Special Report on Florida's Environment
A Rising Concern: The impact of sea level rise on Florida
Forget the argument over what may be causing it — if we take seriously the idea that the sea level could rise by more than seven inches in the next 30 years, what should Florida communities be doing about it, and how much will it cost?
A Cautionary Voice
Florida State University professor emeritus James O’Brien is one of the world’s top experts on oceans. He has a doctorate in meteorology and oceanography, is the emeritus Robert O. Lawton Professor of Meteorology and Oceanography and founded FSU’s Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies.
O’Brien acknowledges that the seas are rising and that climate is changing, but he believes that apocryphal predictions of sea level rise are off base. “It’s just nonsense,” O’Brien says.
O’Brien accepts the data showing seas have risen at a rate of nearly nine inches over the last century in Florida. And he believes that the seas will continue to rise. He just doesn’t think sea level rise will occur at the drastic pace expected by many other climatologists and researchers, who predict seas to rise by as much as six feet by 2100. O’Brien predicts a more moderate 18 inches — still higher than the historical rate of sea level rise in Florida but much less than the other scientists’ estimates.
“The big thing to understand on sea level rise is the globe is coming out of an Ice Age,” O’Brien says. “This sea level in Florida is going to continue to rise, period. Unless we go back into an Ice Age, we will continue to rise at over eight inches in 10 years. That’s without any global warming.” He does believe in global warming, he says, but is skeptical that there is enough data to prove sea level rise will quickly accelerate, especially given that many tide gauges have only been in operation a few decades.
Because O’Brien doesn’t believe seas will rise at the higher rates predicted by some other scientists, he’s unconvinced about efforts to prepare for sea level rise. “Adaptation? We’re already adapting from what we did in the early part of last century,” O’Brien says. “Everything comes down to economics.”
O’Brien believes that businesses will respond to sea level rise if it begins to threaten their profitability and that homeowners will stop buying in places that repeatedly flood without much nudging needed from the government.