A town hall in Wynwood on Monday night involved an issue that has flooded the minds and neighborhoods of many South Florida residents—rising sea waters.
The event, hosted by WLRN, was open to the public and featured artists, scientists, and policymakers who spoke about the threat of sea level rise in South Florida and what communities can do in response to it. It was a conversation attendees said they were eager to have.
But one area that was not up for debate was the science.
Benjamin Kirtman, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Miami, Director of NOAA’s Institute of Marine and Atmospheric Studies and one of the panelists of the event, said that in order to discuss sea level rise, people must account for climate change.
“There’s a little a bit of noise out there that scientists are not in agreement,” Kirtman said. “[Climate scientists] are very very cautious in what we say. So, we say it’s 95 to 100 percent certain that human activity has made a significant contribution to the warming.”
He said that over the last 800,000 years, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has fluctuated with the temperature of the Earth. Carbon emissions have risen from 180 parts per million to 300 parts per million naturally, never crossing the 300 threshold until the industrial revolution. What’s happening now is unprecedented, he said.
“We’re at 410 [parts per million] now, which has never happened in the last 800,000 years,” Kirtman said. “We did that in 150 years.”
The emission change has raised Earth’s temperature by 2 degrees celsius, Kirtman said. As the ocean warms, it expands like a gas and takes up more space. That, in addition to the melting of polar ice caps, is resulting in sea level rise.
If the current trends continue, Kirtman expects sea levels in South Florida to reach 6 feet by the end of the century, 3 feet above current levels. He said people must therefore learn how to live through more flooding.
“I view it like when I lived in Washington D.C.— there would a snowstorm. And you were trapped in your house for a couple days until you could get out on the roads,” he said. “So there may be things like that where we’re just insisting streets get cleared quickly.”
Jim Murley, Miami-Dade County’s chief resilience officer, also spoke on a panel during the event about how South Florida can resist the rising seas.
He said the county is spending billions of dollars to harden infrastructure against flooding. And “there is not a day that goes by” where an engineer or someone for the county isn’t constructing something that’s addressing the issue.
Murley suggested fortifying areas susceptible to sea level rise like Miami Beach without raising taxes. He said the city could install green infrastructure that could naturally minimize flooding.
Still, despite government efforts to address the issue, Tom O’ Hara said most people disregard or are unaware of the threat of rising seas. O’Hara is the editor for The Invading Sea—a reporting collaborative among WLRN, the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He said inaction on sea-level rise stems from a lack of understanding about the issue.
“I imagine if you could survey seven million people who live in South Florida, maybe five percent have any idea that there’s a sea-level rise problem,” O’ Hara said. “It’s just not a sexy issue.”
Melody Torrence was among more than 20 people who attended the event. She said her home of 40 years flooded during Hurricane Irma, and she had to move out for three months as it was rebuilt. She attended the event to see what policymakers had to say on the subject.
"There's progress," Torrence says. "I know that they're researching, and we just have to figure out what's going to work for our particular community."
Pamela Jarvis was less optimistic. She criticized Florida's government for investing more in solar power and other forms of clean power. She's concerned about how rising seas will affect younger generations.
“I have grandkids—I have four kids and five grandchildren. I’m not going to be here to worry and have to suffer through the effects of what’s happening. But they will.”
You can watch the town hall in our Facebook page or below:
This post has been updated to correct the spelling of the name of Jim Murley, Miami-Dade County's chief resilience officer.