Goodbye Miami

Rollingstone magazine by Jeff Goodell had an article out the other month about the inevitable fate of parts of Florida if urgent action to halt dangerous climate change are not undertaken. Those consequences being that Miami will be under water by the end of the century, if not sooner.


Figure 1: Downtown Miami 2030? [Source: Architecture]

Most of Florida, in particular the high value property by the coast is only barely above sea level. On average Miami is 5 ft above sea level, its highest point is just 12 ft and the most valuable real estate in the whole city is right at the beach (i.e. the lowest point!). Only a few feet of sea level rise could easily inundate large parts of many of Florida’s cities. But as Jeff Goodell reports Doug Hansen has warned that we could be facing up 16 feet in sea level rise by centuries end, more than enough to radically alter the map of Florida.

Figure 2: Florida under 6 metres of sea level rise [Source: Philip’s Natural World  and Weiss & Overpeck 2009 ]

Figure 2: Florida under 6 metres of sea level rise [Source: Philip’s Natural World and Weiss & Overpeck, 2009]

Indeed the worse case scenario, which would be the melting of the Greenland’s Glaciers or the Ross Ice sheet would push up sea levels by 5-6 metres. As figure 2 shows a 5-6 metre sea level rise would inundate almost all of Florida’s main coastal areas including all of Miami. Indeed Miami city centre and Key West would now be so far off shore that they’d be outside the 12 mile limit and thus technically their drowned ruins would lie in international waters. Indeed 3.7 million Americans (countrywide) are within 3.3 feet of having to buy a boat.

Figure 3: A sight that might become increasingly common around the American coasts in centuries to come

Figure 3: A sight that might become increasingly common around the American coasts in centuries to come

And the everglades? They are likely facing extinction, potentially resulting in the loss of one of America’s great and most unique ecosystem.

Going Dutch

Now it has to be said that what Jeff Goodell says is no shocking revelation, anyone who is vaguely familiar with the topic of climate change would be well aware of Southern Florida’s impending demise. Indeed they should probably rename Florida the Deadmeat state.

Of course the climate deniers will claim, oh we’ll just build a wall, around the state. Why most of Holland is below sea level and they get by okay. Again, I’d point out that’s a pretty big and fairly expensive engineering undertaking (the Dutch have been building dikes and sea walls for many hundreds of years and Holland’s coast line is about a 1/5th the length of Florida’s). Furthermore there are a host of unique problems that the Dutch don’t have to deal with but which Florida will.

Figure 4: This isn’t Holland!

Figure 4: This isn’t Holland!

Notably the Dutch don’t have to worry about Hurricanes and storm surges (indeed the rare occasions they have gotten hit the results have been catastrophic), something that is a virtually annual occurrence in Florida. The soil and bed rock of Florida, as Jeff Goodell reports, is much more porous…which is why homes get swallowed by sinkholes  in the state. This means water will seep in from below as sea levels rise, requiring constant pumping to prevent flooding and constant maintenance work on the foundations of our sea wall and any buildings in the affected area to prevent them collapsing due to subsidence.

Also while when it rains in Florida, it tends to come in the form of torrential downpours. This is why Florida cities have massive storm drains. Once below sea level, with nowhere for that water to go, it would have to be stored (where are you going to do that without deliberately flooding much of land near cities?) and ultimately pumped over the sea walls, not an easy job when you realise we’re talking about cubic km’s worth of water pumping. And of course in Holland they don’t have to worry about Alligators coming in with the flood waters!

Figure 5: Alligators, hardly something the Dutch are used to dealing with!

Figure 5: Alligators, hardly something the Dutch are used to dealing with!

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink

And indeed ironically a lack of water could be the ultimate nail in Florida’s coffin. There’s the not so small matter of where Miami’s drinking water is going to come from. As Jeff Goodell highlights already its proving tricky to maintain Florida’s fresh water supplies, some 3 billion gallons a day, as things stand.

Currently the state’s water supplies are maintained by a network of canals, natural and artificial reservoirs, which also serve to discharge excess water at times of flooding (hurricanes or the more typical Floridian downpour). However, this system relies on the fact that the “head” of fresh water is higher than the head of salt water (from the sea and water table) in order to work. And currently that head is down to just 10 inches (that’s about 0.25m for the metrics out there) well within the limits of what sea level rise were due to what carbon dioxide has already been emitted.

Once that head is gone, maintaining Florida’s water supplies suddenly becomes hugely difficult and expensive. Already Florida State is having to spend billions on desalination plants as its existing canal system struggles to cope. Trying to get 3 Billion gallons a day of the stuff, keep it from being contaminated from inflows of salt water and getting rid of excess water during times of flooding is all going to add up to a pretty large, energy intensive and expensive engineering challenge.

Florida’s Atlantean’s

Of course the Atlantean’s within the Florida Republican party, which includes Marco Rubio (a potential Presidential candidate and noted climate skeptic), will delude themselves that all is well and they will somehow magically get by regardless of what these scientists with their pesky “facts” say.

For example, Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic of the CEI suggests that Florida’s problems can be solved by relying on flood insurance to cover all the associated costs. However, he obviously hasn’t run that one past the insurance industry. As I pointed out sometime ago, they are running scared from climate change and are increasingly unwilling  to insure any property in flood or storm at risk areas. Obviously there is little prospect of them coming to Florida’s rescue, indeed it’s probably just a matter of time before they flatly refuse to provide any form of insurance across the state.

Figure 6, Maybe Ron Paul's plans to get rid of FEMA need a rethink!

Figure 6: Maybe the GOP’s plans to get rid of FEMA need a rethink!

This passes the buck onto publicly funded insurance schemes. However even such funds would struggle to cope, as in it would be far more cost effective to just move people out of the way or build flood defences that facing spending tens of billions a year in flood damage pay-outs. Ultimately if Florida is to be saved Uncle Sam will have to step in and build some pretty extensive flood defences to protect Florida, and they’d want to make a start ASAP.

And indeed this brings us to the other chronic problem facing Florida and the rest of America as the realities of climate change bite – the countries crumbling national infrastructure. I recall visiting America a few years ago and being shocked at the terrible state its national infrastructure was in. I’m talking about large rust patches in the Brooklyn bridge, pot holes you have to swerve around on freeways, a stairs on a Subway fire exit that was clearly rusted past the point where it could handle a mass evacuation and rural bridges that looked like they were near to collapse.

Of course we have the Republican Party and its plans to “shrink government down and drown it in the bath tub” to thank for all of this. Their legacy has been to leave a US national infrastructure system that is in no condition to cope with the demands that climate change will place on it (and ultimately it will be cities like New Orleans or Miami who they’ll be “drowning in the bathtub“), not unless someone in Washington is willing to spend a heck of a lot of cash fixing things.

And one has to question where the money for all of that is going to come from and how popular it will be for people in NY or LA to pay for the foolishness of Floridan retiree’s building their “Mc Mansion’s” on sand.

Other Atlanteans may well delude themselves that surely they’ll be rescued by “the magic of the markets”, after all why would the rest of the country let hundreds of billions of dollar’s worth of real estate get wiped out? Well one has to question how valuable that beach front property will be if the beach is replaced by a massive concrete sea wall, with unreliable water supplies, high water, maintenance and electricity bills, regular flooding and no insurance, and few tourists. It’s worth noting that in New Orleans the parts of the city that are below sea level tend to be the poorer parts of the city, as anyone with the cash to afford a place on higher ground has long since done so. Florida will be no different.

Indeed some of the more dozy deluded Republicans, as Jeff reports, have resorted to biblical tales, claiming that “god promised to never flood the earth again after Noah’s flood”. Actually, I would draw a biblical parable of my own. I would point out that Noah, instructed by God warned the people that God was going to punish them if they didn’t repent. They ignored him. He started building an Arch and they laughed….until it started to rain, and then they were fighting each other to get on board!…sound like the fate of Florida’s Republicans?

The reality is climate change is something we ignore at our peril. By way of another example, much of the grain growing and cattle lands of the Mid Western United states, including many Republican and Tea party voting states are also at risk of seeing their livelihood wiped out by climate change.

Figure 7: The drought of 2012 should come as a wake up call to many

Figure 7: The drought of 2012 should come as a wake up call to many

As the 2007 Stern Report in the UK pointed out, the cost of doing something to prevent climate change are vastly outweighted by the costs of firefighting the crises it will unleash. We would do well to remember this.

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in clean energy, climate change, economics, efficiency, energy, fossil fuels, future, Global warming denial, politics, power, renewables, sustainable. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Goodbye Miami

  1. FeistyCanuck says:

    Politically, Florida is more a part of the problem than the solution. As a swing state, it pulls the “center” towards the right and actually reduces the changes of climate change science driven policy. As such one might suggest that loosing Florida to the Atlantic might actually be a net gain for the US as a whole 🙂 There are a lot of ex-Floridians that would agree with that sentiment as well.

    Speaking of buying boats, a 6m rise would flood the national mall in Washington DC and they could install a dock on the south side of the white house! Swap out the rose garden for a marina. Washington DC started out as a swamp and to the swamp shall it return. Capital Hill would end up as Capital Island…

    The really interesting thing to me that you pointed out is the engineering challenges posed by the porous nature of Florida’s land. I agree that Florida does not make sense as a big bathtub below sea level surrounded by dykes. It would only last until the first storm surge swamped the entire place after which it would be undrainable and unfixable.

    New Orleans was somewhat fixable because only a small area flooded overall and the damage to the infrastructure was basically contained in that while the walls atop the dyke failed allowing storm surge in, the dyke itself survived. A dyke surrounding an entire state would be destroyed by the amount of water flowing in to swamp the entire state.

    Dykes only make sense to protect high value real estate. If a city is built in a low area but that area is surrounded mostly by higher areas then it can be protected. Having a city effectively be a below sea level island as Miami would be in your +6 meter scenario is a non starter.

    • daryan12 says:

      Couple of points I’d make…

      I recall reading it said that when they built DC on a swamp it stank then and it stinks now 😉

      New Orleans residents would argue that as one of America’s most important ports it is worth saving (whether it will be saved we’ll have to see), but I don’t know about a couple of golf courts and theme parks!

      Actually only 10 inches of sea level rise could be enough to tip Southern Florida over the edge, as this would wipe out the region’s natural water supplies and eliminate its main means of drainage during periods of heavy rain.

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