Record Heat And King Tides: A Look Ahead at Florida’s Climate Future

Dec 27, 2019

The environment will likely be a top story in Florida in the upcoming year. 2019 has been one of the hottest on record. King tides were some of the highest recorded. And, while Hurricane Dorian skirted along the Atlantic coast, it was a reminder of how vulnerable Florida is as climate change fuels more intense and wetter storms.

2019 was the year the effects of climate change grabbed the attention of Republicans in state Legislature. A Senate committee recently approved a bill that will officially create an office of resiliency and a statewide sea-level rise task force — two efforts championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Dr. Jayantha Obeysekera, director and research professor in the Sea Level Solutions Center, Florida International University; Dr. Ben Kirtman, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Miami; and Thomas Ruppert, coastal planning specialist with Florida Sea Grant joined hosts Tom Hudson and Melissa Ross on the Florida Roundup. They discussed how Florida lawmakers are responding to the threats caused by climate change and gave predictions about how climate change may directly Florida residents in the coming years.

This transcript was lightly edited for clarity:

The Florida Roundup: Dr. Obeysekera, Florida has come under a lot of criticism for being very slow to deal with this reality, despite the impact of climate change and our vulnerability as a coastal state. How do you assess the state's response now in 2019 that we're starting to see action in Tallahassee to deal with the impacts of climate change?

DR. JAYANTHA OBEYSEKERA: I'm really encouraged, particularly with this administration. We have a new resiliency officer, Dr. Julia Nesheiwat and, also, we have a new statewide science officer. I think those are very good signs and we've been talking a lot about the response to sea level rise and other aspects of climate change. So I'm really encouraged with the response that we have seen in the recent past compared to what we have seen before.

The Florida Roundup: Dr. Ben Kirtman, it comes at a time when the science continues to grow. The scientific literature and the data and the evidence of climate change continue to grow. So much so, that sea level rise projections for Florida have been updated so that the projections are higher and the timeline is even sooner than anticipated, right?

DR. BEN KIRTMAN: That's right. I mean, every time we as we reassess the trends and reassess our projections for the future, we have consistently underestimated how much sea level rise to expect. And all the evidence, you know, current ice melt that we're seeing from Greenland — very dramatic — is that sea level is going to rise faster than the projections that we made just this year.

The Florida Roundup: Thomas Rupert, let's focus for a minute on the Florida Keys, where officials earlier this month announced what many coastal governments around the country have been worried about — but haven't come out and said publicly — that as seas rise and flooding gets worse, not every community, not every neighborhood can be saved. And they say in some places it just doesn't make financial sense to try. How can what's happening in the Florida Keys be interpreted when we look at the vulnerabilities all around Florida?

THOMAS RUPPERT: It goes back to the fact that they were the ones that saw some of the worst impacts on the ground. So ironically, even though we have missed a lot of time when we could have been preparing better for sea level rise and the impacts of climate change, it's still interesting that it's taken actual specific events on the ground to really make our local governments change in most cases.

I think that's, unfortunately, one of the lessons that we're taking out of this. And so, we're really missing on time that we could have spent planning and trying to implement long term adaptations. And now we're not going to have as many years to do that.

The Florida Roundup:  Can you follow up when you say specific facts on the ground? What are you referring to?

RUPPERT: Some colleagues and I were actually working with Monroe County back in, I believe it was 2015, and we were talking about civil rights and we were talking about their road infrastructure. We were trying to work with, to convince them, to adopt some sort of approach to how are they going to deal with their roads and the maintenance liabilities that they might have to the public for those roads. And they really weren't all that engaged.

Then in the fall of 2015, the high tide that fall came in much, much higher than predicted. And you had neighborhoods going underwater for weeks at a time and that suddenly the county commission was all about talking about this work that was going on. And now we've seen the same thing here in 2019 in the lead up to the 10th annual Southeast Climate Compact Summit. You have a neighborhood right now there in Monroe County again, that's been underwater for about 100 days. So they see these things and that really pushes them forward.

The Florida Roundup: How significant is this? Monroe County is relatively small population wise when it comes to Florida. It is not a large county, doesn't have necessarily a lot of political weight in Tallahassee, for that matter, when it comes to public funding or public policy.

So while the keys hold a special place in the heart of a lot of Floridians and a lot of visitors, how really significant is the affects that Thomas is talking about on the ground?  Ben, first of all, in your estimation, discuss what's happening with the science community.

DR. BEN KIRTMAN: Monroe County is certainly a test bed. But, if we don't change our actions and start reducing emissions and developing comprehensive adaptations and strategies in the next 10, 15 years, you're going to see a significant fraction of the east coast of Florida and a good part of the U.S. that is experiencing 50 to 100 days of flooding per year.

When you're going to have nuisance flooding outside your house once a week, every week that has significant impacts on your lifestyle, that that could devalue your home. It could get very hard to get a mortgage. All of those things are going to really challenge a lot of communities all along the eastern seaboard of the U.S.