Saturday, April 22, 2017

Miami's Fight Against Rising Seas

Just down the coast from Donald Trump's weekend retreat, the residents and businesses of south Florida are experiencing regular episodes of water in the streets.  In the battle against rising seas, the region – which has more to lose than almost anywhere else in the world – is becoming ground zero.

Sunny Isles Beach is home to $10 billion in property, including six Trump-branded buildings (Credit: Alamy) Click to Enlarge.
Ask nearly anyone in the Miami area about flooding and they’ll have an anecdote to share. Many will also tell you that it’s happening more and more frequently.  The data backs them up.

It’s easy to think that the only communities suffering from sea level rise are far-flung and remote.  And while places like the Solomon Islands and Kiribati are indeed facing particularly dramatic challenges, they aren’t the only ones being forced to grapple with the issue.  Sea levels are rising around the world, and in the US, south Florida is ground zero – as much for the adaptation strategies it is attempting as for the risk that it bears.

One reason is that water levels here are rising especially quickly.  The most frequently-used range of estimates puts the likely range between 15-25cm (6-10in) above 1992 levels by 2030, and 79-155cm (31-61in) by 2100.  With tides higher than they have been in decades – and far higher than when this swampy, tropical corner of the US began to be drained and built on a century ago – many of south Florida’s drainage systems and seawalls are no longer enough. That means not only more flooding, but challenges for the infrastructure that residents depend on every day, from septic tanks to wells.  “The consequences of sea level rise are going to occur way before the high tide reaches your doorstep,” says William Sweet, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The flooding would be a challenge for any community, but it poses particular risks here.  One recent report estimated that Miami has the most to lose in terms of financial assets of any coastal city in the world, just above Guangzhou, China and New York City.  This 120-mile (193km) corridor running up the coast from Homestead to Jupiter – taking in major cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach – is the eighth most populous metropolitan area in the US.  It’s also booming.  In 2015, the US Census Bureau found that the population of all three counties here was growing – along with the rest of Florida – at around 8%, roughly twice the pace of the US average.  Recent studies have shown that Florida has more residents at risk from climate change than any other US state.
Look beyond all the glass and steel, though, and – despite the federal government’s sidelining of the issue – there’s another thrum of activity.  It’s the wastewater treatment plant constructing new buildings five feet higher than the old ones.  The 105 miles (169km) of roads being raised in Miami Beach.  The new shopping mall built with flood gates.  The 116 tidal valves installed in Fort Lauderdale.  The seawalls being raised and repaired.  And the worried conversations between more and more residents every year about what the sea-rise models predict – and what to do about it.

The communities aren’t short of solutions.  “Nobody’s doing better adaptation work in the country than south Florida,” says Daniel Kreeger, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Climate Change Officers.  But the question isn’t whether this work will save every community:  it won’t.  Even those tasked with making their cities resilient admit that, at some point in the future, certain areas here will no longer be “viable” places to live.  Rather, the challenge is to do enough to ensure that the economy as a whole continues to thrive and that tourists still come to enjoy the sun, sand – and swelling sea.

Read much more at Miami's Fight Against Rising Seas

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