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New Sea Level Rise Projections For Southeast Florida: Higher And Faster

Tidal flooding in South Florida has gotten more common in recent years. That trend will continue, climate experts say.
Walter Michot
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

New sea level rise projections for South Florida were released Wednesday. And the numbers are up.

The Southeast Florida Climate Compact updates its projected sea level rise for the region every four years. And the new numbers are higher than the last time — 3 to 5 inches higher. The new projections call for up to 31 inches of sea level rise by 2060.

The projections are a confirmation of what many in South Florida have seen first hand during this year's king tides, and even outside of them.

"This is kind of an idea of what's to come — sea level rise. It's gonna happen and it's gonna happen more and more often and higher and higher," said Rhonda Haag, Monroe County's sustainability director.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel

Haag used the new projections to see what it would cost to protect one low-lying coastal road on Sugarloaf Key, about 17 miles from Key West.

"We're going to have a vision for the Keys and how we're going to live with water," Haag said. "Are we really going to spend $128 million elevating a three-mile section of road to where maybe 30 people live? Not my decision, but probably not."

The $128 million is what it is estimated to cost to raise the road to stay dry during King Tides by 2045. By 2060, that water is expected to be another foot higher and the bill would be $181 million. The county is already looking at pilot projects to raise roads in low-lying flood-prone areas on Big Pine Key and Key Largo.

And it's trying to find answers for frustrated residents of the Stillwright Point neighborhood, which has been flooded for 90 days.

'The new reality'

Monroe County Commissioner Michelle Coldiron said the news is bad, but she's glad the county and all of South Florida are acknowledging what's going on, and that it must be faced.

"It's very scary and this is the new reality," she said. "It's not how do we stop the water, it's how do we accommodate the water."

The Stillwright Point neighborhood in Key Largo has been flooded for months, stranding residents in their homes or forcing them to drive through saltwater.
Credit David Goodhue / Miami Herald
The Florida Channel
The Stillwright Point neighborhood in Key Largo has been flooded for months, stranding residents in their homes or forcing them to drive through saltwater.

The new projections extend for the first time out to 2070. That's because the original projections, made 10 years ago, envisioned a 50-year planning horizon.

"It's been 10 years and we were still referring to a 2060 timeline," said Jennifer Jurado, Broward County's chief resilience officer.

And the projections capture accelerations in the sea level rise models by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It also takes account of regional conditions.

"We know that sea level rise realized in the area of Southeast Florida is about 15 percent higher than the global average," Jurado said. "That's namely a function of what happens with the Gulf Stream — as that's anticipated to slow with time, that will result in a slight of uptick in the rate of rise relative to the global average."

This year's summit also reflected a new acknowledgment of climate change from Tallahassee. During the administration of former Gov. Rick Scott, state scientists and consultants were instructed not to use that term, or global warming, in state documents.

Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed the state's first chief resilience officer. Julia Neshiewat addressed the climate summit, praised the group for taking action and acknowledged the challenges the low-lying regions of the state face from rising seas.

"We're going to have to think critically about the way our population have developed and ask ourselves difficult questions about whether our current model of growth is indeed sustainable," she said.

Neshiewat said there are also economic opportunities in clean energy and adaptation. And she praised the efforts to use natural solutions like salt marshes and mangrove shorelines. Those protect the coast, provide homes for wildlife and offer economic benefits in ecotourism.

But she cautioned about making sure that everyone gets the benefits of adaptation. "We need to recognize that the most vulnerable and underserved people in our state are going to be most severely impacted by these problems, to include affordable housing and really take a hard look at specific measures to ensure that they're not overlooked when a disaster occurs," she said.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.