By Susan Nugent
Sea-level rise will impact Florida; it already has. Cities are re-enforcing seawalls, raising roads and replanting dunes. Some citizens are worried about flooding, insuring their homes and being forced to move. Others are hoping the Federal Emergency Management Agency will bail them out.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released its sea level rise report. U.S. coastlines are predicted to rise an average of 10 to 12 inches by 2050. Regionally those numbers will change, so the East Coast will rise 10 to 14 inches while the Gulf Coast rises 14 to 18 inches.
Southwest Florida is especially at risk. Flooding is the most obvious problem. As the waters rise, more and more high tides will result in flooding. At the same time, storm surges will also be stronger and higher. Erosion and salt water intrusion also spell disaster.
NOAA has also recently released Sea Level Rise Viewer, a map where viewers can check what will happen in coastal areas. I immediately checked Big Pine Key, specifically the house I lived in for 10 years.
Today that house sits on a canal about 10 blocks from the bay. In 2040 that house will have oceanfront property; by 2060 it will be sitting on its stilts over water. If it’s still livable, getting there would require a kayak, canoe or low-draft motorboat.
Closer to Gainesville, Shell Mound near Cedar Key will change dramatically with an 18-inch rise of seas. At two feet, travel there will primarily be by boat. High tide flooding, also tracked on this viewer, dramatically appears in red on one of the screens.
NOAA hopes that planners will use this tool as they consider mitigation and adaptation changes for the vulnerable areas. Certainly, any coastal residents could also use this to help make decisions as to their commitment to their homes.
As we look at these predictions, NOAA reminds us that our fossil fuel use will affect what happens in the future. If we continue to release fossil fuel emissions as we now do, then all these predictions may occur more quickly. If, on the other hand, we reduce our emissions, we may be able to slow this seemingly determined outcome.
Our sea water temperatures are also rising, causing a variety of problems for Florida. Higher greenhouse gas levels result in higher water temperatures. Fishing, shellfish harvesting and mariculture have declined as temperatures rise. Florida has experienced long periods of temperature-related red tide, affecting businesses, jobs and recreation.
Carbon emissions also contribute to sea acidification. Home to many species, the Florida coral reef has suffered both increased heat and acidification, limiting the ability of coral and shellfish to produce hard skeletons.
As carbon increases in the ocean, producing more algae, oxygen that many species need is depleted. In Florida, both phosphorous and nitrogen, often runoff from our gardens and agricultural businesses, exacerbate the problem, contributing to increased algae growth.
Increased ocean temperatures have been identified as changing the patterns of hurricanes. When ocean temperatures rise by 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit), hurricanes will exponentially increase in strength as they travel over hotter waters. Both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Ida are examples.
Also, increased air temperatures hold more water than lower temperatures. Hurricane Harvey rained over Houston for five days. Such hurricanes will produce far greater flooding and erosion.
As the Atlantic becomes warmer, the Gulf Stream becomes less stable. Until now, the waters of the Gulf Stream have warmed New England, the Maritimes and northern Europe. The sinking of cold and dense Arctic water also drives the engine of Atlantic circulation.
If Greenland’s waters do not remain cold enough, the Gulf Stream will stall. That change would affect land temperatures in America and Europe. The Northeast and Europe would become much colder. On the other hand, the American Midwest and West would become extremely hot and dry.
Already, predictions are that South Florida will be too hot to continue the present level of agriculture. Temperatures in the fields of Homestead will be too high for growing plants as well as for workers to pick crops.
Florida must take action to protect more than just the coastlines. All Floridians will find their lives changed by rising and warming seas. One major problem is that those in power won’t live long enough to face the results of doing nothing. But those in their 20s and 30s certainly will.
Many of us were brought up to leave this place better than when we started. We are not on that path today.
Susan Nugent is a Climate Reality Project leader from Gainesville. This viewpoint originally appeared in The Gainesville Sun.