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3 days ago, 08/01/2015 at 6:19am

Sea LevelThe Future of Our Coastline "
Belief in climate change is optional,
but participation is mandatory.

Sea Level rise. Despite one’s personal beliefs about whether climate change is caused by humans or simply part of the Earth’s natural cycle, the water is rising, and many scientists are predicting that it’s going to get much worse before it gets better. Nowhere is this more important than for those of us who live on a barrier island, and some coastal communities are already incorporating strategies on how to deal with it in their town’s comprehensive plans.

In May, the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition and the Lee County Chapter of the League of Women Voters hosted a ‘Sea Level Rise Summit’ at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) where noted speakers from throughout the state gave presentations on topics related to sea level rise.

At the beginning of the summit, Coalition Coordinator and former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah explained that the idea for the summit came from Miami Beach’s 6th Annual Florida Leadership Conference on Climate Change.

"They have really got their act together in regards to this,” Judah said. "On the west coast, Punta Gorda has been really proactive and adopted their plan in 2009. They began looking at climate change when they were forced to rebuild their city after Hurricane Charley in 2004.”

FGCU Director Dr. Darren Rumbold quipped that where he lives in Gateway is 14½ feet above mean high tide.

"In Southwest Florida, that’s a mountain, but 100 years from now it could be beachfront property,”he said. "We need to carry this message far and wide – South Florida is Ground Zero for this issue, and we need to come up with substantiative ways to survive this.”

Dr. Harold Wanless Professor and Chair – Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami – has been studying sea level rise for over 30 years.

"Over 90% of global warming is going into the ocean, which covers 72% of the Earth’s surface,” he said. "As far as sea level, it started rising because of the warming of the ocean, and now is getting even higher because polar ice caps are melting. Even though our governor and junior senator don’t buy into human-caused sea level rise, it is real.”

Wanless presented a chart showing that – with just a 1.8-foot rise in sea level - 80% of the state’s aquifers will no longer be able to operate due to saltwater intrusion. At a 3-foot rise, most barrier islands would be covered.

"2.4 million people in Florida live below an elevation of 4 feet, and 840,000 live below 3 feet,” he said. "With a 4 foot rise, our Everglades will evolve into an estuary and much of western Miami-Dade and Broward County will be in big trouble. And it’s important to know that wherever we are at the end of the century, the problem will accelerate because that’s how it works. On top of all of that, you have to look at the seasonal high tides, flooding in the streets and increasing risk from storm surge.”

The professor said that rapid sea level rise has occurred in the past during periods of climate change.

"We have to realize our global warming may be doing enough to cause one of these ice sheet disintegrations,” he said. "We will continue to see warming of the ocean, which causes expansion of the ocean. I went to Greenland in 2013, and it’s incredible – the ice sheet is losing five times as much ice per year than it did in the 1990’s. There are rivers and lakes flowing on the surface and warm ocean water is getting underneath it, too.”

"The Third National Climate Assessment - released last year - predicts a rise of 1-4 feet by the year 2100, but a number of top scientists have said that we have enough carbon dioxide in the ocean to see a 70’ rise in sea level. If we do not address this properly, we’re going to leave chaos behind.”

Erin L. Deady – Attorney at Law – Corbett and White PA, said that climate change is a growing field that isn’t going away soon.

"We’re starting to see more positive messages – like the work Punta Gorda, Monroe and Broward Counties are doing,” she said. "Soon, the law will require that this type of planning be introduced. But there is no binding legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse gasses. However, we’re seeing a lot of local governments and public sector corporations introducing innovative ideas to deal with the problem.”

Deady said new laws aren’t necessary, as much of the issues with sea level rise and climate change can be dealt with using existing laws protecting endangered species and clean water.

"So Florida laws – we do have some interesting things on the books,” she said. "We have green building. We did pass a law in 2010 which required that green house gas reduction strategies be incorporated into comprehensive plans.”

Jim Beever of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council talked about some of the climate change planning being implemented on the west coast of Florida, including Punta Gorda’s program.

"There’s been a lot of climate change planning on the regional level and at the local level,” he said. "We’ve had 13 projects done, we’ve done a regional water assessment – all available online – we completed the adaptation plan for the city of Punta Gorda and they are actually completing projects in that plan. We’ve documented that seagrasses are moving landward as sea level rises, we’ve done resiliency strategies with Lee County, and studies with salt marshes where we have documented they’ve moved landward the length of a football field since the 1980’s. On the west coast of Florida, we make decisions based on what residents want to do and most of the changes we make would have helped us anyway regardless of whether there’s climate change or not.”

Beever explained that the idea is to ‘adapt’.

"In the last 100 years, there has been a documented increase in air temperature of 1.2 degrees, meaning the rainy season is rainier and the dry season is drier,” he said. "Sea level rise is up 8 to 9 inches along our coast, and we can show you where this has occurred. A 15 inch rise will result in the lost of 30% of the state’s beaches. We’re going to see climate change – more alligators in the Everglades, more algal blooms, power line failures just from the heat, increase in insurance rates as actuarial tables change.”

"Finger canal communities are an open invitation to sea level rise,” he continued. "There is a synergy of many different things that will happen related to climate change.”

Jim said that city of Punta Gorda looked at many different ideas, including relocating, elevating the entire city or build a big dike.

"They found out that many of these solutions actually exceeded the total value of the city,” he said. "So in some places they are going to armor, others they will build up and other areas they will relocate.”

At the end of the water summit, Dr. Mike Savarese – Professor of Marine Science and Environmental Studies – FGCU, talked about the shape of Southwest Florida – past, present and future and the vulnerability of the state’s barrier islands.

"The past is the key to the future,” he said. "There are two forces at work – the rate at which sea level is going up versus the rate of sediment coming in. We’ve crafted a sea level rise curve based on the state’s history going back 6,000 years. There is a de-acceleration from 6,000 years to the past 200 years or so. This is when our current estuaries and current coastal areas have developed – over the last 3,500 years.”

Savarese showed a photo of an oyster reef becoming – over time – a mangrove island.

"This is the kind of development you get when sea level rise is slow – 2mm per year - and sediments take over - this has all developed over the last 3,500 years,” he said. "But this is no longer stable and has the potential to become an open coast like it was 4,000 years ago. Now as we move forward, we’re experiencing between 3 and 4mm per year, which will accelerate.”

Dr. Savarese showed how different areas of the Everglades and 10,000 Islands have changed over the last 30 years, with mangroves moving inland and marshes going underwater as inland ponds grow and merge.

"But what’s going on on the barrier islands? Clearly barrier islands and beaches are dynamic, but how is it affected by sea level rise? We looked at eroding beaches around the state – the length of beaches that are eroding have increased since the 1980’s, including nearly all beachline in Collier and Lee Counties.”

"The bottom line is – sea level rise is no longer consistent with stability, so our barrier islands are changing,” he concluded.

The topics of climate change and sea level rise have caused quite a controversy in Florida, where Governor Rick Scott’s refusal to acknowledge the issue caused some coastal cities in south Florida to begin a drive to create another state – essentially dividing the peninsula in half – so funding would be directed to addressing what they see as a big threat to their economies.

During his first campaign for governor in 2010, Scott told reporters who asked about his views on climate change that he had "not been convinced,” and that he would need "something more convincing than what I’ve read.” After he first took office in 2011, Florida Department of Environmental Protection employees were directed not to use the terms "climate change” or"global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports. In 2014, Scott said he "was not a scientist” when asked about his views on climate change.

The following year a group of Florida scientists –including Dr. Wanless – asked to meet with the Governor in an effort to explain the science to him. They were given 30 minutes.

"He actually, as we were warned, spent 10 minutes doing silly things like prolonged introductions,” Wanless said. "But we had our 20 to 21 minutes, and he said thank you and went on to his more urgent matters, such as answering his telephone calls and so on. There were no questions of substance.”

This despite the fact that Scott’s $9.2 million Naples mansion sits 200 feet away from the Gulf on a stretch of beach where water has already risen 8 or 9 inches over the last century. According to Beever, however, it will likely be a particularly strong storm surge that floods his house before sea level gets there.

"Belief in climate change is optional, but participation is mandatory,”he said.

Want to see what will happen to your neighborhood should sea level rise 1, 2 or even 10 feet? Visit, scroll down and click on ‘Surging Seas Sea Level Rise’ and enter your address to see an interactive map.

Keri Hendry Weeg