‘There’s still hope for Miami.’ Inside this high school’s climate change art project

‘There’s still hope for Miami.’ Inside this high school’s climate change art project

MIAMI HERALD | MAY 19, 2022 

Dozens of Miami Senior High School students shuffled from the scorching heat outside into their school’s freezing auditorium one Wednesday evening.

The small group of students weren’t there for classes, theater club rehearsals or detention. They were there to learn more about the rising sea levels that threaten Miami — and what they could do to stop it.

The April 27 town hall, which featured a panel of climate experts, was part of local artist Xavier Cortada’s The Underwater, a social art project that teaches students about how the climate crisis would impact not just the city of Miami, but also their futures. It’s a continuation of Cortada’s Underwater HOA project, which encouraged homeowners to find the elevation of their homes and plant a sign in their yard displaying the number in feet.

The program at Miami High was just the beginning. Cortada plans to spread The Underwater gospel to other Miami-Dade schools and communities.

“In 20 and especially 40 years from now, [students] are going to see a Miami that’s going to have real issues to address,” Cortada said of climate change. Through this project, Cortada hopes to “give them a chance to address it now. And I’m doing it by having them create a participatory art piece.”

Cortada, who has a lengthy history of climate-focused art and activism, launched The Underwater with the Xavier Cortada Foundation, Creative Capital and a University of Miami climate migration research team.

Leading up to the town hall, Cortada and his team took over science classes at Miami Senior High School, his alma mater, in an effort to provide students with an understanding of the climate crisis and give them the tools they need to take action in their communities.

Students were prompted with questions such as “What is climate change?” and “What are some alternatives to fossil fuels?” to begin the class. Cortada explained what a climate refugee is. Then, he asked the students a more personal question: What is the elevation of your home and why does it matter?

Using an app, students typed in their home addresses to retrieve an answer. Within a few minutes, students began sharing their numbers and turning to friends to see how others compared. (For example, Miami High is about 13 feet above sea level, according to the app.)

A student uses her phone to open the Sea Level Rise Toolbox, which identifies the South Florida area and how different amounts of intruding sea water in feet would affect different elevations. Daniel A. Varela dvarela@miamiherald.com

Students were given blue yard signs and Sharpie markers to write their home’s elevation number. Each sign has a QR code that leads to The Underwater’s website. As Cortada explained how sea level rise would affect Miamians’ homes and neighborhoods, several students began connecting the dots.


Bernardo, a freshman, was especially concerned about how all of Miami-Dade, not just the coastline, is vulnerable to sea level rise. In class, he learned that the porous limestone Miami is built on allows for sea water to seep into inland neighborhoods like his.

As he planted a yard marker that read 9.71 in his front lawn, he hoped his neighbors would scan the QR code and start a much needed conversation.

“There’s still hope for Miami,” Bernardo said. “There’s still hope for the world to mend itself from the effects of climate change that we’ve put it through over this last century.”

Bernardo, a freshman at Miami Senior High, walks home from school with his Underwater Marker in hand indicating his home’s elevation above sea level in Miami. Daniel A. Varela dvarela@miamiherald.com

Rolando Morales, a senior, said the project helped him realize that many community members, like his parents, have heard that sea level rise is a problem, but few people know the severe consequences they face. He said he looked forward to learning more about the climate crisis and raising awareness.

“What I like about it is that you’re not only hearing about it, but you’re given options to participate in the solution to try and get involved,” he said.

For Cortada, The Underwater is much more than a high school art project.

“It’s a continuum of my life work trying to use art’s elasticity as a way of engaging our communities and solving problems,” he said. “And Miami has problems.”

In 2006, while on a trip to Antarctica, a scientist handed Cortada a chunk of ice and said, “This is the same ice that’s going to drown Miami.” With some blue paint, Cortada turned that melting ice into a series of artworks called Antarctic Ice Paintings. Sixteen years later, those paintings are now the blue backdrop of each numbered yard sign in front of students’ houses.

Art is a powerful tool for climate activism and community engagement, Cortada explained. A work of art can help people visualize an issue that otherwise may be invisible to them. It gives people agency, he said.

Rolando Morales, a senior at Miami Senior High, stands next to his Underwater Marker, which indicates his home’s elevation. Daniel A. Varela dvarela@miamiherald.com

“This is a project that’s going to continue until that chunk of ice reaches Miami, and that’s the truth,” Cortada said. “The truth is that it is an existential crisis.”

Students aim to inform their neighbors and communities at large about the dangers of sea level rise with the Underwater Marker, which show height above sea level. BY DANIEL A. VARELA


After reaching about 2,000 students in their science classes, the project featured a town hall to discuss that crisis. The panel included Katharine Mach, a University of Miami climate change scientist; Jessica Owley, an environmental lawyer at UM’s School of Law; Nkosi Muse, a Ph.D. candidate at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science; and Adam Roberti, the executive director of the Xavier Cortada Foundation. (Cortada wasn’t able to attend the town hall after testing positive for COVID-19.)

Each panelist focused on a different aspect of combating climate change, from state law to local activism. As they spoke, photos of students designing their own yard signs in class were displayed on a screen. Alongside their elevation numbers, they doodled hearts, fishes, seaweed and words of encouragement. “Let’s make a change!” one student wrote.

Mach, the climate scientist, illustrated a dire situation of “supercharged extremes.” Hot days getting hotter, hurricanes getting stronger, high tides growing higher.

But there’s good news, she said. We have the technology to reduce emissions by 80 percent, like solar panels and windmills. The challenge is making it happen.

“Certainly, you all are much more effective than the old people on stage in rallying for action,” Mach told the students in the audience.

Matthew Porras, a 14-year-old freshman, was among the sparse crowd of students listening to the presentation. Matthew and his twin brother, Michael, felt strongly about The Underwater and came to the town hall to learn more.

Matthew said he was troubled by some things he saw at school. Not everyone cared about the project or the climate crisis, and some even threw the yard signs in the trash instead of taking them home. When it came time for the Q&A portion, he raised his hand.

“Everyone here, I think, really cares about this project. We don’t want our home to be gone, right?” he said into the microphone. “So, if this project goes to fail, do you have any other plans?”

Roberti answered honestly.

“If your life was changed by this project, I would call it a success. I’m disappointed that this entire auditorium isn’t filled, sure, but I think that the work that we do is always evolving.”

The project is far from over, Roberti said, it’s starting point.

“I like that,” Matthew said. “Thank you!”

This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.

See the original article and videos at: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/education/article259771260.html