THE U.S. SENATE AGREED ON JAN. 21 that “climate change is real and not a hoax. It’s the senate’s first admission of the fact, after Democrats forced the issue by adding the language to the Keystone Pipeline XL bill. It passed 98-1.
There was not sufficient consensus among Republicans, though, to agree that people and their carbon emissions are a factor in changes such as global warming.
Those are two things the worldwide scientific community agrees on: climate change is a problem for us and we are partly to blame, along with nature, said Michael Savarese, Ph.D. in geology, a professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University who has researched the history of environmental change and the effects of sea-level rise on the coast.
Outside of that broad consensus, and outside the heated political debates and conjecture, the research and science behind climate change is enormously complex and varied. The U.S. government’s most recent 2014 National Climate Assessment, produced every four years with the agreement of hundreds of experts and 13 federal agencies, says global sea levels could rise between 1.5 and 6.3 feet by 2100. That could also vary widely at local levels.
Even with huge variability, said scientists and researchers at FGCU and the University of Florida, and other experts in the state, there are changes happening now and long-term effects that we should prepare for that range from inconvenient to devastating. The federal report identifies sea level rise, dangerously hot weather, hurricanes and decreased water supplies as key problems expected to worsen in the southeastern United States in decades to come.
The climate assessment also identifies some of the fastest-growing areas along the coast vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge, including Palm Coast, and the Cape Coral-Fort Myers metro area.
Jayantha Obeysekera, Ph.D. in civil engineering, sat on the federal committee that produced the National Climate Assessment and oversees climate and sea level rise issues with the South Florida Water Management District.
That agency’s mission includes protecting the water supply and quality, flood protection and environmental restoration.
“We realized all our mission elements could be impacted,” by climate change, Mr. Obeysekera said.
Many water control structures on the coast are out of date, for instance. “We’re beginning to look at what is the level of flood protection we have today and how will it change in the future due to sea level rise,” he said.
The sea has moved up the Southwest Florida coastline over the last hundred years by about 9 inches, said James Beever, principal planner for the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, one of 11 in the state made up of mayors, commissioners and other officials. That speed could accelerate as the atmosphere and in turn oceans slowly warm, a warmth that causes the water to expand slightly, accelerating sea level rise along with melting icecaps in Greenland and Antarctica. It could also provide the energy to produce increasingly intense hurricanes and flooding events.
At the same time, droughts could also become more severe and, along with saltwater replacing fresh in depleted aquifers, lead to water shortages and political battles between agriculture and developers for the resource, said James W. Jones, Ph.D., director of the Florida Climate Institute and a retired UF professor who studies the effects of environmental change on crop yields.
But as an agricultural competitor, the state could also benefit from climate changes, he suggested. Florida could develop breeding programs for vegetable varietals like sweet corn that western states such as California produce less of due to already severe drought and water shortages.
“We have an opportunity to actually increase our share of the vegetable and fruit production because California is likely to lose a lot of that over the long term,” he said. “I don’t see them getting a lot of that water back in the long term.”
Although the idea of restricting development along popular areas of the coast could be political anathema, that is in some cases the most economically sound policy in the long run for communities, said UF professor of urban and regional planning, Zhong-Ren Peng, Ph.D. His current research includes the study of climate change planning from a cost-benefit perspective.
Professor Peng and other researchers are finishing a study after nearly two years that analyzes strategies in the Tampa Bay area for commercial and residential development and protecting the vulnerability of critical infrastructure like hospitals, roads and schools.
“Our recommendation is if it’s not a new development, we wanted to give some space between the beach and the buildings, and in some places probably discourage new development around the beach,” he said. “That’s probably from the government point of view the best way to adapt to future sea level rise.
“I would say right now from a planning point of view to take some actions to discourage current development in the coastal areas is probably the best strategy. If you look at the 50-year horizon, that’s probably the most economical way to do it.”
What, me worry?
Planning for climate change can be a tough sell in Southwest Florida, which is years removed from a major hurricane and hasn’t experienced the flooding that has mobilized big east-coast metropolitan areas to confront climate change. On a balmy afternoon in February, why worry about sea level rise or storm surge along the coast that could effect real estate, for instance?
“The only thing that’s effecting us is that it’s so beautiful down here in Naples, Fla.,” said David Frye, president of Downing-Frye Realty. “It’s hard to have that concern here just because it’s so perfect.”
Naples city officials have not made a detailed assessment of how climate change could impact the community over the long term.
“It’s something that at least at this point in time we haven’t seen much of a reason to put a lot of time and resources into that,” said Mayor John Sorey.
Mr. Frye, Mayor Sorey and others point out that the worst flooding has been happening on the east coast. The town of Fort Myers Beach, for instance, has not made plans to deal with climate change-related issues.
“There’s always been a challenge with beaches changing, but to say that’s because of climate change, I just wouldn’t want to say that, I just don’t know,” said town manager Don Stilwell.
But flooding problems on Miami Beach, which is both a municipality and a barrier island that catches the full impact of the Atlantic Ocean, could also indicate some of the troubles the western gulf side and its gentler waters might face in the future.
Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine likes to joke that “I was floated into office” in 2013.
The most low-lying western part of the beach community was flooding often, even on clear blue days. This “sunny day flooding” phenomenon was “very unnerving,” to business interests and investors, the mayor said. It happened in the fall when the tides reached their peak. The mayor gathered engineers and other experts to fix the problem.
The pipes that drain water from the land through the seawall into the ocean were in poor shape. As the tide rose, it would come back up the pipes and flood the streets. The city repaired the tunnels so the water couldn’t reverse into the streets and tore up streets to install “massive pumps” underground that could be switched on when necessary. Having heard of Miami’s efforts, the national news media showed up last fall for “The Super Bowl of flooding,” when the tides would peak. Fortunately, the measures Mr. Levine took worked and the streets remained “dry as the Sahara.”
But that was only the start of measures to protect Miami Beach. The city plans to spend $300 to $400 million installing more than 60 of the big underground pumps, is considering new building regulations to set roads and homes above flood planes, and a program to put up seawalls. All that should keep Miami Beach prepared for climate change for the next 50 years. And after that?
“I’m a big believer in human innovation,” said Mayor Levine, who like other officials stressed each community needs its own plan.
“I always say the bay and the ocean is not Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative,” he said. “It doesn’t care how we debate it, it’s happening.”
Flooding is the biggest concern for Phil Buchanan, a Pine Island resident, retired attorney and environmental activist. While existing regulations require houses to be built at higher elevations, those don’t apply to roads on the island, which often flood during summer high tides; and in extreme cases could flood yards and wash through residents’ septic sewer systems.
“We’ve really got to get rid of those things,” he said.
He has observed that a mobile home park in St. James City floods nearly every summer now.
“Right now they go underwater so badly they get a foot of water in their trailers just about every summer,” he said. “It’s gotten worse over the years.”
Punta Gorda looks ahead
Officials in Punta Gorda have been some of the most progressive in the region in looking closely at climate change effects, said Mr. Beever of the Regional Planning Council, by implementing a strategy into its comprehensive plan in 2009. Even if the world makes a pact to reduce carbon emissions or the state develops further wind-resistant building codes, he and other planners say, the effects of a warmer environment can be so place-specific that individual municipalities should have their own plan of action.
“Basically, climate change is something we can plan for, we can adapt to and we can live with if we make the right decisions,” he said. “But if we don’t plan and adapt we’re going to see disaster which will then become the immediate concern for people.”
Evaluating climate change science and scenarios for how their community could be effected was the first step, said Punta Gorda’s chief planner Joan LeBeau.
They are prepared for long term possibilities but have started with small changes, in part because there is so much uncertainty about how much the climate will change: the difference between seas rising a foot, for instance, or 4 feet by 2100 and inundating large portions of South Florida.
The city is protecting existing natural environments in Charlotte Harbor and creating “living” seawalls such as an oyster reef that are more adaptable to sea level rise than a traditional sea wall, for instance, along with developing city building codes that require more elevated structures, monitoring water usage and encouraging the use of native plants that are more drought tolerant.
“The oyster reef will give us, we believe, additional time,” she said. “We’ll be able to preserve that area as sea level rise begins to effect the city…
“I think the take home from it is you can do something. It doesn’t have to be extreme. I think people are worried about an extreme change and you can’t because you have existing properties. You don’t have to change everything today. Everybody has to look at it from their perspective, what their communities’ wants and needs are, and how you’re going to be moving forward.”
Mangrove and natural protection
Florida’s existing natural environment, such as its mangrove swamps, helps buffer communities from sea level rise and storm surge. The environment also helps to reduce the warming effects of greenhouse gasses by absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis.
“It is estimated that there are 500,000 acres of mangrove swamps in Florida, with 90 percent of them in the south Florida counties of Lee, Collier, Dade and Monroe,” William J. Mitsch, Ph.D., director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park at FGCU’s Kapnick Center in Naples, wrote in an email. “We estimate that 220,000 U.S. tons of carbon are sequestered annually from the atmosphere by Florida’s mangrove wetlands.
“From another source we found that one car emits approximately 2 tons of carbon per car per year. Therefore the Florida mangrove carbon sequestration is equal to the emissions of 110,000 cars.”
Sanibel Island is also unique in that 67 percent of the island is conservation land, a protective buffer, pointed out James Evans, the city natural resources director. Although the city council has not taken a formal position on climate change, he said the island is at about 89 percent build-out, so there won’t be as much development happening on other areas of the coast that could exacerbate weather problems.
“That in itself in preparing for climate change I think goes a long way,” he said. “That’s one of the huge benefits of having a comprehensive land use plan based on natural habitats and natural systems.”
Hurricanes and the next Donna
Joanne Muller, Ph.D. in paleoclimatology, came to FGCU in 2011. An assistant professor of marine science and geology, she researches past climate change in tropical latitudes focusing on Southwest Florida. She talked about her latest research, creating a hurricane history of Southwest Florida going back thousands of years:
“The most recent research is showing that hurricanes are not necessarily increasing in frequency, we’re not necessarily getting more hurricanes, we’re just getting more intense hurricanes.
“And that’s really well established now, (that) consistently over the last 20, 30, 160 years that hurricane intensity is increasing. Because sea surface temperatures are warmer now they have more likelihood of reaching that (Category) 3, Cat 4, Cat 5 status.”
But some have questioned the research and its accuracy because the record only goes back 160 years.
“What we’re trying to do with my research is extend that record back thousands of years,” said Professor Muller.
She uses sediment samples from local lagoons and marshes to reveal that hurricane history and show how it is effected by natural weather periods and patterns like the El Niño Southern Oscillation. The sediment cores contain “overwash layers” at different points, markers that show where storm surge washed offshore sediment into a lagoon.
As it turns out, hurricanes from about 500 to 1,000 years ago, during a Medieval warm period, left a record suggesting our warming waters could produce larger storms than we have seen in recent decades, something more like Hurricane Donna in 1960 with more than 10 feet of storm surge.
“There are really specific sorts of hurricanes that are leaving a geologic record and we think they are the very intense large storms that produce really big storm surge,” she said. “And the record essentially tells us when sea surface temperatures are warmer out in the Atlantic we get more of these big storms, hurricane Donna-like storms, in Southwest Florida.
“She flooded the entire area of downtown Naples. There was quite a bit of construction down here then but nowhere near today. If you have a storm that comes through with 3.5-meter storm surge it’s going to completely flood the area where it comes ashore.
“When such a storm does come and it will at some point whether it comes next storm season or 10 years from now or 100 years from now is a different question, but when that storm does come, it’s going to be a significant issue.” ¦
The last 100 years in Southwest Florida:
>> Increased annual number of 90-plus degree days by 12
>> Increased sea level by 8-9 inches
>> Longer more severe dry seasons and shorter, wetter wet seasons
>> Increased coastal erosion, tropical disease in plants, wildlife and humans
— Source: Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council
>> Temperatures are expected to rise between 2 and 12 degrees F by 2100, which could cause both more intense rain and snow storms since more water vapor is held in the atmosphere.
>> The climate is changing faster than any other time in history because of CO2 pollution.
— Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
If nothing is done to limit human-induced causes of climate change or adapt to it:
>> “The storm-related losses attributed to climate change along the Florida shoreline are likely to increase by as much as $1.3 billion per year on average by 2030, and by as much as $4 billion annually by 2050, bringing the state’s likely total annual storm damage to as much as $17.2 billion per year by mid-century.”
>> 7: number of days per year with temperatures above 95 degrees a typical Floridian experienced in the past 30 years.
>>30-76: estimated number of 95-plus days by 2050.
>> Between 2020 and 2039, the number of 95-plus degree days could increase the costs of coastal storm damage by 5.6 to 9.7 percent annually.
>> “(T)he most severe risks can be avoided through early investments in resilience, and through immediate public and private sector action to reduce the pollution that causes climate change.”
— Source: The Risky Business Project was launched in October 2013 as a non-partisan initiative to quantify and publicize the economic risks of a changing climate. It is co-chaired by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer.