September 16, 2014

Special Report: Sea Level Rise and Florida

Impact: Beach and Shore

Lilly Rockwell | 7/8/2013

Hot Spot: Singer Island
Walling Off the Sea

Palm Beach island directly to the south of Singer Island is ritzier and more famous, but the half-mile-wide, five-mile-long Singer Island, actually a peninsula, is home to plenty of wealth. High-end properties such as the Ritz-Carlton line the beach, along with condo buildings, where units sell for upward of $1 million.

In recent years, residents of the 22-story Corniche condo in northern Singer Island have seen their beach shrink, in part from storm damage and in part from nearby Jupiter inlet, which sends sand away from the northern part of Singer Island.

Sea level rise also is a factor. In 1974, the highest tide recorded at the nearby Lake Worth pier was 4.15 feet above the average low-water line. By 2012, it was nearly a foot higher at 5.07 feet. The average sea level also crept steadily higher, rising by a more modest four inches.

Today, when storms arrive on Singer Island, the beach in front of the Corniche condominium is reduced to a sliver of sand. “We were very close to having to evacuate” during Tropical Storm Sandy, says Don Gaertner, who is on the Corniche’s condo association board. He’s survived a number of storms in the 10 years he’s lived at the Corniche but had never seen the water rise so high and obliterate so much landscaping as during Sandy.

The residents of the Corniche and five other condo buildings have chosen to fight the sea by spending $1.6-million to build a sea wall — 459 feet long and 19 feet high. They’ll foot the bill through a one-time assessment of $15,000 apiece. “There is nobody in our building of 110 owners that wants to build a sea wall and spend money to protect our shoreline,” Gaertner says. “But we have no choice because one more storm, one more hurricane and we will have to evacuate.” 

Building sea walls and dikes in an attempt to hold back the ocean may be a logical strategy for some areas of Florida that will have to cope with rising seas. But the problems only start with the expense. Sea walls can accelerate erosion and destroy sea turtle habitats. They also invite litigation from environmental groups wanting to protect marine life.

Long term, because of Florida’s geology, sea walls may not be able to hold back the sea because Florida sits on porous limestone rock. Water will penetrate inland no matter how high a sea wall is built, says Leonard Berry, director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University.

Gaertner says he understands it’s just a “Band-Aid” and not a long-term solution. It becomes a short-term economic decision — spend a little to protect your home and investment or lose everything if the next storm surge floods the Corniche.

Tags: Environment, Sea Level Rise

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