Melting Glaciers Will Drown Miami in Two-Foot Ocean Rise by 2100, New Study Warns

Melting Glaciers Will Drown Miami in Two-Foot Ocean Rise by 2100, New Study Warns
City of Miami
The president of the United States this week proposed drowning wide swaths of the American landscape, and it barely made front-page news. The White House's 2019 budget request proposes cutting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's climate-research initiatives by 37 percent — from $158 million in 2017 to only $93 million in 2019.

The fact that Donald Trump casually tossed off the idea of kneecapping lifesaving government climate research is terrifying, especially considering a major climate-change study was published the very same day. According to a report released Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, new satellite data shows that the rate at which ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica are melting is increasing, and researchers now warn that the seas could rise by as much as two feet by 2100.

The researchers caution that this estimate might even wind up being low.

"If sea level begins changing more rapidly, for example due to rapid changes in ice sheet dynamics, then this simple extrapolation will likely represent a conservative lower bound on future sea-level change," the study says. "In contrast, few potential processes exist to suggest that this estimate is too high."

The study says "global mean sea level" has risen by roughly 3 millimeters per year since 1993, which resulted in nearly three inches of sea-level rise over the past 25 years. But thanks to rapidly melting ice sheets, that rate almost certainly will not hold: After reviewing data from satellites studying ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic, the researchers noted the rate of sea-level rise over those past 25 years slowly increased by about .08 millimeters per year. Extrapolated out over the next 80 years or so, that means the Earth could see a 65-centimeter (two-foot) jump in that time period.

Importantly, other respected scientists have also predicted a similarly dramatic rise. The two-foot estimate is roughly in line with what the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already warned will occur by 2100, and the global climate-science community seems to be becoming more certain this estimate will wind up being a conservative one for future sea-level gains by the end of the century. The new study notes that the majority of ocean rise over the past quarter-century was due to increased atmospheric heat causing water molecules to expand. But rapidly melting Arctic ice is expected to contribute to the majority of sea-level rise of the future.

In and of itself, a two-foot spike in ocean levels would not necessarily end life as we know it in the Magic City. University of Colorado scientist Steve Nerem, the study's lead author, told the Associated Press earlier this week that Miami and New Orleans would be hardest hit by any spike in ocean levels but could mitigate the damage through technology such as sea walls and flood pumps. Many Miami-area cities are hard at work on these very projects: Miami Beach is in the midst of installing citywide pumps to prevent or mitigate high-tide flooding and is reinstalling a seawall that former Mayor Philip Levine apparently constructed without proper permitting. The City of Miami, meanwhile, recently approved raising taxes to pay for more than $200 million in sea-level-rise upgrades, including new flood pumps.

But two major problems remain with those efforts. For one, any type of tropical storm or hurricane in those kinds of conditions would inundate the city to an almost biblical degree. Miami already saw in 2017 what happens when even tropical-storm-level rain pours onto a rising ocean. Miami Beach and downtown Miami roads last year became impassable during multiple storms that weren't even hurricanes. After two feet of sea rise, a major-hurricane storm surge would spell catastrophe.

Perhaps more important, this estimate could rapidly become the low bar for future ocean-rise predictions. Some studies, such as a controversial one by the famed climate scientist James Hansen, warn that ice could melt at exponential rates. Though this theory has yet to be fully proven, Hansen warns that scientists are still not worried enough about the rate at which the polar ice caps are turning into seawater.

The same appears to be true for Miami and Florida as a whole. Despite the fact that no U.S. state stands to lose more property to climate change in the coming years than the Sunshine State, there appears to be no major political movement in Florida to take the steps (such as suing carbon polluters and mandating solar energy usage) necessary to prevent the ice caps from melting further.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.