Turning blind eye to rising sea levels dangerous

Nov 2, 2009

Posted on Sat, Oct. 31, 2009

The Miami Herald


Fear and foreboding hung over beaches and harbors and coastal communities last week as a certain place digested the inevitability of rising sea levels.

That certain place wasn’t Florida.

It was Australia that was consumed with worry over the catastrophic effects a 30- or 40-inch rise in sea level could bring to its 21,000-mile shoreline.

A parliamentary report released Tuesday, with an urgent message and a cumbersome name — Managing Our Coastal Zone in a Changing Climate — reiterated warnings from climate scientists across the globe and listed wrenching steps needed for Australians to fend off catastrophe.

The same day, another study was published in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters that looked at similar effects on the Atlantic coast and Florida. The report also warned that heroic and “increasingly ambitious” measures would be necessary to protect coastal cities like Miami from the encroaching sea.

“The thing that is hard to fathom is, how are we going to be able to hold back the sea in a massive way in order to keep people at their current locations?,” coauthor Daniel Trescott, a planner with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, told Miami Herald environmental reporter Curtis Morgan. “The reason we did this was to get people to start talking about what we are going to do.”

Australians, clearly alarmed, began a national conversation.

In South Florida, meanwhile, the travails of beleaguered Dolphins receiver Ted Ginn provoked considerably more public conversation than the prospect of widespread flooding. Or the costs of dikes, pumps and sea walls to fend off the sea.

Australian elected officials spoke of curtailing new development in low-lying coastal areas. Aussies even spoke aloud of entire cities “retreating” from coastal areas. Their counterparts in Florida would sooner admit to adultery.

Both reports accepted the scientific consensus that unchecked global warming would likely raise the sea by 31.5 inches or more during the 21st Century. But Australians, from political leaders to citizens firing off letters to newspapers, framed it as a brutal reality that required long-range planning and sacrifice.

They talked, in urgent tones, about eroding beaches, salt-water intrusion into ground water, fearsome storm surges, massive flooding.

Floridians paid scant attention. And you can be sure that the politicians jockeying for statewide office these next few months will ignore the unsettling issued raised by the Trescott report.

The future, in Florida public life, extends no further than Nov. 2, 2010.

“This is a real problem,” said Jianjun Yin, a climate modeler at the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies at Florida State University, who has been studying sea-level changes for the past decade. “The public needs to understand that it’s a real threat that sea levels will rise a meter by the end of this century.”

He noted that some climate scientists think the measure will be closer to two meters.

Either way, Florida has a hellish problem coming its way.

“I’m frustrated that people aren’t taking this seriously,” Yin said Friday. “We have solid evidence.”

Such sentiments reverberated through a place with thousands of miles of vulnerable, low-lying coastline last week.

Unfortunately, that place wasn’t Florida.



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