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Will Sea Level Rise Make the Final Debate?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Tonight, President Obama and Governor Romney will step onto the stage at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, for their final debate. Familiar topics, such as boosting the economy, healthcare reform and the role of government, are likely to be wrangled over. To a lesser extent, so too will the path to energy independence, albeit without the mention of climate change.

This would go differently if the 120 plus city and county officials and scientists in Florida who recently penned a letter to the presidential candidates about rising sea levels have a say in the matter. Should their letter be acknowledged, the debate would spotlight the hot potato topic of climate change, its related effects, and how the two candidates would help Florida and other states handle its hazards.

A soggy pathway leading to a home in the Las Olas Isles are of Fort Lauderdale during a high tide event in the middle of October 2012. Photo credit: Paul Krashefski, Broward County Natural Resources Planning and Management

“Florida is ground zero when it comes to sea level rise, and I don’t think there’s any bigger ground zero than Broward County,” said Broward County Vice Mayor Kristin Jacobs, one letter signer who asserts that climate change is not a partisan issue, but one of resilience and adaptation.

“Saltwater intrusion is marching scarily inward here in Southeast Florida,” continued Jacobs. “We’re losing coastline, and seawater is coming up through the river and canal systems during high and super high tides flooding the streets and neighborhoods.”

Broward County is not alone in this regard. The residents in three other neighboring counties – Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach – are also experiencing the flooding, rusting, erosion and water pooling that occurs when sea water gets trapped inland due to flooded drainage pipes, or when the gravity fed canal system becomes inundated with sea water and has to be temporarily closed.

About 30 percent of Florida’s entire population lives in these four counties, which face millions of dollars of infrastructure costs if these problems are to be addressed. One example of the huge cost of mitigation is in Miami Beach, which may undertake a $206 million overhaul of its drainage system. Meanwhile, the South Florida Water Management District is considering rebuilding new pumping stations for its canal system at the price of $70 million per station.

“There are investments that can be made today for situations that we know will be exacerbated in the future,” said Jennifer Jurado, Director of Natural Resources, Planning and Management Division, Broward County. “Sea level rise has always been an issue, but it’s the severity of events that’s the growing circumstance.”

Jurado notes that the costs are well beyond the capacity of any of these communities and, therefore, need collaboration from local governments as well as the support of federal agencies in terms of planning and advancing the investments needed. Even so, it’s undecided who’ll for these updates to infrastructure.

Over the last 100 years, sea level has already risen about 8 inches along Florida’s coastline. At this rate, sea level rise is projected to increase 50 percent by 2060, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Florida map shows where the letter signers are located and how projected sea level rise in 2060 will affect the coastline. Picture credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

The perimeter of Florida is starting to feel the effects. According to the press release by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which helped draft the letter, Sanibel Island’s fresh water marshes are in danger of salt intrusion, hardwood forests near Tampa Bay are becoming salty marshes, while drinking water sources around Tampa Bay and Peace River are also facing the ever creeping salty water.

“Florida is ground zero for sea level rise and it’s going to happen all over the country, and its the cities that are feeling the affect,” said Lisa Neurenberger, a spokesperson for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’re hoping that the letter fosters more conversation about what cities are having to deal with when it comes to sea level rise.”

Obama, Romney, any comments? You have two minutes.

(At the time this piece was published, the Obama Campaign responded saying the letter was being passed to their policy team. The Romney Campaign has yet to say respond.)

Robynne Boyd About the Author: Robynne Boyd began writing about people and the planet when living barefoot and by campfire on the North Shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Over a decade later and now fully dependent on electricity, she continues this work as an editor for IISD Reporting Services. When not in search of misplaced commas and terser prose, Robynne writes about environment and energy. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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