Miami’s Fight against the Rising Sea
Sea level rise is global. But due to a variety of factors, the US’s south Floridians are feeling the effects more than many others. While there has been a mean rise of a little more than 3mm per year worldwide since the 1990s, in the last decade, the tide gauge just south of Miami beach has measured a 9mm rise annually, writes AMANDA RUGGERI.
The first time my father’s basement flooded, it was shortly after he moved in. The building was an ocean-front high-rise in a small city north of Miami called Sunny Isles Beach. The marble lobby had a waterfall that never stopped running; crisp-shirted valets parked your car for you. For the residents who lived in the more lavish flats, these cars were often BMWs and Mercedes. But no matter their value, the cars all wound up in the same place: the basement.
When I called, I’d ask my dad how the building was doing. “The basement flooded again a couple weeks ago,” he’d sometimes say. Or: “It’s getting worse.” It’s not only his building: he’s also driven through a foot of water on a main road a couple of towns over and is used to tiptoeing around pools in the local supermarket’s car park.
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.
It has more property at risk, too. In Miami-Dade County, developers had 1.6 million sq. ft. (149,000 sq. m.) of office space and 1.8 million of retail space under construction in the second quarter of 2016 alone. Sunny Isles Beach, home to 20,300 people, has eight high-rise buildings under construction; swing a seagull in the air, and you’ll hit a crane. As you might imagine, the value of development in this sun-soaked part of the country is high, too. Property in Sunny Isles alone is now worth more than $10 billion. Many of the wealthiest people in the US reside in Florida, including 40 billionaires on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans; on a recent week, the most expensive real estate listing in the US was a $54 million mansion in Palm Beach.
Despite his history of referring to climate change as a ‘hoax’ and his recent rollback of emissions-slashing initiatives, President Donald Trump is one of these property owners with a stake in the issue. The president frequently visits his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, 75 miles (121km) north of Miami, which is itself an area experiencing flooding from high tides. There also are six Trump-branded residential buildings in Sunny Isles, one of which still provides the president with income, and a Trump-branded condominium complex in Hollywood.
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.
It’s a challenge that many officials and experts are determined to meet. Getting there, though, requires a shift in how everyone from mayors to taxpayers, insurers to engineers, property developers to urban planners thinks about their communities – and the everyday decisions that shape them. The eyes of the world are on them: if one of the richest communities on the planet can’t step up, what hope is there for everyone else?
“If the science is correct on this – which it is going to be – the question is, ‘How extreme are the implications?’” says Kreeger. “We are literally going to have to rewrite how businesses function, and how cities are designed. Everything’s going to change. And that’s particularly going to be exacerbated in coastal communities.
“This would be no different than if I came to you and said ‘Hey, in 40 years, gravity’s going to change. I can’t tell you exactly what it’s going to be. But let’s assume roughly between 50% and 80% stronger or weaker than it is now.’ You’d look around and say ‘Shoot, what’s that going to affect?’”
“And the answer is: it affects everything.”
Sea level rise is global. But due to a variety of factors – including, for this part of the Atlantic coast, a likely weakening of the Gulf Stream, itself potentially a result of the melting of Greenland’s ice caps – south Floridians are feeling the effects more than many others. While there has been a mean rise of a little more than 3mm per year worldwide since the 1990s, in the last decade, the NOAA Virginia Key tide gauge just south of Miami Beach has measured a 9mm rise annually.
That may not sound like much. But as an average, it doesn’t tell the whole story of what residents see – including more extreme events like king tides (extremely high tides), which have been getting dramatically higher. What’s more, when you’re talking about places like Miami Beach – where, as chief resiliency officer, Susanne Torriente, jokes, the elevation ranges between ‘flat and flatter’ – every millimetre counts. Most of Miami Beach’s built environment sits at an elevation of 60-120cm (2-6ft). And across the region, underground infrastructure – like aquifers or septic tanks – lies even closer to the water table.