Miami Is Sinking but Might Just Teach the World to Deal With Sea-Level Rise

Regular flooding on South Beach is just a precursor of more sea level rise chaos to come.
Regular flooding on South Beach is just a precursor of more sea level rise chaos to come.
photo by maxstrz via Flickr Creative Commons

Unless you're a GOP presidential candidate, you've probably accepted the facts by now: The global climate is changing. The seas are rising. And at some point, low-lying Miami-Dade County is going to do the whole Atlantis thing.

The latest evidence came yesterday, with a new study that found that even in the absolute best-case scenario — massive cuts in carbon emissions worldwide in the very near future — most of Miami would still sink beneath the rising seas. For Dade County, it's probably already too late.

So should everyone in the Magic City just become a nihilist, consigned to our inevitable doom? Not necessarily, says Dr. Benjamin Strauss, coauthor of the newest dire sea-level-rise report. 

"There are a few brighter notes, the biggest of which being that there are a lot of people in South Florida government who are working really hard to deal with rising sea levels," says Strauss, who is vice president for sea level and climate impacts at Climate Central, a nonprofit climate research and journalism organization. "Our picture of the long-term rise vindicates their work and shows that it's going to be useful and helpful."

That doesn't mean, of course, that all the good work in Miami will be able to keep the city high and dry. Strauss' work looked at the two biggest factors in climate change — the ratio of global warming to carbon emissions and the resulting rise of sea levels — and his findings were unequivocal. 

"We've already passed the point where the legacy and future of Miami is in grave danger," he says. "In our best-case carbon scenario, the land that's home to more than half the people in Miami today would be submerged. In the worst case, every single place where people live would be submerged. It's not great either way."

But there is a small bit of wiggle room for Miami: the time frame. While scientists are sure the climate will keep warming and the seas will keep rising, it's much harder to tell how quickly they'll do so. Strauss' projections for Miami could happen in the next two centuries or the next 2,000 years.

Still, "Miami is in for a great deal of pain this century under almost any circumstances due to sea-level rise," he says.

So why should we feel any hope that local leaders — if not our neanderthal governor — are at least starting to address the problem, with a massive water pump and road-raising plan afoot in Miami Beach and new climate-change positions in Dade County and many individual cities? 

"South Florida is one of the richest communities in the world facing this kind of grave threat from sea-level rise," Strauss says. "Maybe South Florida can develop models for how to deal with rising seas or even on how to relocate its population over time in ways that find economic opportunity and in ways that are equitable."

In other words, the sea-level rise work that happens in South Florida over the next century might just help blueprint such work around the globe. Will it save Miami in the long run? Probably not.

"But if South Florida can do that, it can be a role model to the world. It can make contributions to improve people's lives around the world," Strauss says.

In the meantime, enjoy the beach. We might yet have another couple of hundred years left in the Magic City. 

"Every human being is mortal, but that doesn't mean you can't live a meaningful life," Strauss says. "The same is true of cities."


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