There is not an invisible dam separating us from the moment it happens. There is no buffer between us and the upcoming invasion. Denial can only stand as a barricade for so long before reality starts to leak through the cracks until slowly, steadily, soberingly – it all comes pouring in. And that moment may occur sooner than we think.
The sea has been rising, and no place in the U.S. will feel the effect of that advance like Miami will. Despite the half-baked, sugarcoated reassurances that certain politicians often numb our minds with, sea level rise is not conjecture or pseudoscience. According to the World Recourses Institute, the average increase in sea level between 1993 and 2010 has nearly doubled since that from 1901 to 2010. Southeast Florida faces the worst of this swell; compared to the rest of the world, Miami comes in second with regards to assets susceptible to sea level rise, right after Guangzhou, China.
I’ve lived in Miami my entire life and have always found a sanctuary in the briny blue tones that outline this city. To understand what’s happening, I spoke to Dr. Shimon Wdowinski, a research associate professor at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. Wdowinski has been zeroing in on the rising seas since 2013. His office, located on the Virginia Key campus, is only a street away from Biscayne Bay. He and his colleagues have been keeping a record of the sea’s height over the years.
According to Wdowinski, sea levels will most likely grow by six to 10 inches by 2030, 14 to 26 inches by 2060 and 31 to 61 inches by 2100. Some scientists predict the intensity to be even higher, projecting the numbers at 10 to 30 feet by the end of the century. To put that in perspective, UM’s campus is only at a 12-foot elevation. Most of Coral Gables sits at seven feet. Miami Beach is a meager five feet above inundation.
“The way the climate has always been changing is that it is constant,” Wdowinski said. “But what we see over the last 30 years is that the change is in one direction, that it’s getting normal and it’s going in a very fast rate, much faster than it used to be.”
In some areas of Miami, you can already witness the effects of this metamorphosis in small waves – greenery peeking out of shallow pools, submerged sidewalks outlining the streets and deteriorating edifices in certain neighborhoods.
Last October, during the king tides, I was walking down a street in Miami Beach that was so immersed in murky water you could almost grab a flowing piece of wood and paddle through it.
“You get used to it,” a nearby resident told me as he watched me struggle to maintain my balance amidst the shrubbery and spare trash. It was clear I was not from the area.
“Is it always like this?” I asked while dodging a branch on the road.
“Sometimes it gets really bad, other times it’s normal,” he said. “These days, it seems like there’s more good than bad days, and no one really knows where it’s coming from.” He stopped sorting through his mail to look across the street then up at the frame of his house. I saw a flash of regret in his eyes. I’m guessing they don’t disclose these things when you’re purchasing real estate.
We know sea level rise is not the overarching issue. It falls under a subset of problems spurred by climate change; something humans have been crafting for decades. As water heats, it expands in a process known as thermal expansion. Though it sounds complicated, it’s something that scientists can at least understand and predict; something that can be graphed out and plotted, outlined and arranged. But then there’s Greenland.
Greenland’s ice has the potential to increase seas by 20 feet, a rise that no amount of levees or pumps could hold back. The ice caps in the region have been melting at a rapid rate. Some scientists, according to Wdowinski, theorize that this influx of fresh water is weakening the circulation along the U.S. Atlantic coast. While this is a naturally occurring process, it’s no coincidence that the increased version of it correlated with the 2005 rise of temperatures in Greenland. The problem is that with more weakening comes more water. Water that flows rapidly attracts more water, but slower moving water spreads its fingers out to touch the shores. Or worse.
“In Miami, we have the local and the global effects,” Wdowinski said. “Global sea level rise is different in each place, but if we look at the average, the forecast is that it’s going to rise and go even faster toward the end of the century with the acceleration of ice melting, but here we have the additional regional effect of circulation, too.”
On the surface, we may feel equipped to handle the situation. We have been conditioned to feel invincible, like the Poseidons of the modern world. Water still flows out of the surfaces we expect it to and drains out of the surfaces we don’t want it to be in. It’s simple to assume we’ll be able to build something that will withstand anything. Many places, such as the Netherlands, are also at low elevations and are able to flourish without as much of a threat of sea level rise as Miami displays.
There’s more beneath the surface, though. The city we know, along with the majority of Florida, was built on limestone. Chalky, white and full of holes, most of this groundwork stores water, making Miami a particularly fragile coastal city. This layout amplifies the concern. We’re not only worried about water that flows in from the outside, but also water that seeps out from the inside through overflowing storm drains. Levees can potentially guard our land’s border, but when our floors carry water too, where is the line between land and sea?
With sea level rise comes an abundance of saltwater that contaminates our freshwater reservoir. This unwelcome intrusion into our aquifers has already caused some places, such as Hallandale Beach, to shut down drinking wells. Our porous limestone supplies us with 90 percent of our drinking water. The irony of an influx of water draining our current water supply is not lost on many UM students.
“Have you heard the phrase that humans are like a virus, and Earth is the host?” said freshman engineering student Tumi Lengoasa. “Climate change is like the Earth trying to get rid of humans, like how the body heats up to try to get rid of viruses. We are talking about climate change like it’s the end of the world. It’s not the end of the world, it’s the end of humans.”
Beyond groundwater salinization, sea level rise also affects the impact of extreme weather events such as tropical storms and hurricanes; something this district is prone to. In storm surges, strong winds push the ocean higher, strengthening the waves’ effects on land. Deeper seas designate deeper damage.
Plato once wrote that necessity is the mother of invention. How we move forward from this point depends on when the public (especially the politicians that shape public opinion) recognizes climate change and decides to do something bold about it. Efforts have already been undertaken by Miami Beach Mayor Phillip Levine to build 60 underground water pumps that would drain water off the streets and pour it into Biscayne Bay. The mayor was elected into office after a campaign video featured him on a boat paddling to work. Combating sea level rise has been a dominant part of his agenda.
Other Miami residents are pulling their resources to fight the rising tides. Stephen Cain, a UM graduate student studying marine affairs and policy, was involved with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and ended up on the steps of Capitol Hill advocating for House Resolution 424, which reinforces the notion that climate change is real and that efforts should be taken to halt it. Cain was successful – much to his surprise – by managing to convince Republicans to co-sponsor and support the resolution.
“The big buzz word to come out of this is resilience,” Cain said. “How we are going to be resilient in the face of climate change and sea level rise, how we are going to make coastal cities stand up in the face of what is happening with regards to city planning.”
None of this should come as a shock. We’ve spent too much time releasing greenhouse gases into the ozone layer, too much time pouring phosphorous and nitrogen into our oceans. Yet nature has survived most of these damages so far. Despite land degradation, despite deforestation, despite desertification, it has withstood our cruelties and continued to blossom all around us. But it can’t do that forever.
What the melting of the ice caps and rising ocean temperatures tell us is that the more we start to pull at the thread, the more the fabric that shapes our reality will be permanently altered. You can’t toy with something and expect it to work the way it did before. You can’t continuously mistreat the Earth and not leave a mark.
“As the science around climate change is more accepted, as people start realizing that even today you can put a price on the damage that climate change is doing – you go down to Miami and when it’s flooding at high tide on a sunny day, fish are swimming through the middle of the streets, you know, that – there’s a cost to that,” said President Obama at the climate change conference in Paris last December.
If that statement tells us anything, it’s that society as a whole needs to push for change. The Maldives, another place that has the potential to succumb to the sea, is ardently pushing for climate change policies to be rewritten on a global level. Many think it’s too late and that our only option is to retreat. We know we can’t rip the city from its roots, layer on a film beneath it and then add a wall around it. But we do have other options.
“We have this tendency to get caught up in this bubble that is the U, but one of the things that my experiences have done for me was change my stance on government. Now I’m invested and see the beauty in community organizations,” Cain said. “Here in Miami, you have this amazing opportunity to get involved and put your skills to use with groups who need it – groups like Citizens’ Climate Lobby. At the very least, if you do nothing else, I want you to vote for people who at least believe in climate change and who want to fight it.”
After speaking with Wdowinski, I drove down the street to Crandon Park. It was a lively afternoon, with the ocean blazing a brilliant blue. Families and couples were scattered along the shore, some lounged on blankets with picnic baskets; others faded into just silhouettes deep in the water. Despite the dreamlike glow to the scene, parents always kept one eye on any child who strayed too far into the ocean. People held their breath when incoming waves threatened to steal their footing. We are always wary of holes in the sand, and we would be lying if we denied that there isn’t something chilling about a rumbling ocean at night.
That should not deter us from finding our foothold between the magnificent and the menacing. We need to start by taking a step forward and accepting the blame. We did this. We burned fossil fuels until the Earth’s nails were rimmed with black, and if we want a fighting chance, we need to halt our current use of it in every way we can. Our carbon footprint needs to be reduced. That means adopting carbon-free power sources such as solar and wind energy; carpooling, using public transportation and walking; lowering our consumption of red meat; using energy-efficient appliances; recycling as much as possible and always being conscious of our effect on the environment. We might not be able to halt sea-level rise completely, but we have the potential to slow down its progress. If we don’t step up, we’ll have no choice but to walk away.
This city may currently be sinking, but that doesn’t mean we have to go down with it.
words_asmae fahmy. photo_valentina escotet.