No graver threat faces the future of South Florida than the accelerating pace of sea-level rise. In the past century, the sea has risen 9 inches in Key West. In the past 23 years, it’s risen 3 inches. By 2060, it’s predicted to rise another 2 feet, with no sign of slowing down.
Think about that. Water levels could easily be 2 feet higher in 40 years. And scientists say that’s a conservative estimate. Because of melting ice sheets and how oceans circulate, there’s a chance South Florida’s sea level could be 3 feet higher by 2060 and as much as 8 feet by 2100, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It’s not just a matter of how much land we’re going to lose, though the barrier islands and low-lying communities will be largely uninhabitable once the ocean rises by 3 feet. It’s a matter of what can be saved. And elsewhere, how we’re going to manage the retreat.
To that end, the editorial boards of the Miami Herald, South Florida Sun Sentinel and Palm Beach Post — with reporting help from WLRN Public Media — are joining hands in an unprecedented collaboration this election year to raise awareness about the threat facing South Florida from sea-level rise. In drumbeat fashion, we plan to inform, engage, provoke and build momentum to address the slow-motion tidal wave coming our way.
You see the evidence several times a year in Miami Beach, the finger isles of Fort Lauderdale and along the Intracoastal Waterway in Delray Beach. During king tides on sunny days, seawater bubbles up through storm drains and over seawalls into lawns, streets and storefronts. That didn’t happen 20 years ago, but it’s going to happen more and more.
Of the 25 American cities most vulnerable to sea-level rise, 22 are in Florida, according to the nonprofit research group Climate Central. They’re not all along the coast, either. Along with New York City and Miami, the inland cities of Pembroke Pines, Coral Springs and Miramar round out the top five.
Flooding also is increasing in South Florida’s western communities — like Miami-Dade’s Sweetwater and The Acreage in Palm Beach County — because seawater is pushing inward through our porous limestone foundation and upward into our aged flood control systems, diminishing capacity. Sawgrass Mills, a huge shopping complex in western Broward, closed for three days last year because the region’s stormwater system couldn’t handle a heavy afternoon thunderstorm. You’ve never seen that before.
The encroaching sea is bringing sea critters, too. Catfish were spotted swimming through floodwater at a Pompano Beach apartment complex west of I-95 last year. And don’t forget the octopus that bubbled up through a stormwater drain in a Miami Beach parking garage.
More than the rest of the country, South Floridians get it. The Yale Climate Opinion Maps show 75 percent of us believe global warming is happening, even if we don’t all agree on the cause. We understand that when water gets hotter, it expands. And warmer waters are melting the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. If all of Greenland’s ice were to melt — and make no mistake, it’s melting at an increasing clip — scientists say ocean waters could rise 20 feet.
The problem is, we’re not convinced sea-level rise will harm us in our lifetimes. We’ve got to change that mindset because it already is. Like most of us, Doris Edelman of Hollywood hadn’t heard of king tides five years ago. Now she can’t leave her house those autumn days when king tides lift the Intracoastal Waterway over its banks, over her street and halfway up her driveway. She’s not an isolated case.
One of the reasons sea-level rise feels like a distant threat is because construction cranes still dot our skylines, the population keeps growing and politicians keep approving new developments.
Yet government officials see the danger ahead. South Florida’s four counties have created a climate compact that, among many things, requires that new construction can cope with that anticipated 2-foot rise in water levels by 2060.
However, sea-level rise is not yet on the short-term horizons of the mortgage and insurance industries. Perhaps that’s because lenders generally recoup their money within 10 years, and insurers can cancel your policy year to year.
But government officials well know their successors will be stuck with abandoned properties when the water rises. And part of their responsibility will be to clean the debris to ensure pristine ocean water for future generations.
Perhaps you think you’re safe because the flood map shows your home is on high ground. But you still need infrastructure — things like roads, power plants, water treatment facilities, airports and drinking-water wellfields. So while your house may be high and dry, good luck getting to the grocery store, the doctor’s office or out of town.
It’s tricky to trumpet the threat headed our way. Scientists like Harold Wanless, a noted University of Miami coastal geologist, have the freedom to be blunt. He says the local projection understates the accelerating rate of rise. “By the end of the century and just after,” Wanless says, “South Florida will be a greatly diminished place, and sea level will be rising at a foot or more per decade.”
But local leaders fear scaring people and damaging our economy. Though our region is certain to be reshaped, they express confidence that we can adapt if we start planning now to raise roads, elevate buildings, update the region’s 70-year-old flood control system, buy out flood-prone properties and make smart choices about what to save and where to invest.
At the federal level, little leadership is being shown on the threat. President Trump recentlyrolled back the Obama-era order that requires infrastructure projects, like roads and bridges, be designed to survive rising sea levels. And though membership is growing in Congress’ Climate Solutions Caucus, too many Republican members still deny the reality of climate change and sea-level rise, perhaps fearing political retribution by right-wing deniers. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio resides in that camp.
In Tallahassee, after years of silence on sea-level rise, Gov. Rick Scott this year finally requested $3.6 million — a pittance, really — to help local governments plan. But despite the efforts of someSouth Florida lawmakers, the issue wasn’t on the Legislature’s agenda, partly because of the politics of climate change and partly because term limits create a revolving door of lawmakers who focus on today’s hot buttons, not tomorrow’s existential threats.
“It’s not something we’ve taken a position on,” Cragin Mosteller, communications director for the Florida Association of Counties, said in December when asked about sea-level rise. “We represent 67 counties who have differing opinions … So for us, we’re trying to focus on the things counties need to manage water.”
Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, says that to get Tallahassee’s attention, we must first raise public awareness. Then, people need to make their voices heard.
“I travel the state more than anybody but the governor. I promise you that people are not demanding that their local House member and their local senator drop what they’re doing and do something about sea-level rise,” Wilson said. “The solution is to raise awareness to it.”
Sea-level rise is the defining issue of the 21st Century for South Florida. Some of us might not live long enough to see its full effects, but our children and grandchildren will. To prepare for a future that will look far different, we’ve got to start planning and adapting today.
State’s flood-control system needs expensive upgrades.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of the editorial boards of the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel and Palm Beach Post, with reporting and community engagement assistance from WLRN Public Media. For more information, go to InvadingSea.com