Florida Sea Level Rise: A State’s Race Against The Sea

, Senior analyst, Climate & Energy | November 6, 2013, 2:53 pm EDT
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Sea level rise experts from across Florida and around the world convened in Fort Lauderdale recently to discuss the latest science and strategies for sea level rise adaptation. And as if to urge them on, the king tides rose as conference goers watched, topping canal walls and spilling onto roads. That summit, the second annual held by Florida Atlantic University, dovetails with this week’s sold-out gathering on advancing coastal adaptation action, which brings together state leaders from four southeastern counties. Those who understand what’s at stake here are in a dead sprint for solutions.

Florida: the sunshine state, land of citrus, destination Disney World — and ground zero for sea level rise in America.


In parts of low-lying Florida, the land appears to melt into the sea. The Shark River, Everglades, is shown here. (Photo credit: Enrique Galeano Morales)

The sea is rising in Florida

Water, water everywhere. Flying into Miami, I was struck once again: my god, this place is wet. From the air, the roads and towns seem to dissolve into the Everglades; Southern Florida, a swamp at heart. And when you’re flying in for a sea-level rise summit — a meeting where people are planning for tides three feet higher, and more, this century — that low, flat, waterlogged land, with structures piled high along the thin margin that meets the sea, looks so imperiled.

And, of course, it is, and in uniquely perilous ways. Low-lying Florida faces rising sea level along its extensive coastline, water encroaching from both the Atlantic and the Gulf coasts, and up through the Everglades. But large areas of Florida, including the southern-most counties, sit on porous limestone bedrock, which allows water to move relatively freely beneath dry land, and to infiltrate up to the surface; in this way, water rises from below. So, unlike the Netherlands, which through a combination of engineering feats and water-tight bedrock is largely able to keep the North Sea at bay, the water in Florida is rising and it can’t be stopped.

Many in Florida, like participants in this week’s Four-County Compact meeting, know this too well. The Four-County Compact community of experts and practitioners has consolidated around this threat and made great strides in just the past couple of years constructing and implementing the first generation of adaptation and resilience-building plans. In essence, these people want to find ways for life in Florida to proceed as normally as possible for as long as possible. Their efforts are commendable.

But many, probably most, are still largely unaware of the threat.

Miami SLR 011

Mid-October’s king tides created problematic and highly visible flooding in Southeast Florida, including Miami Beach, shown here. The National Weather Service issued its first ever flood warning due solely to tides. A roughly quarterly occurrence, king tides are becoming more problematic as sea levels rise. (Photo credit: UCS)

A climate change poster child

As people in Fort Lauderdale told me, in response to the October king tides, “it’s getting worse each year” and “it’s completely different” than when they bought the property. But not all Floridians are drawing the connection between climate change, sea level rise, and flooding. And unfortunately, key community actors, like local media, are not always helping people to make that linkage. In its coverage of the October flooding, for example, the Miami Herald completely neglected to do so, discussing the problem from a range of angles, while never mentioning sea level rise. That kind of coverage isn’t just a missed opportunity, it’s a community disservice.

Whether it knows it or not, Florida is the U.S. poster child of climate change’s hard truths. Those truths are that:

  • We need to work so very hard to slow global warming and avoid the changes we can still avoid – the put-your-back-into-it, like-your-life-depends-on-it kind of work; the kind we as a society have shirked to date.
  • Many things we would dearly like to avoid are now unavoidable, including the loss of large areas of southern Florida as the seas rise. The Keys, the Everglades, Miami — all face dramatic losses. Nearly 20 percent of Miami-Dade County faces inundation with just one foot of sea-level rise, an increase we could see by 2050. Let’s just be with that for a moment.
  • We as a country still have choices, but for those in southern Florida, many long-term possibilities — e.g., staying in one’s home over the long term — are disappearing or pierced with uncertainty, and they will need help to navigate the changes coming their way.

It’s enough to make you tune out (thanks for reading on) but Floridians can’t ignore the rising sea, and neither should the rest of us. Florida is home to six percent of all Americans, some of whom have made this challenge their lives. Architects re-envisioning Miami as a “future-proof” city. Legal experts anticipating the onslaught of  challenges as homes become too risky to inhabit and impossible to sell. Ecologists studying how the Everglades can be helped to keep up with rising seas. Water managers preparing for the loss of public drinking water sources as saltwater infiltrates groundwater. Engineers tackling the challenges of defending against and, in other cases, accommodating the rising water. Community activists engaging new groups  in the challenge. People like this, many of whom will be gathered at the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Summit this week, are designing solutions to these enormous challenges.


Miami River (Photo credit: Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Environmental Studies)

Run, don’t walk

But they can’t implement the most major solutions on their own, even if local governments were to summon considerable resources. Here’s the thing about adaptation:

  • It’s essential: sea-level rise can be slowed but not stopped, so we had better prepare.
  • But much of it is hugely expensive: we need to marshal federal resources to the climate change front line, while recognizing that we can’t afford and need to avoid many potential changes.
  • And all of it has limits: adaptation will only help buffer against and forestall the impacts of rising seas. But only serious efforts to reduce heat-trapping emissions — cheap by comparison — will help avoid the worst sea level rise outcomes.

On my return trip, stark warnings of the summit’s presenters still fresh, I drove through flooded Fort Lauderdale roads, and was re-routed around flood damage on Miami Beach. My overwhelming sense was: run faster, everyone. Florida is not only a storm away from true catastrophe, but it needs to be in a dead sprint every day to stay ahead of the steady march of sea level rise. And the rest of us need to have its back.

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  • James

    Whether you look at tide gauges or satellite data, sea levels are going up. http://clmtr.lt/cb/zHp0AU

  • Andy Eller

    The appropriate role of the federal government has already been accomplished. It has studied the data, found that sea level rise to climate change is a threat, and the warning has been issued. The best course of action for the federal government is to stop enabling coastal development. The federal government should:

    1) Cease spending money on new road construction in threatened coastal areas,

    2) Gradually decrease the federal share of funding to counties located in threatened coastal areas,

    3) Cease funding block development grants to counties located in threatened coastal areas,

    4) Cease backing house and business mortgages to individuals living in counties located in threatened coastal areas,

    5) Cease funding for beach nourishment projects,

    6) Enforce the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, and

    6) Terminate the National Flood Insurance Program, etc. I think you get the point.

    And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the federal government should not in any way subsidize engineering solutions that only postpone the inevitable.

    The only rational, cost-effective solution to this problem is to retreat from the shore.

    • Jeff Romais

      As South Floridians we gave up buying a residence down here. After reading reams of scientific papers and lengthy reports released by the Government Office of Accountability (Feb. 2013), Swiss RE and Munich RE we realised inevitability of policy makers subscribing to every item as Andy Eller suggested.
      If we stay in Florida, we will build a floating house and dunk it in the drink at one of the many ponds nearby.

      • Dear Jeff,

        Thanks for writing from Southern Florida. People there have been on my mind a lot lately, for the reasons you name: sea level rise is beginning to define the day-to-day decisions in that part of the world. For most of my adult life, climate change has been seen as a future threat, or *maybe* a current one, but to far away things like ice sheets and coral reefs. Katrina and Sandy, as well as recent drought and heat, made the threat real and immediate to many, but even this understanding fades, for now, when we return to normalcy and our day-to-day. In your part of the world, returning to normalcy isn’t a long-term option, since “normal” is changing, and on a time frame that matters to basic decisions like whether to buy or sell a house. I’m afraid the rest of us have a lot to learn from you.



    • Dear Andy,

      Thanks for your comments – you’ve clearly been grappling with this, too. You’re certainly on to something when you point out that federal dollars will be wasted dollars if spent unwisely along our coasts. I don’t know the right way forward, but I too think it’s going to ultimately involve a – hopefully gradual – transformation of our coastal communities. I’m personally in favor of an approach that seeks to preserve the integrity of those communities during a transition to a more resilient coast – which in some cases will mean retreating from the sea. We have our work cut out.