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Sea-level rise and Florida: 2025 - 2050

What We’ll See -- 2025 - 2050

As in the story about the frog and the pot of water on the burner, property owners, taxpayers and investors begin to feel the heat in this period.

  • Natural areas are the first to go. After one to two feet of rise, substantial acreage of natural areas in coastal Florida where low-lying land meets the sea will be under water.
  • At two feet of rise, water will close in on Naples municipal airport and flood Naples Botanical Garden. A few residential areas around Fort Myers and Cape Coral will take on water.
  • In Pinellas County on the Gulf, barrier islands and low-lying neighborhoods like Shore Acres on Tampa Bay become more than problematic. Bayport Park in Hernando County is awash.
  • In St. Augustine, the moat at the Castillo de San Marcos fortress will stay permanently full of water by the end of this period.
  • Fort Lauderdale’s challenges begin to crystallize as some of its priciest canalside real estate is threatened.
  • The mainland-facing side of urban Miami Beach sees large areas inundated. The sea and higher waters in the former Everglades brings water to western urbanized Miami-Dade County.
  • Gravity-driven canal and drainage systems will lose performance as seas rise, stacking up rainfall inland. In the early 1980s, nuisance flooding in the Florida Keys happened less than once per year on average. By 2030, with sea level up 3 to 7 inches, it will happen 20 to 78 times a year — a significant hit for business owners, residents and property.

What to Save — and How

In this period, society will have to weigh the costs of building more protective systems against the value of what’s being protected. “Engineers can come up with all sorts of solutions, but are they economically justified?” says Glenn Landers, a senior project engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville.

Expect a mix of area-specific decisions as communities and the state struggle with what to save and at what price. Relocate the Castillo de San Marcos, but let Cape Coral go? Build elaborate protections for Ocean Drive’s Art Deco buildings, but let the west side of Miami Beach go under? Infrastructure such as power plants that can’t be left to the waves will have to be either dismantled or relocated — at significant cost.

One solution that scientists say won’t work: Dikes. Because Florida sits on porous limestone, seawalls protect against waves, but the water itself will seep in underneath walls through the rock and then rise up on the other side.

The Insurance Factor

Don’t expect to see rising sea projections reflected in homeowners insurance anytime soon. Except for hurricane coverage, which is based on modeling, insurance is priced and sold by the year based on historical industry claims experience, not projections for decades in the future, points out Werner Kruck, COO of Security First Insurance in Ormond Beach. Homeowners coverage also doesn’t cover flooding, the top concern from sea-level rise. The National Flood Insurance Program, which does, has more than 1.7 million policies in force in Florida, approximately 35% of the national total. Decades of underpricing risk left the federal program earlier this year $25 billion in the red. As a nation, “we’ve dug ourselves a deep hole,” says Kruck.

Bottom Line: Some climate change firebrands argue that expensive adaptations create false hope and send a false signal to the real estate market. Even worse, they say, it allows humanity to believe it can engineer its way out of trouble rather than make drastic emissions cuts. Ben Kirtman, a professor in the University of Miami’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, is among those who say we must curtail emissions sharply to be spared from a bleak future long term. But, he also says, it will be far cheaper to begin adapting now to higher seas where possible rather than going through expensive retrofits later. “When you need to win over the public in solving a major threat to the future, you have to be talking about solutions. You can’t talk about only gloom and doom. Then they’re willing to bite off a challenge. People have to recognize they’re going to have to make these very hard decisions about what parts of Florida we’re going to have to let return to the natural environment.”

Migration?

With dramatic sea-level rise not forecast to come until after 2050, its effects on migration in and out of Florida are likely to remain minimal. As Miami- Dade, which is projected to add 940,000 people by 2045, gets soggier, people may simply choose to relocate within the county or locate in a higher Florida county, making the effect on Florida’s overall population nil. Events elsewhere — like the effects of the 2017 hurricanes on Puerto Rico, for example — can lead to political or economic migration that would overwhelm any sea level-related migration.

Bottom Line:

Some climate change firebrands argue that expensive adaptations create false hope and send a false signal to the real estate market. Even worse, they say, it allows humanity to believe it can engineer its way out of trouble rather than make drastic emissions cuts. Ben Kirtman, a professor in the University of Miami’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, is among those who say we must curtail emissions sharply to be spared from a bleak future long term. But, he also says, it will be far cheaper to begin adapting now to higher seas where possible rather than going through expensive retrofits later. “When you need to win over the public in solving a major threat to the future, you have to be talking about solutions. You can’t talk about only gloom and doom. Then they’re willing to bite off a challenge. People have to recognize they’re going to have to make these very hard decisions about what parts of Florida we’re going to have to let return to the natural environment.”

 

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