For my money, the best movie about life under the sea is Finding Nemo. Marlin is looking for Nemo. Dori lost her mind. And the sea gulls just want to get what was theirs. There’s a lot of moving parts in that story, but my big takeaway was “all drains lead to the ocean.”
And it’s true. All drains do. Well, almost all of them. There is the odd inland sea or landlocked lake. But other than those few exceptions, drains have been moving water to the ocean for more than 5,000 years.
But in recent years and in some of those drains, the ocean is pushing back.
Miami Beach calls it “Sunny Day Flooding.” The city’s Environment and Sustainability Director Elizabeth Wheaton says during the highest tides each month, low-lying neighborhoods are inundated with water as the Atlantic Ocean pushes Biscayne Bay back up the stormwater drainage system.
“NOAA tide gauges at Key West and Virginia Key have shown a 3-inch rise in sea level since 1992.” Wheaton said, “As the level of the ocean and the bay rise, so does the groundwater and that means during the highest tides, bay and seawater pour out of the storm drains flooding the streets in our lowest communities.”
With the force of the ocean pushing up the drains, Miami Beach is countering the ocean with an equal and opposite force; money. Wheaton says it will take $400 million over 5 years. Some reports place the figure as high as $500 million. That is for a city of 90,000. This city is serious.
Mitigation in Miami Beach means major infrastructure improvements. Millions on massive pumps to move water back to the bay, backflow regulators to keep seawater out of the stormwater drainage system and raising streets and seawalls all around the city. Wheaton says there is “a will to action” in Miami Beach and the city is moving forward to do what it has to do to hold back the water.
According to Wheaton, there is nearly $9 trillion in infrastructure in Miami-Dade County. “Miami Beach is a historic community and we’re looking into the ways we can protect and save our neighborhoods.” Wheaton said, “We know problems will have to be incrementally addressed, but when you consider a number that large, we cannot just abandon the area.”
It’s a massive task that demonstrates South Florida’s commitment to maintaining its residents’ quality of life and keeping its economy booming. The can-do attitude and significant financial commitment appears to be a recipe for success. But, there are those who caution that the task may be even bigger than Wheaton and the city envisions.
Dr. Harold R. Wanless, chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami, says there may be some areas where a cost-benefit analysis would be in order. “We may be putting money into mitigation that could be better spent on relocation.”
Wanless, who has an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, is considered by many in South Florida to be the leading expert on these issues. He has documented the sediment in Biscayne Bay as rising sea levels have flooded the bay over the last 6,000 years.
Essentially, evidence of freshwater deep in the sediment tells us the level of saltwater was much lower in the geologic past. This is confirmed by similar evidence all around the world. The layers of sediment confirm that sea levels have been rising for thousands of years. Tide gauges and super sensitive satellites confirm the increase continues and has actually accelerated in the last 100 years.
Wanless says that the rate of sea level rise is about 3.4 millimeters per year. Ice melt and the expansion of a warmer ocean over thousands of years account for the increased ocean volume. Projections by the federal government place global sea levels between 4.1 and 6.6 feet higher than their 1992 levels by the year 2100. Difficulty knowing exactly how the world’s remaining ice sheets will behave in a warmer climate accounts for the wide range of projections.
“I think those projections are low.” Said Wanless, “Communities can use the 6.6 figure as a planning horizon, but realize sea level may rise much faster.” Evidence shows that global ice sheets have not gradually melted over thousands of years, but have incrementally failed resulting in sudden surges in sea level. According to Wanless, drown barrier islands and reefs on the continental shelf indicate past pulses of as much as a meter per decade.
And it is not just high-profile Miami Beach that is looking at these tough decisions. In Brevard County, Satellite Beach is a barrier island city of about 10,000 residents. City Manager Courtney Barker said a survey of more than 500 residents showed an overwhelming majority saw sea level rise as one of the top three concerns facing the city.
“From our perspective the city is already seeing coastal erosion.” Barker continues, “And areas of the city that have not flooded in the past during storms are now flooding regularly.” According to Barker, stormwater that used to simply drain into the river is now backing up during and after storms and covering major roads.
The city has been looking at the impact from sea level rise since 2009. They are planning for the ocean’s encroachment, but Barker said they did not want to invest in a 30-year piece of infrastructure and then have to change it in 10 years because it was not adequate. “The vulnerability analysis shows the biggest threat from sea level rise is flooding.”
The Climate Central’s Surging Seas: Risk Zone map below illustrates areas vulnerable to submersion by sea level rise. By 2100, sea level could rise as much as 6.6 feet (2 meters).
It seems like a lot of work for a couple beach towns, so you might be wondering “where is Tallahassee in all of this?” Barker said they do get support from staff in several key state agencies but that elected officials need to start paying close attention as well.
“This is an environmental issue for the state of Florida,” said Barker. “But it is also an economic issue. People don’t want to be here if the environment is destroyed.”
One area politician, South Miami City Commissioner Walter Harris, is so anxious to create a statewide initiative that in 2014 he sponsored a city resolution creating the 51st state of South Florida.
“We have to deal with the realities of sea level rise in South Florida,” Harris said. “With the urgency of the situation, it seemed like a perfect time.”
Jose Fernandez, president of the Florida Compass Group, a public affairs and finance firm, says this may not be a reasonable response. “The majority of Floridians live within a short distance to the coast. Commissioner Harris may be able to find more support for his cause by keeping Florida together,” said Fernandez.
He went on to say that like Spain and its trouble uniting 13 kingdoms under one flag, Florida has five kingdoms. He says the regions of South Florida, Jacksonville, East Central Florida, Tampa Bay and the Panhandle all have different challenges and needs.
“The state acknowledges that there may be different issues focused in one region,” Fernandez said. “And different regions become frustrated because Tallahassee has reigns on the budget and may not be in tune to their needs.”
If succession isn’t a solution, what should low-lying regions of Florida do? According to Fernandez, Floridians are likely united, but the spark for comprehensive statewide action has not happened yet.
“The turning point always comes down to economics and the ability of the state to grow,” he said. “Once we are no longer able to develop because of prohibitive infrastructure costs or limited access to drinking water the overarching issue will gain more prominence with the state.”
Climate change – especially its possible causes – remains a controversial, sensitive topic when put in the context of what is happening right now, but many scientists point out it should be looked at in a broader context. They point out that, over geologic time it always has and it always will. At this moment, the sea level is rising. Easily measured in the recent past, more difficult to predict in the future.
While state and national politicians continue to argue over why climate change may be happening. Local officials believe that such an argument misses the near-term point. The sea is coming in, and whatever the reason, there must be a response.
Is the decision as simple as mitigate or move? All drains lead to the ocean and it is tough to hold back the most overwhelming force in nature; moving water. And Florida has a particular problem; the Florida Platforms is made up of thousands of feet of highly porous limestone.
Dikes and levees have held back rising water in other parts of the world (sometimes more effectively than others). But Florida is sitting on a rock sponge, attempting to wall off the water likely will simply result in it seeping up from under us, soaking our feet and destroying our freshwater aquifers.
Miami Beach plans to spend $400 million to $500 million dollars over five years to prepare for sea level rise. Some say those costs are prohibitive and raise questions about whether it can succeed everywhere the city hopes. Wheaton (the environmental and sustainability director) says that “all is lost” is not the dialogue they’re having on the ground. The city knows it has big challenges ahead, but officials believe they can lead on the changes the community will have to make in the face of sea level rise.
“We can envision what our future will look like,” Wheaton said “We cannot abandon the area; the only way is to move forward, make plans and good decisions.”