Sea level rise occurring in Florida has major implications regarding the health of the state’s environment, its economy, and its society as a whole. Two of the biggest reasons for this rise in sea level is the thermal expansion that is caused by the warming of the oceans, as well as the melting of land-based ice. This issue is not localized only in Florida, of course, it is a problem that the entire world is facing. If global temperatures were to rise by four degrees Celsius, then it is estimated that the global sea level will accordingly rise up to 35 feet, according to Climate Central, which would submerge the homes of roughly ten percent of the world’s population (Clemens, 2015).
Not only would rising tides displace millions of people, but shorelines moving inward would also greatly impact coastal ecosystems all over the globe, affecting species populations and ecosystem services that humans rely on.
With this in mind, researchers around the world have been tirelessly searching for solutions to prevent sea level rise as well as ways to mitigate its effects.
Some intriguing options have come out of this research and should give hope to our chances of successfully combating this issue. Background The Earth has had a long history of fluctuations in its climate due to natural causes before humans started accelerating its warming during the Industrial Revolution. Normally, the Earth’s climate has been altered because of changes in the sunlight that it receives. Small alterations in the orbit of Earth affects when and where sunlight hits Earth.
The Sun itself has also fluctuated in how much solar energy reaches the Earth, which can cause alterations in the global temperature. Furthermore, volcanic eruptions release greenhouse gasses, and periods of massive volcanic activity on the Earth have caused it to warm. Volcanos also blast particles into the atmosphere, which can block out and reflect sunlight, causing the Earth to cool (“Global Warming”). Global warming as it is known today, however, is not a result of natural fluctuations of the Earth and Sun. Scientists put together climate model simulations that take into account only solar variability and volcanic activity since 1750, and found that those factors are able to explain the rise of global temperatures only until 1950. After 1950, the Earths temperature increase cannot be explained by anything else other than the greenhouse gasses emitted by humans (“Global Warming”).
Greenhouse gasses warm the planet through something called the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect essentially means that the gasses let invisible radiation from the sun, and trap the infrared radiation that reflects off of the earth, causing it to warm (Greenhouse effect). This warming causes sea level rise in two main ways. Firstly, as the planet heats up, its water will heat up as well, causing the expansion of H2O molecules and raising water levels. Secondly, land-based ice begins to melt as the planet warms, finding its way into the ocean and raising tides that way. Land-based ice melting also creates a positive feedback loop. This is because ice is white, and as such it reflects light hitting the Earth back into space. As the ice melts due to the greenhouse effect, there is less ice to reflect light, causing the planet to heat up even more and resulting in more melted ice (Causes of Sea Level Rise, 2013). Environmental Impacts Florida is exceptionally susceptible to sea level rise, with around ten percent of its land being less than one meter above the current sea level. The majority of the Florida Keys are anticipated to be submerged with sea levels rising only 0.6 meters, while big portions of the Everglades, separate low coastal lands, and barrier islands all over Florida will be underwater with one meter of sea level rise (Benscoter, Reece, Noss, Brandt, Mazzotti & Romañach 2013). The impacts of sea level rise on Florida are impressive in their range, having environmental, social, and economic consequences.
Environmentally, many of Florida’s endangered species have a very high susceptibility to sea level rise due to their limited home ranges, limited genetic diversity, and smaller population sizes. Some endangered species that are at very high risk and are predicted to become extinct by the year 2100 with two meters or less of sea level rise include: the Miami Blue Butterfly, Key Deer, and the Lower Keys Rabbit (Reece, Noss, Oetting, Hoctor & Volk 2013). Losing species from an ecosystem always has a ripple effect throughout the food chain, altering every species at least slightly. Losing multiple species from an ecosystem, which is expected to happen in Florida’s coastal areas, can severely alter the functionality of that ecosystem and these effects are difficult to predict. In addition to endangered species being extremely vulnerable to sea level rise, Florida’s wetlands are also at risk. A study done by Geselbracht and colleagues details the importance of wetlands, as well as the various ways that sea level rise could impact them. Wetlands are extremely important because they perform a variety of ecosystem services. Some of these include; acting as protection from coastal storms, erosion control, carbon sequestration, habitat for fish and wildlife, as well as recreation. Alterations in the land area of wetland ecosystems can affect all of these services. Regarding wetlands ability to protect communities from coastal storms, this ecosystem service could become severely reduced with sea level rise. This study also showed that wetlands are able to migrate to higher grounds if they were to be pushed out of where they are by rising tides, however, that transition could take decades depending on the specific organisms in a given community and can also be hindered by mismanagement of upland areas by humans.
This means that if coastal wetlands are not able to migrate upland with the rise of sea level, then developed areas can become much more vulnerable to coastal storms. This heightened susceptibility to coastal storms can have an impact on property values, infrastructure investment, insurance rates as well as the local economy. Focusing on wildlife habitat, studies have been done in order to determine which Florida species are most probable to be susceptible to sea level rise and its impacts. They anticipate that 21 to 39 percent of the species studied would probably become severely altered or become extinct due to habitat contraction as a result of sea level rise. This knowledge is extremely valuable as it can better help humans prepare for sea level rise by identifying what areas need to be protected so that wetlands will have the proper room to migrate (Geselbracht, Freeman, Birch, Brenner & Gordon, 2015). An additional ecosystem in Florida that is threatened with the rise of sea level is that of barrier islands off of the state’s coast. Not only are these islands home to various plant and animal species that are endangered, but they are also an extremely key stopping point for migratory birds. During migration, the mortality rate of migratory birds can be up to 15 times more than during the bird’s breeding/wintering periods in which they largely stay in the same location. With the rise of sea level, declining mixed forest availability for stopover could greatly heighten this issue, potentially decimating populations. If habitat availability were to shrink too low on these islands, it may force migratory birds to continue inland, which can be very costly to birds already exhausted from a long journey (Lester, Gutierrez Ramirez, Kneidel & Heckscher, 2016).
Social Impacts The impacts of sea level rise in Florida go beyond just the environmental ramifications, there are also a variety of societal impacts that will greatly affect the state and its residents. One of these impacts is that the sources of drinking and irrigation water for the state could be at risk. Florida is made up of limestone, which is a naturally porous rock, meaning that ocean water can leak into freshwater aquifers. This would drastically impact the quality of a large portion of Florida’s freshwater supply, and would affect millions of people given that over 90 percent of residents in the northeast and east-central Florida use water extracted from an aquifer as their water supply (“Florida’s aquifers”). One of the biggest impacts of a lack of freshwater availability, aside from a scarcity of drinking water, will be the food shortages that come along with it. Water scarcity can cause crop yields to drop and farmer livestock to die, which contributes directly to food shortages (Power, 2017). Another impact of sea level rise on Florida’s society regards human’s health. This could be affected because of the warming of the planet, which accompanies sea level rise, resulting in increased risk to heat stroke, dehydration, along with cardiovascular, respiratory, and cerebrovascular diseases (Florida’s Rising Seas). Not only will these types of health ailments become more common, but diseases spread by pests such as mosquitoes could become more common as well. The extension of saltwater inland due to rising sea levels could raise the populations of salinity-tolerant mosquitoes, and could also cause freshwater mosquitoes to adapt in order to breed in saline waters. With this predicted increase in mosquito densities, the transmission of mosquito-borne infectious diseases along Florida’s coast will also increase, possibly reaching inland areas as well (Ramasamy & Surendran, 2011).
Perhaps the biggest societal impact of sea level rise on Florida will be the forced migration of residents out of their homes due to the rising tides. As reported by the U.S Census Bureau, a little over 75 percent of the population of Florida is located in coastal counties (“Climate Migrants”). It has been estimated that with only three feet of sea level rise could push at least 1.2 million residents to flee lower lying communities in order to migrate to higher altitudes, and a rise of six feet could force out 6 million residents (“Scientists: Sea Level Rise”, 2017). This movement of people inland would seriously increase population densities within the state, and leave governments scrambling to accommodate this influx. Economic Impacts One further aspect of sea level rise impact is how it will affect Florida’s economy. The economic ramifications of sea level rise would total billions of dollars lost, and even more so to then further develop areas to accommodate displaced people. According to a study done by researchers DeConcini and Tompkins in 2012, Florida is estimated to encompass 40 percent of housing units at risk in the United States, and Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward counties alone have more residents within 4 feet of sea level than any other state in the country aside from Florida as a whole and Louisiana.
Furthermore, if the sea level rose by only one foot, Monroe County would have 71 percent of emergency shelters, 65 percent of schools, and three out of four hospitals on land below sea level. Additionally, in Florida’s counties of Monroe, Palm Beach, and Broward alone, the values of property that are susceptible to three feet of sea level rise are estimated to be more than 31 billion dollars (DeConcini & Tompkins, 2012). Two industries in Florida that could take a massive hit in the event of sea level rise is the tourism and real-estate industries. Tourism in Florida is the states top earning industry, encompassing 23 percent of the state’s sales tax revenue while also employing over 1.2 million of its people. In 2015 alone, 106.3 million tourists chose Florida as their destination, which was the most of any location in the world (Harrington, Chi, & Gray, 2017). With the importance of Florida’s tourism in mind, it is easy to see that a blow to this industry could be detrimental to the state’s economy. As reported by The Union of Concerned Scientists, this extremely important industry could lose up to 178 billion dollars annually by 2100 (Florida’s Rising Seas). The second threatened industry in Florida due to sea level rise is that of real estate.
A study done by The Union of Concerned Scientists compared the values of both residential and commercial properties in Florida at risk of inundation by both 2045 and 2100. These researchers found that by 2045, around 64 thousand of Florida’s residential properties are at risk, and by 2100, over 1 million properties will be at risk. This totals around 26 billion dollars of residential property at risk by 2045, and 351 billion dollars by 2100. Not only do these homes values total massive numbers, but they also account for around 350 million dollars (homes at risk by 2045), and around 5 billion dollars (homes at risk by 2100) in property tax revenue. Focusing on commercial properties, the researchers concluded that by 2045, around 2,300 of commercial properties would be at risk, and total over 3 billion dollars.
By 2100, that figure rises to over 37,500 properties worth around 46 billion dollars. This brings Florida’s total value of predicted residential and commercial properties at risk to 29 billion dollars by 2045, and 397 billion dollars by 2100. It is also important to note that these figures are based on current properties in Florida and does not take into account possible future developments that could be at risk, meaning that these totals could be even higher. What makes this potential devastation of Florida’s coastal real estate industry more concerning, is that the predicted loss of property values could have ripple effects within the economy. The drop in values would affect banks, insurers, investors, and developers, which could potentially generate a regional housing market crises. Residential property owners with properties that are at risk, could begin having mortgages that are much higher than the value of their properties and possibly default on their loans.
These homeowners could also begin encountering rapidly costs of flood insurance. Banks that end up supplying high amounts of these coastal mortgages may lose enough money to turn insolvent (New Study Finds, 2018). Discussion While all of these environmental, social, and economic impacts of sea level rise on the state of Florida may seem dire and inevitable, there is some hope. With new sustainable technologies being invented all the time in an effort to slow down global warming, and government mitigation planning for these predicted impacts, the future does not have to be as bleak. Local Florida governments have already begun trying to prepare for sea level rise in a variety of ways. One example of this is when the four counties of Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach founded the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact in January of 2010. The goal of this compact is to cooperatively create mitigation strategies and it actually was successful in an attempt to designate “Adaptation Action Areas” under Florida state law. “Adaptation Action Areas” are areas that have been assigned to be apart of local plans that prioritize infrastructure advancement and funding in locations that are susceptible to sea level rise.
This compact also supplies a model focusing on the hazards of climate change and has also initiated 110 action items in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fortify against local climate change burdens. These action items are supposed to help communities work towards seven goals, which are: Sustainable Communities; Transportation Planning; Water Supply, Management and Infrastructure; Natural Systems; Agriculture; Energy and Fuel; and Risk Reduction and Emergency Management (DeConcini & Tompkins, 2012). Wider range mitigation efforts, notably in South Florida where impacts will be felt the most, are also beginning to be planned and implemented. Some of these efforts include changing locations and elevating infrastructure such as commercial and residential buildings, and investing in water utilities such as pumps, desalinization plants, along with other technologies. Other adaptation planning operations that are more long term are also being devised such as the possibility of building floating cities (Harrington, Chi, & Gray, 2017). It should also be noted that if nations keep to the essential aim of the Paris Agreement, which is keeping the Earth’s warming to under two degrees Celsius, and there is finite loss of land-based ice, around 93 percent of the homes at risk in Florida would evade continual flooding by 2100. This would protect a massive amount of value both from the properties themselves, as well as annual property tax revenue of those properties. It would also vastly lower the amount of ecosystem damage and forced migration of residents that would be imposed on Florid (New Study Finds, 2018).