|Six Feet Under|
|Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer; Photo Illustrations by Marcy Mock|
A new app shows you how your home will look when sea levels rise -- and for thousands, it’s not a pretty picture
All kinds of online apps exist to help us: with directions, weather forecasts, booking a rental car or a hotel reservation, teasing the brain with word puzzles, and ordering takeout at 3:00 a.m.
This spring saw the unveiling of a new app that can give us a glimpse into the future.
Released in March by FIU’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication, the app -- aptly named Eyes on the Rise -- shows how South Florida neighborhoods may flood as the oceans continue to rise owing to climate change in the coming decades.
The app’s presumed pinpoint accuracy is up for debate, and it doesn’t work too well on smart phones yet. But for those with desktops or laptops, the app does give a provocative and hyperlocal take on the effects of sea level rise during high tide, down to the neighborhood block.
The app is simple to use, too. First, log on to eyesontherise.org/app. Then type in a street address, and voila! Not only can it show the elevation of a property, but a sliding scale enables you to lift the oceans from zero to six feet, revealing how your house, your friend’s house, a favorite restaurant, or random landmark may fare as the seas rise.
You can also zoom out to get the regional view of sea level rise. And as you watch the land liquefy in virtual reality, you learn that South Florida isn’t perfectly flat -- that, owing to geography or human engineering, some places are lower and more vulnerable to sea level rise than others.
Raise the waters of Biscayne Bay two feet, for example, and things start happening to the low areas. New lakes form in many parts of south Miami-Dade, large sections of Broward, and in western Miami Beach, where some properties are now just a couple feet above sea level. Within the Biscayne Corridor, parts of Brickell, Edgewater, Omni, and Miami’s Upper Eastside show signs of flooding.
At two feet of sea level rise, segments of Treasure Drive in North Bay Village are also under water, as are fragments in and near Miami Shores. Chunks of western Sunny Isles Beach get wetter, while Maule Lake and the Oleta River flood over, inundating places in Highland Village, Biscayne Landing, FIU’s Biscayne Bay campus, Highland Lakes, Greynolds Park, East Greynolds Park, Oleta State Park, and Eastern Shores.
Raise the sea level six feet, and things get really interesting.
The Miami River overflows and Brickell is a shallow bay, while much of the land east of Biscayne Boulevard is flooded. Aventura Mall becomes an island as the rest of the City of Excellence is deluged. The barrier islands on which Miami Beach and Sunny Isles Beach are situated becomes a narrow archipelago as everything west of A1A becomes Venice. Much of Eastern Shores, Highland Lakes, Skylake, San Souci Estates, Keystone Point, Arch Creek, Bay Harbor Islands, North Bay Village, the Upper Eastside, and Edgewater are submerged.
At six feet of sea level rise, Biscayne Park gets blotchy. The Miami Shores Country Club is swampy. Turkey Point nuclear power plant is an island cluster. Gulfstream Park racetrack is a water park, the Pérez Art Museum Miami is a peninsula, and AmericanAirlines Arena gets waterlogged, along with Bayfront Park and Bayside Marketplace.
But Overtown? It’s around eight to ten feet above sea level today, depending on the spot, so when the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay rise six feet, Overtown treads water. So does Wynwood, now as high as 18 feet above sea level, and the 11-foot-high Miami Design District.
Except for a few more lakes, Little Haiti, between 8 and 12 feet above sea level, largely escapes the watery fate. North Miami Beach’s Sunray neighborhoods, currently eight to ten feet above sea level, will make up the bulk of an island sandwiched between new lakes and rivers.
Further north, Palm Beach County’s coastal areas are flooding after six feet of sea level rise, but much of the county’s interior, presently 10 to 20 feet above sea level, stays predominately dry.
Harold Wanless, chairman of the University of Miami’s Geological Sciences Department and an outspoken climatologist, says he hopes the app will shock people into preparing for South Florida’s watery future.
“It all looks so pretty now,” he explains. “We have such beautiful winters here. But when you drive down the Dolphin Expressway and you look at all the houses on the right side, they’re just two feet above the water -- and that’s also true of many other areas.”
Not that life will be all that much better for those of us living on higher ground, especially in the next century.
“Sewage won’t function,” Wanless warns. “Fresh water is gone, the roads will be flooded out, and you won’t be able to get anywhere unless you have a canoe.” And because today’s elevated areas are the low-lying places of the future, Wanless says, they’ll be vulnerable to tidal storm surges that can reach 17 feet in height during hurricanes.
Rising seas are an unavoidable destiny for Florida and the world at large. Since the Industrial Revolution, mankind has been steadily spewing gases into the atmosphere. As a result, our air has the highest concentration of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide of the past 800,000 years, according to a 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the authoritative United Nations body that represents a consensus among scientists worldwide. (In 2007, the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work.) The result is an increase in temperatures, warming of the oceans, and destruction of polar cap ice.
The oceans are rising at a rate faster than they have in the past 2000 years, and that rise expected to speed up. By 2030, oceans could be a half-foot higher than they are now. By 2100, the oceans could be around five feet higher than they are today, give or take a few feet (more on this later).
An app depicting how these seas will inundate Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties isn’t the only feature on the eyesontherise.org website. You can also view several mini-documentaries of student interviews with local elected officials, lawyers, real estate agents, scientists, and activists on how sea level rise is already affecting South Florida and the Keys, and what they think the future holds.
Led by Gutsche and his fellow FIU J-School faculty members Susan Jacobson, Kate MacMillin, and Juliet Pinto, the Eyes on the Rise project concentrates on new ways to communicate the impacts of sea level rise. Jacobson is in charge of the technology aspect -- i.e., the still-evolving sea level rise app, which utilized $15,000 of the grant’s $35,000.
“The app is the first step in a series of things we hope to publish to help the citizens of South Florida learn about the potential impact of sea level rise on their homes and businesses,” Jacobson tells the BT.
“The next step we’ll take will be to compile a database of flood reports from around South Florida,” she continues. “We’ve already started to do this. We hope to have it completed by the end of the year. A third step would be a tool to help South Floridians better understand when flooding might be more likely to occur. This will take a lot longer to produce, and will take a lot more money.”
How will the app foretell future flooding events? That’s still being worked out. “Specifically, what kind of data can we collect and how can we make it useful to the public?” Jacobson asks rhetorically. “We haven’t yet mapped this out, so I can’t comment further.”
While the project may be hungry for more funds (the entire $35,000 grant has been spent), it already has manpower in the form of volunteers and partners. Besides FIU students, who crafted the web docs, students from MAST@FIU, the magnet high school based at the Biscayne Bay Campus, beta-tested the app and performed research. (MAST stands for Marine Academy of Science and Technology.)
Programmers from the Wynwood-based computer collectives Code for Miami and Hack/Hackers helped design the app and crunch the data that ran it. Code for Miami is even now analyzing the streams of flood data from the county and the South Florida Water Management District, says Code for Miami member Cristina Solana. Staffers from Fusion, a millennial-oriented news channel and website based in Doral, also had a hand in designing the app.
South Florida public television is another media partner of Eyes on the Rise. WPBT-TV has scheduled the June 24 broadcast of a new half-hour documentary, South Florida’s Rising Seas Impact, produced by 38 FIU students. The documentary will continue the story of South Florida’s Rising Seas. That program, produced by FIU faculty members MacMillin and Pinto, originally broadcast on Channel 2 in January 2014, and included video of tides sweeping through South Beach’s Alton Road area; scientific predictions that South Florida will be the hardest hit region in the world by sea level rise; and warnings of higher fees and taxes on infrastructure required to keep the region afloat for the next 80 or so years -- until its inhabitants are forced to move elsewhere.
The original Rising Seas won a Best Short Documentary award at last year’s DocMiami International Film Festival. It also inspired MacMillin and Pinto to join forces with fellow FIU faculty members Jacobson and Gutsche to come up with an innovative idea that could get funded. Their brainstorming resulted in the idea for an app that could visualize sea level rise for South Florida neighborhoods.
“When you put your address in and push the [slide] over and see what’s happening, it’s different from just saying the seas are rising,” explains MacMillin.
Using that data, Peter Harlem, a geologist affiliated with FIU’s Geographic Information System (GIS) Center, was able to create a series of maps simulating what parts of South Florida would look like as the oceans rise. Harlem and his maps, depicting the ocean swallowing South Beach, were featured in the original Rising Seas documentary. (The maps were also published in the BT’s “Lost in a Rising Sea,” September 2012.) And when the Eyes on the Rise idea took form, MacMillin and Jacobson asked Harlem if they could use his data for their app.
“They [the J-School professors] came to me -- it wasn’t my idea,” says Harlem, who has studied the effects of climate change on sea level since 1981, when he was one of Harold Wanless’s graduate students. The scientist is generally impressed with how the app came out. “I wasn’t sure whether or not they had the chops to do a good job,” he says.
Although Harlem provided data for sea level rise in whole-number increments, the new app gives results to the hundredth of a decimal point. An algorithm fills in the gaps for the points in between.
Ben Strauss is a scientist affiliated with Climate Central, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that researches climate change. In 2013 his group released an interactive online map, Surging Seas (sealevel.climatecentral.org) that enables users to see the effects of sea level rise in 17 states plus Washington, D.C. But Surging Seas doesn’t give current address elevations or sea level rise projections to the decimal point.
Because South Floridians are more likely to pay attention to an interactive map that focuses on their neighborhoods, Strauss likes the local focus of the FIU app. At the same time, he says, he finds it problematic that the FIU app depicts sea level rise at, say, 3.36 feet, when the app itself draws on hard data that’s limited to one foot, two feet, three feet, four feet, five feet, and six feet of sea level rise at high tide.
“Fundamentally,” he concludes, “it’s probably about right, but they’re making it look more precise than it really is.”
Jacobson, however, insists the app’s interpolation is precise to within two inches of sea level rise. “It’s not scientifically accurate like, say, hiring a professional surveyor to measure your yard would be accurate,” she explains. “It takes the nearest scientific measurements and averages them for your location.” (As the app’s disclaimer points out: “The data and maps...illustrate the scale of potential flooding, not the exact location, and do not account for erosion, subsidence, or future construction.”)
Harlem says he also has data at fractional intervals. “It would require more layers [for the app],” he explains, “and I don’t know if it would bog it down. And it would be a lot more work.” Harlem, whose department did not receive a piece of the grant, gave the data to Eyes on the Rise for free. To provide the layers in between, GIS would need some grant funding, says Harlem.
Keren Bolter, research coordinator at FAU’s Center for Environmental Studies, declares that she loves the app, adding that it’s the most user-friendly interactive map she’s seen that’s available online without a subscription. (Bolter is also employed by Coastal Risks Consulting, a private company that provides a detailed analysis of a property’s vulnerability to sea level rise for a fee.) Yet she notes that the app doesn’t account for the effects of sea level rise on groundwater.
As the oceans rise, Bolter says, salty water infiltrates the porous limestone that makes up much of Florida’s natural foundations. This not only compromises our fresh underground drinking water aquifers, it also pushes “brown” water upward through the ground, aggravating the effects of flooding during downpours and high tides, and further saturating the soil.
The “pooling effect” could attract mosquitos and create more disease. “But even if the water table is not pushed above the land,” Bolter adds, “the fact that the soil is saturated more and more each year -- what does that do to the foundations of our building infrastructure? When does it become unstable?”
The effects of sea level rise on groundwater may be addressed in the future; the Eyes on the Rise team plans to meet with FAU researchers regarding the groundwater question sometime this summer.
The Army Corp of Engineers, for example, predicts a rise of three to seven inches by 2030, and nine inches to two feet by 2060. Meanwhile, the Southeast Florida Regional Compact -- with delegates from Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties -- endorses models depicting a one-foot sea level rise between 2040 and 2070, and a three-foot rise by 2078 through 2150. UM professor Wanless says he’s confident the oceans will rise more than five feet by 2100. And the controversial climatologist James Hansen of Columbia University believes the oceans could rise 16 feet by 2100.
Other problems with giving exact years is that even the wide range of projections is a “moving target,” Harlem says, which changes as the science of climate change steadily advances. “So the projects of five years ago aren’t as good as today’s, which will be better in five more years,” he explains. “Every time they change, they tend to be scarier and scarier.”
One major “X” factor is the fate of Larsen B, a vast, deteriorating ice shelf on the Antarctica Peninsula that points toward South America. Larson B is up to 1640 feet thick, according to NASA. During the 10,000 or so years of its existence, Larsen B has slowed down the flow of glaciers into the ocean. A new NASA report released this May claims that Larsen B could disappear by 2020, allowing glaciers to fall into the ocean at a faster pace. The added tons of freshwater could speed up the pace of sea level rise.
“We in Miami need to pay attention to the news coming out of that part of the world,” Harlem advises. “That’ll determine the future more.”
Local governments have been slowly reacting to the climate change threat. In 2009 the Southeast Florida Regional Compact was formed to discuss the threat of sea level rise and climate change, an event local officials hailed as unprecedented in the original Rising Seas documentary last year. Harlem, however, points out that the Regional Compact has yet to draft a new report based on more recent data.
Miami Beach is installing specially designed drainage pipes and pumps, with the goal of handling sea level rise for the next 30 to 50 years. Miami Beach is also considering new building codes to encourage developers to build at higher flood elevations.
As for the rest of the county, a task force has encouraged Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez to hire more engineers and to consider future sea level rise for infrastructure improvements.
Reaction to sea level rise from a business sector preoccupied with selling South Florida as a desirable place to live has been fairly muted, particularly in Miami-Dade, according to Brian Carter, a broker associate with Douglas Elliman Real Estate. “It’s not part of a Realtor’s conversation right now,” he says. “Until you see some immediate impact, it’s not at the forefront of most Realtors’ minds, nor their clients’.”
Anthony Graziano, senior managing director of the Florida branch of Integra Realty Resources, isn’t too worried. The real estate analyst favors estimates that predict only a foot of sea level rise by the end of this century. Such a scenario would give engineers plenty of time to adapt, he argues. After all, Graziano declares, developers drained much of the Everglades and dredged islands from the water during the 1950s. “We’re not going to allow a trillion dollars’ worth of real estate to sink,” he reasons.
Indeed, following hurricanes Donna (1960) and Betsy (1965), many structures built in low-lying areas and artificial islands dredged from the bay were rebuilt at higher elevations. Aventura Mall, built in the 1980s, is 21 feet above sea level, according to the Eyes on the Rise app.
But Harlem scoffs at the one-foot-in-one-century estimate often cited by engineers who look at sea level rise from 40 years ago. Increasing evidence, Harlem insists, shows that the rate of sea level rise is speeding up.
Apart from sunny-day floods, a phenomenon that plagued Miami Beach’s low areas for decades, there is evidence that South Florida is already being affected by sea level rise. Last year’s Rising Seas documentary noted that sea walls built several decades ago are routinely breached.
The original Rising Seas also featured an interview with Jayantha Obeysekera, chief modeler for the South Florida Water Management District. Obeysekera noted that the region’s flooding control devices, built by the Army Corps of Engineers along canals and rivers 50 years ago, didn’t account for sea level rise. Now, he noted, three or four of the flood-control structures in northern Miami-Dade have ceased functioning as originally intended.
Unless those structures are modified, warns Keren Bolter of FAU, 80 percent of them will be compromised when the waters rise another 18 to 20 inches.
Flood structures won’t be the only things compromised. Septic tanks, still used by 1.6 million Miami-Dade homes, including many in Miami Shores, are dependent on freshwater bacteria to work properly. As saltwater infiltrates the ground, the bacteria die and the tanks back up more frequently.
Bolter notes that septic tanks are already getting compromised in drainage fields during high tide. For example, she says, the bottom of Little Lake Worth, in a low part of Palm Beach County, is caked with raw sewage. That didn’t stop nearby residents from swimming in the lake. “They’re doing all these recreational activities,” she recalls. “It’s so nasty.”
But can human engineering stop the rising tides? Some climate models show that the oceans will continue to rise through the next century at faster and faster rates. Harlem is pessimistic that humanity can keep up with this anywhere in the world. “I think [there will be] some catastrophic failures,” he predicts, “although I don’t know if they they’ll happen in my lifetime or in the next generation’s lifetime...but they’re bound to happen.”
Bolter isn’t ready to give up on humanity, especially when influential people realize that coastal cities all over the world will be engulfed. In the decades to come, Bolter says, she is sure there will be innovations to reverse the trend of global warming -- such as stripping the atmosphere of excessive greenhouse gases or even reflecting sunlight back out into space. “A lot can happen in 85 years,” she says.
And who knows? Perhaps an interactive app and persuasive journalism will speed up the innovation process by injecting some rational fear into the masses.
Volume 15, Issue 2, April 2017
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