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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.

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