places like Brazil with decades of experience, Hill says, “each new government official takes on the task without knowing much about what happened in the past.” Some officials, he adds, have minimal expertise. “Quasi-amateur is what I’d call them: government officials who come in with no medical, anthropological or epidemiological training.”

Total denial

The situation in Peru, Watson points out, is even worse. “At one stage, the Peruvian government denied that uncontacted people even exist,” she says. And now major oil and gas operations are allowed to operate on reserves containing their villages. Added to that is the presence of illegal loggers and drug traffickers – making for a very crowded forest.

A satellite image of a remote village (Google/Rob Walker) (Credit: Google/Rob Walker)

A satellite image of a remote village (Google/Rob Walker)

Native people living there seem to be well aware of these encroachments. Google Earth satellite images that Walker recently analysed reveal that one large isolated village in Peru seems to be migrating, year by year, further afield from outside encroachment on their land, including a planned road project. “Most people argue that what’s going on here is that they’re potentially being forced out of Peru,” he says. “It seems like they are running away.”

When accidental harm from the outside world seems inevitable, Hill argues it would be better if we initiated contact. Slowly building up a long-distance friendship, he explains, and then carrying out a controlled contact meeting with medical personnel on site would be preferable. After that initial contact is made, anthropologists should be prepared to go back into the forest with the group and stay on site to monitor the situation for several months, as well as build up trust and communication. That way, if an epidemic should break out, help can be called for. “You can’t just tell them after 15 minutes, ‘Oh, by the way, if your whole village gets sick, send everyone out to this spot to get medical treatment,’” Hill says. “They won’t comply with that.”

It’s unclear whether or not such a plan is being carried out in Acre, however. “Funai is not the most transparent organisation, and they have complete monopoly on what happens to remote people in Brazil,” Hill says. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t work in the best interest of native peoples.”

Several members of an isolated indigenous tribe from the Amazon (Funai) (Credit: Funai)

Several members of an isolated indigenous tribe from the Amazon (Funai)

To ensure isolated groups have a future, both Brazil and Peru might need to become more transparent as well as more proactive about protecting them. No matter how remote the Amazon might seem, unlike the Sentinelese, South America’s isolated groups do not live on an island cut off from the forces of mainstream society. “Everywhere you look, there are these pressures from mining, logging, narcotrafficking and other external threats,” Walker says. “My worry is that if we have this ‘leave-them-alone’ strategy, at the end of the day the external threats will win. People will just go extinct.”

Thanks to João Victor Geronasso for translation help for this story. 

First published 2014  By Rachel Nuwer


The ancient Peruvian mystery solved from space

In one of the most arid regions in the world a series of carefully constructed, spiralling holes form lines across the landscape. Known as puquios, their origin has been a puzzle – one that could only be solved from space.

The holes are from the Nasca region of Peru – an area famous for the Nasca lines, several enormous geometric images carved into the landscape; immaculate archaeological evidence of ceremonial burials; and the rapid decline of this once flourishing society.

What adds to the intrigue in the native ancient people of Nasca is how they were able to survive in an area where droughts can last for years at a time.

The puquios were a “sophisticated hydraulic system constructed to retrieve water from underground aquifers,” says Rosa Lasaponara of the Institute of Methodologies for Environmental Analysis, in Italy. And they transformed this inhospitable region.

(Credit: Ab5602/Wikimedia/Public Domain)

The funnel-like shape helped to draw the wind down into the underground canals (Credit: Ab5602/Wikimedia/Public Domain)

The puquio system must have been much more developed than it appears today

Lasaponara and her team studied the puquios using satellite imaging. From this, the team were able to better understand how the puquios were distributed across the Nasca region, and where they ran in relation to nearby settlements – which are easier to date.

“What is clearly evident today is that the puquio system must have been much more developed than it appears today,” says Lasaponara. “Exploiting an inexhaustible water supply throughout the year the puquio system contributed to an intensive agriculture of the valleys in one of the most arid places in the world.”

A series of canals brought the water, trapped underground, to the areas where it was needed; anything left was stored in surface reservoirs. To help keep it moving, chimneys were excavated above the canals in the shape of corkscrewing funnels. These funnels let wind into the canals, which forced the water through the system.

Like many other South American cultures the Nasca had no writing system

“The puquios were the most ambitious hydraulic project in the Nasca area and made water available for the whole year, not only for agriculture and irrigation but also for domestic needs,” says Lasaponara, who has written about her satellite studies in Ancient Nasca World: New Insights from Science and Archaeology, which is due to be published later this year.

The origin of the puquios has remained a mystery to researchers because it was not possible to use traditional carbon dating techniques on the tunnels. Nor did the Nasca leave any clues as to their origin. Like many other South American cultures they had no writing system.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Some think the famous ‘Nasca lines’ related to the presence of water (Credit: Getty Images)

Their existence tells us something remarkable about the people who lived in the Nasca region from before 1,000 BC to AD750. “The construction of the puquios involved the use of particularly specialised technology,” says Lasaponara. Not only did the builders of the puquios need a deep understanding of the geology of the area and annual variations in water availability, maintaining the canals was a technical challenge as they spread across tectonic faults.

What makes them even more remarkable is that they still function today

“What is really impressive is the great efforts, organisation and cooperation required for their construction and regular maintenance,” she says. That meant a regular dependable water supply for centuries, in an area that’s one of the most arid places on Earth.

“Maintenance was likely based on a collaborative and socially organised system, similar to that adopted for the construction of the famous ’Nasca lines‘ which in some cases are clearly related to the presence of water.” The quality of construction was so good, that some of the puquios still function today.

These structures show the native people of the Nasca basin were not only highly organised, but that their society was structured in a hierarchy, says Lasaponara. She says the puquios were vital in “controlling water distribution by those in power over the communities that came under their influence.” Knowing how to bring water to one of the driest places on earth means that you hold the very key to life itself.

By William Park

7,000-year-old Native American burial site found off Florida

Divers search for more evidence underwater

Diver Nicole Grinnan measures the test unit’s depth using a laser level and folding ruler

Archaeologists have uncovered a Native American burial site dating back 7,000 years off the coast of Florida.

The site was found by an amateur diver in 2016 who was looking for shark teeth but stumbled on an ancient jawbone.

In a picture sent from the diver, archaeologist Ryan Duggins noticed a worn down molar tooth attached to the jawbone. This suggested it belonged to a prehistoric person.

Florida state officials called the find an “unprecedented discovery”.

Mr Duggins and his team began investigating the site from the “Archaic Period” located 900ft (275m) from shore.

The burial grounds are expected to cover about 32,000 sq feet (3,000 sq metres) off the coast of Manasota Key.

Underwater stake at burial siteImage copyrightFLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Image caption    One of the stakes excavated at Manasota Key Offshore revealed a notch in its length, it is not yet known what the notch was for

Underwater, the team found densely packed organic remains, human bones, and sharpened wooden stakes and textile fragments, according to National Geographic.

“Seeing a 7,000-year-old site that is so well preserved in the Gulf of Mexico is awe inspiring,” Mr Duggins said in a press release from the Florida Department of State.

“We are truly humbled by this experience.”

The site is believed to have been preserved in a freshwater pond thousands of years ago when water levels were 30ft (9m) lower, according the a press release..

The pond had a bottom covered in peat, which reportedly slowed the process of organic decay and allowed for the preservation of human remains.

“Our hope is that this discovery leads to more knowledge and a greater understanding of Florida’s early peoples,” said Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

The state said they are working closely with Native American tribes to ensure the proper treatment of the bones.

“We are happy to be working, shoulder to shoulder, with the Bureau of Archaeological Research and the residents of Manasota Key to identify a preservation plan that will allow the ancestors to continue to rest peacefully and without human disturbance for the next 7,000 years”, the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s historic preservation officer Paul Backhouse told the Bradenton Herald newspaper.

“The highest priority of all involved is to honour tribal beliefs and customs with respect to this ancestral resting place,” said the Florida Department of State.

Florida archaeologists have discovered other evidence of the Archaic period but say this discovery is remarkable because the site survived offshore through hurricanes and erosion.

“The vast majority of underwater archaeological projects have historically been focused on shipwrecks,” Mr Duggins told National Geographic.

From BBC News