Column SDG 13: Climate Action SDG 14: Below Water

It keeps creeping up on us, doesn’t it

Sea level rise is the single most daunting resilience challenge. Miami Beach is doing the deepest dive yet. So how far into the future will they go?

The Entry

I’m reading The Story below a few minutes ago, about the expert panel working on a sea-level plan for Miami Beach, and thinking: OK, we’re here. We’re at that place where future becomes present and we are forced to deal, finally, with the rise of the oceans.

To be sure, Miami has been dealing with it for some time, as has New York City. They happen to be the two highest-risk cities in the United States, acccording to this list compiled by Climate Central last year. Most of those 25 cities on the list are, in fact, in coastal Florida.

Cities up and down the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts should take notice and follow the progress and advice of these expert panels very closely, starting with this one advising Miami Beach, headed by climate expert Joyce Coffee.

The U.S. population considered coastal by NOAA and the Census Bureau, continues to rise and is now expected to reach 134 million in 2020, a whopping 41% of the total. And that’s just looking at the U.S.

If you’re a concerned citizen, corporate or NGO leader, or city manager in one of those locations, you should be making it your business right about now to research your area’s sea-level risk and consider hiring one of those expert panels, because the latest peer-reviewed science points to a possible 1-2 meter rise at or shortly after mid-century — enough to permanently cover most coastal floodplains — and a fairly catastrophic five meters by century’s end.

It is, at the least, the escalating future risk for which you must prepare, since these Columbia University researchers and those of other studies anticipate that hurricanes, storm surges, and the rise of seas and lakes will become progressively worse with time.

The new evidence is also calling into question the continuing reliance on the 45-year-old 1% 100-year flood standard, or the notion that a large flood has a 1% chance of happening any given year on a floodplain zone. Given the unprecedented frequency and intensity of climate impacts from now on, it is no longer particularly wise to use prior historical data to project future risks.

“The concept of using a 100-year flood as a benchmark for risk obscures problems that can lead to residents and homeowners believing themselves to live in a zone of safety that isn’t there,” author Maggie Koerth-Baker says in this fantastic analysis.

“It may be time for us to find a different way of evaluating that risk altogether.” Amen to that.

And do not, please, fall to the emotional temptation of bunkering down, refusing to accept the inevitability of this onslaught, or worse, resisting others’ valiant efforts to do something serious and mature about it, as you cling, perhaps blindly, to current comforts, like these Miami Beach residents concerned that raised roads will hurt their…privacy.

Ultimately, you may, in fact, have to relocate. Part of your research should weigh that, as well.

No one is yet comfortable with that outcome. May probably never be. The emotional attachment can be high, as can the financial blow. I get that. But take a look at this article on the thinking and solutions put forth by some in Florida, where certain experts are optimistic because they envision an innovation-rich future where people work in floating buildings and use boats for mass transit.

Really? You want to live and work like that? I lived in Miami for some months last year, and when I took the featured photo above of gorgeous downtown, I recall wondering what that area would look like with high end-to-end seawalls along the entire length of the bayfront to guard against that multi-meter rise of Biscayne Bay and the Miami River, and block to some extent the far more frequent storm surges from the monster storms forecast by those peer-reviewed studies.

What will life and work be like when Miami meets Venice and the district is permanently flooded, when today’s water pumps become futile, when all activity is moved to the second floor and higher? With functional alternatives inland?

It is as vexing a resilience question as there is, as Beth Gibbons surmised at minute 34:30 of this interview a little over two weeks ago. She’s the Executive Director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, or ASAP, the leading organization of resilience pros in the country.



Go back to the featured image above, if you will. See that 5-or-so-story property in the back-middle there? That’s Brickell City Center, one of the most beautifully designed malls you’ll ever see. It was actually built to be resilient.

What I’m wondering is, assuming the building itself passes the escalating-future-risk test, how many customers will it have when the waters rise? What kind of supply-chain challenges will the stores face? Will employees still want to work there? Heck, how many people will want to live and work in the high-rise towers surrounding it?

Quite a case study, isn’t it? These future risks are daunting even for planners and architects who take adaptation into account!

Because ultimately, it comes down to the choices people make — residents, business owners, tourists, students, workers, diners, folks looking to hang out, stroll their kids and elders, and just have a good time somewhere.

There are awesome modeling tools today that allow planners and property owners to anticipate and adapt to coastal risks fairly far into the future, as explained by former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate in this recent interview.

The question before them is whether people, or how many people, will CHOOSE to live, play, study and work there even when the best-laid resilience plans are put in place. Every community wants to stay put, and bless them all for putting up the good, smart fight and doing everything possible to stick together and prevail.

The Miami Beach panel in The Story below is the first major shot at this challenge by a large high-risk American city. They’ll be tackling lots of technical and human issues, for a report due out this summer. The question is: how future-risk-proof will their recommendations be?

Editor’s Note

As soon as I shared this story in LinkedIn, my friend, Miami resident and cleantech/renewables pro Sean O’Hanlon shared this remarkable Wall Street Journal piece published yesterday and reporting on two studies with recent hard data on how rising sea levels are already hurting home sales in Miami and in coastal cities across the country.

Two things in particular caught my attention. First, a local developer believes “the city can’t afford to stop developing near the water because expanding the property-tax base helps the government pay for resilience measures.” Think about that logic knot for a moment, in light of the escalating future risks that have changed resilience forever.

Second, residents refer to the hassles of dealing with constant and increasingly disruptive flooding. Hassle is the key word here, in this entire story, the driver behind those choices, the human factor all sea-level and storm-surge resilience must somehow calm.

The Story

Miami Beach’s future is uncertain, but sea rise pumps are a good start

By Alex Harris. April 19, 2018. Miami Herald.

Sure worth the fight, as we ask where those waters will be in 2040? 2050? 2060? From Flickr Creative Commons


Long-time green-economy and business journalist, sustainability analyst and communications executive, including 14 years as reporter and editor of Caribbean Business in Puerto Rico, five years as Sustainability Director at two banks on the island, general manager of a green marketing agency, and since 2014 independent strategist, blogger, consultant, freelance writer, and now Editor-Publisher of The Resilience Journal and Founder-President of COMMON Future, a climate-adaptation studio scaling game-changing Next Resilience with communications, construction and culture. Alex is also communications adviser to the American Society of Adaptation Professionals and resilience lead at the Puerto Rico chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

1 comment on “It keeps creeping up on us, doesn’t it

  1. Pingback: Series of resilience-funding reports leave Puerto Rico naked, unless this man steps up – The Resilience Journal

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