During Spring 2022, forty years after artist Xavier Cortada graduated from Miami Senior High School, he brought The Underwater to his alma mater.

Located in the Little Havana neighborhood, the school was founded in 1903 and is the oldest high school in Miami-Dade County. Since the late 1960s, the high school has traditionally had a Cuban-American majority. Today, a growing number of students are of Central American descent, reflecting demographic changes in Little Havana since the 1990s.

artist's message

Forty years ago I graduated from this high school. I’m a proud member of the Miami High Class of 1982 and the Miami High family. Ours is the first school established in Miami Dade County. It has a rich, beautiful history that has grown alongside our city. So many people, many of them immigrants or, like me, sons of refugees, walked these halls as they journeyed to a better future. Today’s students continue on that path of learning as they grow to become our future leaders, the future of Miami.  But these students also have a tremendous challenge.

We spend our lives working to deliver them a better tomorrow, a promising education, family, and career. However, I worry about what Miami’s future is going to look like 40 years from now when students here now reach my age. And what future will the class of 2062 inherit from the class of 2022?

Like our school, most of our homes and communities were built in flat Miami at a time when no one expected that Miami’s geography and geology would make its residents so vulnerable to the rising seas. By the time I was in high school, our society knew that polluting carbon into the atmosphere would warm our planet, cause polar glaciers to melt and raise our seas. Unfortunately, in these past 40 years little has been done to truly tackle the amount of carbon we as a society pump in the atmosphere. And that has to stop.

I developed The Underwater, this participatory art project, to help us better understand our vulnerability to global climate change and sea level rise and to give us the tools so that we could take action.

We’ve shared our knowledge with all the science students of this school and they’re sharing them with you and in hopes that they will inspire you to learn more about the problems facing us. The challenges before us are great, but so are our students.

The class of 2022 gives me hope. I know they will use their intellect, their ingenuity, their passion and their love –their empathy– for one another, to deliver a brighter future. The actions they lead us in taking today will lessen the suffering that would otherwise be endured by their children (your grandchildren) and the children of the class of 2062.

Let’s learn together and work together for the betterment of our community.


The Underwater is a socially engaged art project by Xavier Cortada aimed at working with communities in Miami to amplify “Underwater Voices” – those who are often underrepresented, underserved, and undervalued. In coordination with local partners, this effort uses data-driven art to systematically reveal Miami’s vulnerability to rising seas and mobilize residents to demand that government equitably plan for a future impacted by climate change. 

In spring 2022, Cortada’s project was launched in Miami with the support of the Xavier Cortada Foundation, Creative Capital and the University of Miami Laboratory for Integrated Knowledge (U-LINK)‘s On the Move: Climate Migration and Retreat in South Florida, the Caribbean, and Beyond interdisciplinary research team (where he serves as one of four principal investigators).

Little Havana

Cortada partnered with his alma mater, Miami Senior High School, to implement The Underwater across Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Working with Miami High’s science department, over the course of a few weeks, more than eighty 90-minute-long, interactive presentations were given to over 2,000 Miami High students. During each of these “Underwater Stories,” students learned why Miami is referred to as ground zero for climate change, used an app created by scientists at Florida International University to discover their home’s elevation above sea level, and ultimately painted their number on an “Underwater Elevation Marker” given to them by Cortada’s team. Importantly, students were encouraged to plant the elevation-marked signs in their front yards as a way of sparking climate-related conversation and action with anyone who inquires about them.

At the end of each presentation, students were also invited to browse the “Underwater Intel.” This online resource hub contains a curated selection of videos, books, podcasts, and more for anyone who wants to dive deeper in their climate education. Additionally, the Intel highlights Miami-based organizations to get involved with, inspiring leaders to learn from, and special places around South Florida to explore. With the understanding that everyone has different interests and passions, the resources are divided into the following topics:

  • Science, Nature & Conservation
  • Justice, Law & Policy
  • Business, Energy & Technology
  • Art, Culture & Media
  • Health, Wellness & Diet

Once all of the Underwater Stories, Markers, and Intel were shared, The Underwater convened residents at the Little Havana Climate Town Hall and Community Connection Fair on April 27th, 2022. At the town hall, Cortada was joined by his colleagues from the University of Miami for a panel discussion and Q&A focused on preparing the community for a future with rising seas. At the fair, students and their families had the ability to learn about and get involved in ongoing local efforts ranging from climate advocacy and adaptation to sustainable seafood and native tree planting.

Local context

Miami is dealing with a wicked problem.

Today, cranes populate the Miami skyline, building more and more skyscrapers at the water’s edge. Growth is what fuels the economy – increased development grows the tax base and keeps property taxes from rising. Developers push for growth. It’s a high reward game with little actual risk: they will get their ROI two years later when the condos get sold.

Buyers, mostly international cash investors, are also hedging their bets – hoping to flip their affluent properties a few years later and long before the psychology of sea level rise bursts the real estate bubble. Because of this brazen overdevelopment, citizens don’t have a real sense that sea level rise poses a true threat to their homes, savings, jobs, and community. 

Politicians, who are evaluated in two-year and four-year election cycles, aren’t incentivized to plan for the long-term. They engage in ribbon cutting ceremonies for new buildings with impunity even if that will only burden future generations. Their pro-growth actions signal to constituents that everything will be fine, but all they are doing is kicking the can down the road. 

In Miami, rising seas will disproportionately impact people of color and poorer residents living in low lying areas (as low-income neighborhoods are abandoned, property owners will lose everything) and higher lying areas (evicted renters – the victims of climate gentrification). The Underwater aims to uplift and amplify these voices in the pursuit of social and economic stability for all Miamians.