Tallahassee — Federal and state policymakers are turning a blind eye toward unmistakable evidence of rising sea levels affecting Florida coastal areas, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Within the next twenty years, predicted sea level rises will begin to inundate much of the Florida coastline, as well as low-lying open lands, starting with the Everglades.
Sea level rises are already being recorded in Florida, about 10 inches during the last century (at a rate of 2.3 millimeters per year as measured by tide gauge data). Due to global warming, melting ice caps and thermal expansion of the oceans as they warm, the rate of sea level rise is predicted to accelerate. Based upon data developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), estimated sea level rises for Southwest Florida will range from 2.8 inches to 10.6 inches by 2025. At that rate, sea level increases would double to 2 feet this century and rise another 3 feet next century – for a net rise of 5 feet by 2200. An EPA report titled “The Probability of Sea Level Rise” has a predicted a range of sea level rise from as low as 21 inches with a 90% probability to 177 inches with a 1% probability.
In the near-term, higher sea levels will lead to higher hurricane storm surges, resulting in greater property damage. In addition, saltwater intrusion will compromise the quality and available quantities of fresh water, as well as change vegetation patterns. In the long-term, coastal areas, wetlands and many other undeveloped lands will simply disappear altogether, or exist only behind sea barricades.
“Florida will be a modern Atlantis with its most expensive real estate under water,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, noting that much of the $12 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration now under construction may be underwater in less than 50 years. “We had better begin planning now for how to handle these rising tides.”
Daniel L. Trescott, the Principal Planner for the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, presented the sea level rise material last month at the Southwest Florida Symposium, sponsored by the Council of Civic Associations. The symposium was a gathering of scientists seeking to compile the latest data on environmental changes and trends in the South Florida. Significantly, top representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection pulled out of attending the symposium at the last minute.
The point made by Mr. Trescott, considered the “father” of storm surge mapping, and others was that state and federal agencies are not integrating sea rise data into planning efforts. In fact, EPA, which developed much of the sea rise data, does not allow its officials to publicly address the matter. Apart from the environmental effects, scores of critical emergency facilities, such as hospitals and shelters, that will be needed to help respond to storm emergencies are at risk from heightened storm surges.
“All of Florida is living in a state of denial,” Phillips added. “Despite this mounting evidence, rising sea levels are like the elephant in Florida’s living room that no one dares talk about.”