This past weekend, while I watched my kids frolic in the surf out of one eye, I was scrutinizing the beachfront housing stock with the other – like an insurance adjustor, contemplating storm surge, flooding, and other flavors of catastrophe. Could be I just don’t know how to have a good time. Or could be that I’m freshly returned from the Florida Sea-Level Rise Summit where scientists say things like “friends, the sky is not falling, but the seas truly are rising.”
The Reach of the Beach
In the heat of summer, those of us blessed by proximity and leisure time go to the beach. We go to have fun and relax and flee the heat, like the scorching temperatures across much of the country recently. Whole families jam 4-lane highways and crowd paved parking lots, we fill beachfront hotels and rental cottages, we spill onto the soft sand and into the surf, and we breathe a collective sigh of relief: ah, the cool, constant, timeless sea, here to restore us and wash us of our cares… (You know where I’m going with this.)
We know on one level that where that soft sand meets that rough surf is a changeable zone. We see the punctuated evidence after every big storm, and if we look back at old photos of the coasts, we see great, if gradual change. (Cue the foreboding string section.) What we need to come to terms with now (as in NOW; check your local news, the recent coverage of risks and new science is pretty widespread; read anything?) are the new and amplified dynamics at play along our coasts – ones that could fundamentally reshape our shores and coastal communities.
The Motion of the Ocean
With warming, expanding oceans, and melting land-based ice, global sea level has been rising and at an increasing pace. This trend means that – no matter what certain state legislatures have to say on the matter – many low-lying areas, like parts of Miami, or the Outer Bank, or Chesapeake Bay, could face inundation. Some places are flooded today during extreme high tides – maybe you know some? As sea level continues to rise, such places are poised to be flooded during normal high tides; and in the future, vulnerable parts of our coastline may simply slip beneath the sea.
This trend also means that coastal storms – whether or not they are more frequent or intense – can be more damaging simply by having more water to pound against the shore. And it means that some places are now working hard to prepare while also planning for serious loss – and that coastal communities not currently looking at their own risk should start.
The Worry and the Hurry
At the Sea-Level Rise Summit, the official from the Florida Keys spoke of the projected loss of much of Big Pine Key in the next few decades, the potential flooding of large areas of Key West this century, and the puzzle of what to do with the endangered Key Deer, which lives nowhere but these islands. Even for someone like me who cares greatly about climate change, it’s been lingering for the most part on the horizon, but something snapped into place as I listened to Floridians talk shop on coastal impacts and adaptation. In the U.S. state with the largest number of people living in exposed, coastal communities, these are neither minor nor distant future impacts – they’re huge, here, and a new part of the job.
The colossal challenge of responding to sea-level rise is no longer a question of avoidance but one of containment. (Even if we stopped all heat-trapping emissions tomorrow, the inertia in the system would ensure the seas go on rising for many, many years.) So how hard will we work to slow and contain this problem? On day two of the Sea-Level Rise Summit, Ben Strauss of Climate Central invoked iconic historical moments like Washington crossing the Delaware to help the audience appreciate today’s decisions as pivotal for centuries to come. True enough. What emerging science tells us, as well, is that we don’t have to feel a strong affinity for the people of 2300 A.D. to really care about this issue. The problem is upon us. An affinity for the local beach on a summer day will do.
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