South Florida sounds the alarm amid threat of rising sea levels

One of the most vulnerable areas in the country isn't prepared to deal with climate change.

Yaneisy Duenas (L) and Ferando Sanudo walk through the flooded parking lot to their boat at the Haulover Marine Center on November 14, 2016 in North Miami, Florida. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Yaneisy Duenas (L) and Ferando Sanudo walk through the flooded parking lot to their boat at the Haulover Marine Center on November 14, 2016 in North Miami, Florida. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Outdated and fast-aging flood control mechanisms won’t be enough to protect South Florida amid a rapidly-changing climate and rising sea levels. Local publications and activists are sounding the alarm about the region’s lack of preparedness, with sea levels set to rise at least 2 feet by 2060.

A partnership between the editorial boards of the Miami Herald, South Florida Sun Sentinel, and Palm Beach Post is aiming to draw attention to the threat rising sea levels pose to South Florida. With assistance from WLRN Public Media, the election year effort is meant to hold Florida lawmakers accountable and ensure action. That includes calling for Congress to prioritize the vulnerable area swiftly.

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In an editorial published Sunday, the Miami Herald drew attention to South Florida’s aging flood-control system, which is between 50 and 70 years old. The current system, involving 2,000 miles of canals overseen by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), prevents saltwater from reaching the mainland and separates canal water from the sea. Rising seas pose a threat to that balance, the Herald says.

Salt water coming into the mainland would imperil some 2.4 million people, destroying homes, flooding roads, and even bringing feces and other human waste into direct contact with residents.

“It’s clear that this aging system will need serious, and expensive, upgrades,” reads the editorial. Lawmakers in Washington, the Herald notes, also have yet to fund a crucial flood study for the area that received a green light two years ago.

“Congress has yet to provide the money for a much-needed study of how to do that. It’s galling that lawmakers gave the Northeast $20 million for a flood-control system after just one storm, Superstorm Sandy,” the editorial continues. “Yet for all the hurricanes and tropical storms we’ve endured, Congress has yet to fund a flood-control study for our region that it authorized in 2016.”

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Collectively the three publications called sea level rise “the defining issue of the century” and argued that South Florida faces “no graver threat” than an onslaught of water.

Twenty-two of the 25 American cities most vulnerable to climate change are in Florida, including Miami. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (USC), at least five of Florida’s coastal communities are set to experience severe tidal flooding by 2035, regardless of any storm activity. Cape Sable, Key Biscayne, Key West, and both the Lower and Middle Keys are listed as areas of concern in the group’s 2017 “When Rising Seas Hit Home” report.

Subsequent decades will likely see that situation worsen. By 2045, 60 percent of the Lower Keys and nearly 40 percent of both the Middle Keys and Key West could be under water more than half the year. Through 2100, the report predicts three different possible scenarios, rated high, intermediate, and low.

Under the low scenario, which assumes global warming is limited to 2 degrees Celsius — the amount cited by the Paris climate agreement — and that emissions decline steeply going forward, USC’s report projects 1.6 feet of sea level rise. Intermediate levels would cue a sea level rise of approximately 4 feet. The high scenario forecasts a far bleaker picture, indicating 6.5 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century.

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That high scenario would mean some 32 Florida communities, many of them to the south of the state, would be underwater roughly six months out of the year. In addition to endangering and displacing large swathes of people, such a shift would mean a steep economic loss striking at the heart of a state known for its beautiful beaches and coastal appeal.

Despite the state’s long history of water engineering, something that has allowed the Florida Everglades to co-exist alongside major urban areas, concerned residents argue lawmakers aren’t doing enough to prevent and mitigate the crisis posed by sea level rise. Last August, President Trump rolled back an Obama-era order mandating that infrastructure projects be designed with climate resiliency in mind, including issues like flooding.

On a local level, Gov. Rick Scott (R) has historically sought to restrict the use of references to climate change and global warming. Eight young Floridians sued Scott in April arguing their government has not done enough to protect them from climate change.

“What we can’t afford is a governor who denies climate change and a federal government that won’t prioritize the public investments that must be made if low-lying coastal regions like ours are to survive the brunt of rising seas,” the Miami Herald editorial reads. “We challenge every statewide and national leader, those now serving and those seeking office, to act.”

Other coastal Southern states are also growing concerned amid rising sea levels. According to one 2017 study, sea levels are rising around an inch per year in areas along the East Coast between North Carolina and Florida. The Raleigh-based News & Observer reported last Thursday that the state is increasingly at risk of tidal flooding. The state has been reporting record floods in recent years along with its neighbor, South Carolina.