Climate Change, Sea Level Rise and The Over and Under Perils of South Florida

By Mike Wilcox

Relatives on my father’s side of the family moved to the Fort Lauderdale area in the 1950s from Chicago. My father and grandmother moved down there in the 1980’s and I earned my undergraduate degree at Florida State University. So I am familiar with lay of the land which is to say it is flat and close to sea level. I am also familiar with the smell of the Atlantic Ocean, the warm breezes off of it and the sound of pounding waves at the wonderful beaches in Broward County. It is a nice place to visit and for many years enjoyed my trips down there to escape the wrath of midwestern winters.

Being acutely aware of the impacts of climate change in general, including sea level rise, has piqued my interest to its impact in this part of the country. The World Resources Institute reported there are more people living less than 4ft above sea level in the Miami area than any area in the United States other than New Orleans. Elizabeth Kolbert, wrote an article in the December 21, 2015 New Yorker magazine titled The Siege of Miami, in which she wrote that Miami ranked second in the world of cities whose assets are most vulnerable to sea level rise. On a visit to this area two years ago I was struck by the amount of construction going on along the coast and the obliviousness of the developers and others to the impending impacts of climate change. The World Resource Institute reported there is 14.7 billion dollars of beachfront property at risk in the Miami area and that figure does not include infrastructure costs. In an article in the Miami Herald on July 27, 2015 it was reported that in South Florida “$23.3 billion of existing property could be lost by 2050, and in coastal property, $152 billion will be at risk of inundation at high tide.” Kolbert toured the Miami area with a Union of Concerned Scientist researcher during a King Tide and found water running down streets and into underground garages, water bubbling up through yards and water running into yards, driveways and under the chassis of Mercedes and Porsches sitting in driveways. They also came across streets and intersections that were flooded. The city of Miami Beach has installed over $100 million worth of pumps to pump the ocean water back out to sea and plans to install another $200 million worth in the near future. Kolbert also told of the mayor of South Miami who was out walking his dog by a city park one morning following heavy rain the preceding night and saw fish swimming in a basin area where water had pooled. He quickly surmised that the only way the fish could have gotten there was up through he ground. Water and fish coming up through the ground! How can that be you ask?

The bedrock of South Florida consists of limestone which is porous and as the water table rises it can come up through the soil. Apparently fish can do the same as the good mayor observed. So, simply putting up sea walls like in the Netherlands or New Orleans is futile as they will simply push the water down and then up through the ground.

The Climate Reality Project reported that since 1996 sea levels have risen 3.7 inches in the Miami area. The Miami-Dade Sea Level Rise Task Force has reported that as little as one foot of sea level rise will inundate the fresh water supply and sewer systems in the area with salt water thus rendering them useless. The projections for longer term sea level rise vary significantly: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a seal level rise by 2100 of 3 ft., The Corps of Engineers projects a 5ft rise, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration a 6/1/4 ft rise and James Hanson and his team a 10 to 30 ft rise by 2060. You see the melting of the Greenland Ice sheet and in the Antarctic are hard to project. However, they seem to be melting at an accelerating rate and one scientist, Eric Rignot of the University of California at Irvine, “was in awe of how fast the Greenland ice sheet was changing.” The melting of the Greenland ice sheet could rise seal levels by 20 ft alone. Hal Waness, the chair of the geological sciences department at the University of Miami, stated to Kolbert that “much of the region may have less than a half a century more to go.” Remember it will take only a foot of sea level rise to impact the water supply of the area. Cities along the coast of Florida are already reporting fresh water wells inundated with salt water.

I write of this not only because of my familial ties and sentimental familiarity with the area, but because this is an aspect of climate change that is impacting a major population center in the United States right now. You see climate change is having drastic impacts all over our home planet in the present moment. We can no longer think of it as something that we can ignore and kick down the road for future generations to deal with. It would seem that South Floridians, at least in part, are already coming to grips with this new reality.



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