90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Monday, March 10, 2014

Elevation Zero: South Florida Prepares For Rising Sea Level

Buildings are seen near the ocean in North Miami, Florida, in March 2012. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Buildings are seen near the ocean in North Miami, Florida, in March 2012. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

This week we’re going to hear about the consequences of rising sea levels in South Florida through a series of reports from Here & Now contributing station WLRN in Miami.

Miami, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is the world’s most threatened coastal city when it comes to sea level rise. Its economy, infrastructure — just about everything is vulnerable.

Climate scientists largely agree that sea levels are rising and will continue to rise. But by how much? Reporter Kenny Malone set out with a simple question: In the year 2100, how high will the sea level have risen? He found that there was no simple answer.

WLRN special correspondent Tom Hudson oversaw the station’s extensive coverage of sea level rise, and speaks to Here & Now’s Robin Young about the economic implications, especially on Miami’s real estate market, and what the region is doing to prepare.





It's HERE AND NOW. All this week we're going to hear about the consequences of rising sea levels in South Florida through a series of reports from HERE AND NOW contributing station WLRN in Miami. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Miami is the country's coastal city most threatened by sea level rise, which means the region's economy, infrastructure, just about everything else is vulnerable.

Climate scientists largely agree that sea levels are rising and will continue to rise. But by how much? WLRN's Kenny Malone went in search of answers.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: In the year 2100, how high will the sea level have risen?

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE #1: One-point-six to 4.6 feet.

MALONE: OK, so that's it.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE #1: Yup, according to the National Research Council.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE #2: I respectfully disagree. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says .65 to 4.9 feet.

MALONE: OK, anybody else?

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE #4: Point-seven to 6.3 feet.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE #5: Point-three to 2.2 feet.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE #6: (Unintelligible)...

MALONE: OK, shh, down, computer voices. Let's start from square one.

DAVID ENFIELD: Sea level rise consists of two components.

MALONE: David Enfield is a climatologist with the University of Miami and NOAA, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. That first component...

ENFIELD: That's the heating of the ocean.

MALONE: As the climate warms, the oceans warm, the water expands, and sea level rises.

ENFIELD: And the other is the disappearance of landlocked ice.

MALONE: Against as the climate warms, land-locked ice sheets start to melt. Water goes into the ocean, sea level rises. Based on what Enfield's seen, for example, he says sea level rise in 2100 will be at least two feet, possibly three, but if ice sheets wind up melting faster than we've been seeing already...

ENFIELD: We could be seeing six feet by the end of the century.

MALONE: A six-foot sea level rise puts the majority of Miami-Dade County below sea level. But that's Enfield's very unlikely scenario. Herald Wanless, on the other hand...

HERALD WANLESS: Six to 20 feet, somewhere in there.

MALONE: Six to 20 feet. That's like "Waterworld" for South Florida. Wanless is a geologist at the University of Miami, and he says if you look at the past, sea level rise happened in rapid, catastrophic leaps because somewhere, an ice sheet collapsed suddenly. And he thinks we're starting to see that again.

At this point, though, ice sheet melt effect isn't really built into the climate change models. It's more or less tacked on using expert judgment. That's part of why you get expert projections that span anywhere from two feet...

WANLESS: To 20 feet.

MALONE: But some of the highest profile projections don't come from a single voice.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: We more or less agree .8 to 3.2 feet.

MALONE: That's the latest projection from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, .8 to 3.2 feet.

RONALD STOUFFER: The role of the IPCC is to do an assessment of the stated literature, not to actually produce new science.

MALONE: Ronald Stouffer works at NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey.

STOUFFER: I study past, present and future climates.

MALONE: Stouffer co-authored four of the IPCC's five reports. The panel is made up of hundreds of experts from dozens of countries that discuss what models to use, what papers to believe and how to make sense of it all. The IPCC catches flak from both ends of the spectrum. Many say their numbers are too conservative; others have said they overstate the problem. Stouffer says...

STOUFFER: It's the nature of the game, right. When you're making a consensus, you're trying to hit that middle.

MALONE: Many of the projections you'll see emerge from groups of experts like the IPCC, and even those groups don't necessarily agree. For example, here's the projection from NOAA's National Climate Assessment.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE #7: Eight inches to 6.6 feet.

MALONE: The projection from the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE #8: One-point-six to 4.9 feet.

MALONE: And the projection from the Miami-Dade Climate Change Advisory Task Force.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE #9: Three to five feet.

MALONE: And so back to our question. What will sea level rise be in 2100? Simple answer: somewhere between...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Unintelligible).

MALONE: For HERE AND NOW, I'm Kenny Malone.



Clear as mud. Well, joining us now is Tom Hudson, special correspondent for WLRN, who oversaw the station's extensive coverage of the effects of sea level rise in South Florida. Tom, welcome.

TOM HUDSON, BYLINE: Jeremy, glad to be here. I'm high and dry today, by the way.


HOBSON: OK, good. Well, we just heard there a lot of conflicting reports about what might happen. So what is the region doing to prepare for whatever the sea level rise might be?

HUDSON: You know, preparation really begins with acknowledgement, and we have seen that mostly. Back in 2010, in fact, four counties making up the bulk of the population here in Southeast Florida got together and essentially signed on to the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which does a number of different things but essentially is a public acknowledgement of climate change and the risks here in Southeast Florida, particularly because of sea level rise.

It's really been seen a model of public acknowledgement, but as Kenny just reported on, the vagaries of the forecast has led to really varying degrees of engagement on the part of public policy. I think it's fair to say there's no coordinated effort yet in Southeast Florida.

HOBSON: Well, let's talk about a couple of the effects of this, and one of them would be real estate. We know that the market has been heating up in South Florida after a big dip following the financial crisis. But now there are condo buildings going up all over Miami. What's happening there? Are people thinking it's a little too risky to take out a 30-year mortgage on a property that's close to the sea?

HUDSON: No, not yet. Lenders are still lending. And in fact that gets to the point, Jeremy, where, you know, change is likely to come from the financial industry forcing the change, foisting the change, upon the real estate market here in South Florida. Yeah, it has certainly been red hot, but we saw that change foisted upon the market after the housing collapse, right.

Folks were buying condos with no money down or one percent money down. Those days are long gone. Condominium developers now are requiring 50 percent cash down in order to buy a condominium on spec. So the market changed significantly. In all likelihood, that's what it's going to take for the real estate market to really acknowledge the threat along the coastal lines and along the suburban lines where sea level threat is going to be seen first.

HOBSON: What do we know about what would happen not just from normal rising sea levels but from a storm surge if there is a hurricane?

HUDSON: Well, it could be a disaster here with the sea level rise forecast that Kenny spelled out in the decades ahead, and you get a significant storm coming in the right time of day, high tide, and the right direction, the wind's blowing in the right way. It could be certainly disastrous not only for the coastal communities up and down Southeast Florida but also the suburban communities, those off-coastal areas, which actually, Jeremy, are usually at a lower elevation than right along the coastline.

Miami Beach, for instance, which folks are familiar with South Beach, that's among the highest places along that barrier island. It's on the inside of Miami Beach, on the Intercoastal coastway, that's actually at a lower and a higher risk area for rising seas.

HOBSON: Well, so what does it mean for infrastructure, then? We think of the famous, what, A1A that runs right along the coast, but you're saying it could even impact roads further in.

HUDSON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, A1A washed out to sea, a chunk of it in Fort Lauderdale, because of Hurricane Sandy, which remember for Southeast Florida was an event 200 miles offshore for us. A chunk of it fell into the sea. It has been rebuilt and reinforced against the threat of rising seas. The local community, local developers, local municipalities really required that, not the state of Florida.

And that really gets and illustrates the challenge, that there has been no coordinated, no quasi-coordinated effort here. It really has been a piecemeal response that we've seen to the threat of rising seas.

HOBSON: But Tom, no expectation that people are going to start retreating to the inland.


HUDSON: No, no, none at all. Money is hot. Real estate is hot in South Florida. And until the financial industry won't lend the money or is requiring significantly higher amounts of insurance to lend that money, I think you're still not going to see a significant response.

HOBSON: WLRN special correspondent Tom Hudson, joining us from Miami, and we'll be following this story all this week on HERE AND NOW. Tom, thanks so much.

HUDSON: Thank you.

HOBSON: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • loyal listener

    Wow, a whole week of “global warming” propaganda and promoting the Obama agenda.

    There is no sea level rise.

    • N_Jessen

      There is so far gradual sea level rise (but increased glacial/interglacial effects):

      Given that trends in heat accumulation and ice sheet disintegration have more room for acceleration, the bigger issue is what happens by 2050, 2100 and beyond. Particularly since this process, like surface warming, is not likely to unfold in a smooth, linear manner. Much of the problem today’s sea level models have is with feedbacks and ice sheet dynamics. So far, observations of ice loss seem to have exceeded those projections.

      • apaddler

        And hurricane Sandy was just another hoax. Trouble is that by the time the sea has risen enough so that even N_Jessen can’t deny what’s going on, there will be enough thermal inertia in the oceans to keep the process going all on its own. Like cooking pasta. Just turning off the burner won’t stop the cooking.

        • Guest

          Either you meant “loyal listener” or you didn’t read my comment very carefully.

          • apaddler

            Sorry ’bout that.

          • N_Jessen

            No problem. I tried deleting my reply but apparently it’s still there as “guest”. :-|

        • loyal listener

          Ummm pretty sure there were hurricanes happening long before we started burning fossil fuels. It is also worth noting that hurricane activity has been below normal since Al Gorlioni predicted that they would increase significantly in that horrible movie of his back in 2005.

    • N_Jessen

      Oddly, I can’t see or reply to “Loyal Listener”‘s comment on hurricanes when logged in. So I’ll put it here.

      I don’t recall exactly what Gore said vs. what the Gore-obsessed said he said. But it’s not very relevant. I don’t think the science itself predicted a continuous increase in hurricane activity, given that near-term patterns are a confluence of regional dynamics, “internal” variability, and trends in ocean heat content. What it has been suggesting is an effect over time on intensity/energy dissipation (in which storm size is a factor, making Sandy among the most powerful on record), and more recently researching the possible affects of Arctic warming on pressure systems and storm tracks. Last I checked, hurricane ‘frequency’ was a more contentious issue.

  • jcspires51

    Kenny Malone’s report on this subject has to be one of the most annoying reports on an important subject ever. Just because you CAN use multiple voices doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

    • N_Jessen

      Agreed, but it did sound like several of those voices weren’t ‘that’ divergent. Whether it’s 4.9 feet or 6, Iow lying cities and productive farmlands (and in many cases their fresh water supplies) would be at risk.

  • Robert Thomas

    Aside from the variety of opinions among the mainstream researchers attempting to estimate future events which are always contingent, the striking thing here is the apparent inability, at this late date, of the journalistosphere to communicate that all such speculation has a statistical aspect and that it can only be understood as a distribution of views, which themselves are arrived at through analysis of distributions.

    Scientific inquiry rarely provides more precise descriptions of what has *already occurred* than a curve of normal (or other) distribution; it can’t be surprising to any educated adult person capable of reflection that predictions of future natural events will not be more precise.

    The proper thing to do would be to explain this and describe the parameters of the distribution – how pointy (high quality) or how squat (low quality) the distributions of the various predictions are in the meta-study. You don’t need to explain even as much as what standard deviation is, for crying out loud. Just the quality of the curve and its mode would be a LOT better than cute computer voices.

    Journalists x math = 0

  • Alaska Dave

    An important article, but a couple of issues. The easy one is, the piece did not mention that there are TIDES, and sea level will always go up and down twice a day. It looks like Miami’s tidal range is roughly 1.5 to 3 feet between low and high. This greatly affects the way that rising sea levels will be experienced. And I have to echo, the voice overlays on sea rise estimates was too cute. Playing it twice was definitely one too many. The article should have concluded by clearly stating the critical point: sea level WILL rise. State the low estimate, the high estimate, and the average, and we’re good. The overlaid voices tend to belittle the situation, and frankly, give it some flavor of conservative talk radio rather than NPR. Nonetheless, Here & Now is a great program, and NPR is the lifeblood of news in this country.

    • loyal listener

      NPR is the lifeblood of news???

      Oh good Lord, you need to get out more!

    • Alaska Dave

      Similar to N_Jessen at the bottom, I received Email notice from Disqus that “Loyal Listener” replied to my post, but I don’t see it here. Not sure how that works. Anyway, LL apparently posted in reply to the above, “NPR is the lifeblood of news??? Oh good Lord, you need to get out more!” LL, you must be having fun as the lone aginner in a “sea” of progressives here. Maybe you’re aware that 98% of scientists involved around the world confirm that global warming is real, and is significantly human-caused? Maybe you noted in the article that “hundreds of experts” from “dozens of countries” are working on the science? Maybe you noted that four counties representing most of Southeast Florida population signed the Climate Change Compact acknowledging that reality? Of all the conservative idiocies, opposing climate change just about takes the cake. Sorry, but reality is not debatable. And why were you listening to NPR, anyway? Just checking up on us?

      • loyal listener

        Yeah, I’m just listening to see how my tax dollars are being spent. And in not very impressed.

    • Jack Wolf

      Dah, you think scientists didn’t figure that out already? Of course they look at tides, but tides do not cause global sea level rise. And, I think the coastal hydrologists do have college degrees in that field, maybe a few, after all.

      • Alaska Dave

        The point isn’t scientists, Jack. It’s the simple observation that the radio piece did not mention the tide aspect, and I think it’s rather important. As I said, tides will greatly affect the way that rising sea levels will be experienced. Tides are up and down twice a day, and the height varies day-to-day, everyday. So it will be a “high-high” tide that first floods somebody’s basement, maybe a couple days in a row. Then the high-highs will diminish until the next big moon cycle, maybe a few months down the road, then come back to flood the basement again. High tides will get ever higher in elevation over time as sea level rises. But they come and go. People who don’t live with tides might not give this much recognition. Tides are very interesting. I recommend you give them some study. Invest in a tide book.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

September 1 4 Comments

Breastfeeding Gets A Boost From Philadelphia Hospitals

The city's major birthing hospitals have stopped sending new moms home with baby formula, to encourage breastfeeding.

August 29 Comment

World Championship Tug-Of-War Is ‘A Thing Of Beauty’

This weekend's competition in Wisconsin is a bit more intense than it was in your grade school gym class.

August 29 Comment

Repelling Mosquitoes With A Natural Sticky Patch

The Kite Patch releases odors that block the bug's carbon dioxide receptors, sending them in another direction.

August 28 3 Comments

Catching Up With The Polyphonic Spree

The choral rock band out of Dallas, Texas, has been thrilling audiences with its live performances for over a decade.