MIAMI BEACH — Many major U.S. coastal cities will face a huge surge in the number of tidal floods they experience as sea levels rise due to climate change, a new report has warned.
The study, conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), covered 52 cities on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, from Portland, Maine, to Freeport, Texas, and predicts a dramatic increase in flooding linked to high tides over the next few decades.
According to the UCS report, over half of the cities surveyed in the study will see three times the number of tidal floods in the next 15 years than they do now. In three decades, when sea levels are expected to have risen by at least one foot, nine of the locations are projected to see a tenfold increase, to about 240 floods yearly.
Once considered a rare problem that was a result only of severe storms and hurricanes, tidal flooding will become commonplace in the near future, the report warns. The analysis paints a grim picture of homeowners’ “dealing with flooded basements, salt-poisoned yards and falling property values, not only because of catastrophic storms but because tides, aided by sea level rise, now cause flooding,” said co-author Melanie Fitzpatrick in a statement released by the UCS.
One vulnerable city is Miami. In 15 years, the report indicates, the South Florida metropolis will have nearly eight times its present tidal flooding: Instead of six floods a year, there will be about 45. By 2045, according to the report, the city can expect more than 40 times as many floods as today. “People find themselves splashing through downtown,” the report says, faced with the Atlantic Ocean’s wrath.
‘… Flooded basements, salt-poisoned yards and falling property values, not only because of catastrophic storms but because tides, aided by sea level rise, now cause flooding.’
co-author, tidal flooding report
But Miami is far from alone. Other studies have identified the mid-Atlantic coast as vulnerable to problems due to sea-level rise, and the UCS report confirms that. Using a modest scenario for future tides, the report singled out cities where the land is sinking. The analysis projects that in 30 years’ time, Annapolis, Maryland; Lewisetta, Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and Wilmington, North Carolina, would each see well over 300 flooding events per year.
Overall, the report is a compilation of worst-case scenarios if nothing is done to develop comprehensive plans to mitigate outdated flood control systems. The UCS report recommends that cities, with state and federal help, prioritize floodproofing of homes and key infrastructure, halt development in areas subject to tidal flooding and consider measures such as sea walls and enhancing natural buffers.
A glimpse of what the wet future might look like is coming this week, when cyclical extra-high tides known as the king tides peak on Thursday. They occur when the moon is closest in its orbit to Earth and aligns with the sun and Earth, creating a very strong gravitational pull that makes high and low tides more pronounced.
Miami, which the World Bank listed as the second most flood-damage-prone city on the planet (behind Guangzhou, China, but ahead of New York and New Orleans), has been preparing for this event since the beginning of the year. High tides are expected to swell to over a yard above normal on Wednesday and Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.
Since most of the area’s drainage systems were installed over 50 years ago, many of the pipes are decrepit and leaking. Recently, the city has invested $15 million in storm pumps and installed over 80 valves in existing pipes throughout the city to drain excess water that the drainage system can’t hold.
In Miami Beach, on an island separated from Miami by Biscayne Bay, a seawall on the bay is supposed to protect roads and properties from flooding. But during high tides or major rains, water rises above street level, and excess water flows into the streets. So the city is relying on a temporary fix.
“We’re talking to the mayor about these areas which are in high need for repair. Those are areas we did not anticipate the leaking, and so we are putting in these plugs,” said Bruce Mowry, Miami Beach’s chief engineer.
All week, city crews have been sliding temporary rubber plugs in about 20 stormwater drainage pipes and then inflating them. Before the tides roll in, workers will inflate the plugs, sealing the pipes to keep water from flowing back up from the bay and into the streets.
Recently Miami Beach installed two very large pump stations in South Beach, and both have been running at full capacity, pumping water out in preparation for the high tides this week. In the next five years, the city plans to spend the remainder of a half-billion-dollar allotment and add 58 pumps along the beach and main corridors.
The UCS report notes that Miami and Miami Beach serve as a good examples of how cities can improve their flood-control systems, at least until there are comprehensive plans involving local and national solutions. In 2010, adjoining Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact to collaborate on solutions for the effects of climate change that would extend for the next 50 years.
But the region is just one of many coping with a shift from dealing with a relative nuisance to facing potentially catastrophic floods, says the report, which calls for significantly increased federal funding.
“We just know that climate change is real, and we know that sea level rise is occurring,” said Mowry. “The city of Miami Beach is not talking hypotheticals. We are talking action plans to save our city and maintain our city as a very vibrant and thriving area of our economy for the people of the world to come and visit.”
Another of report’s co-authors, Erika Spanger-Siegfried, a senior analyst at UCS, said that taking no action would be a disaster. “These floods have the potential to be more extensive than today’s tidal floods, affecting much of the Art Deco historic district of South Beach, for example, a centerpiece of local tourism. Without serious intervention, that kind of frequent, extensive flooding would make it impossible for much of the Miami area and the Florida Keys to function the way they do today,” she said.
For more than four decades, the iconic, blubbery Florida manatee has been listed as an endangered species, enabling it to survive in protected warm water habitats along busy, heavily populated Florida coasts.
The whiskered marine mammals, which can weigh as much as 3500 lbs., make a home where there are plentiful sea grasses and freshwater from estuaries and slow-moving rivers. That does lead the “sea cows” into conflict with humans, especially via boat collisions. It’s rare to find a manatee that hasn’t been struck, to the point that scars and gouges are commonly used toidentify the survivors.
But now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is considering reclassifying manatees down to "threatened" status, a process that could take at least one year to determine. Protections for endangered species are fixed by law; those for threatened species can be reduced by administrative decision. Although manatees would still remain protected, the move to become merely "threatened" would allow restrictions to be lessened for waterfront development and allow boaters to drive at faster speeds something that could — in theory — lead to more manatee collisions. That has some activists outraged.
“It would be a foolish thing to down-list manatees now,” said Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club. Rose is one of the world’s leading experts on manatees and was the first federal coordinator for manatee recovery in Florida. “I call them the 'tugboat' species because of the political tug of war involving these animals,” he added.
It would be a foolish thing to down-list manatees now. I call them the ‘tugboat’ species because of the political tug of war involvingthese animals.
Save the Manatee
Wildlife officials disagree about the threat posed by the possible change. “People have misperceptions that we have two lists. It’s one classification. Being endangered or threatened relates to whether a species is moving toward extinction or not. Manatees will remain protected,” said Chuck Underwood, FWS spokesperson.
But in the last few years, manatee mortality has increased dramatically. Last year, scientists were baffled when more than 800 manatees perished in different parts of the state. On the west coast, there were toxin-producing algal blooms known as red tide that settled on sea grasses manatees eat. Scientists speculate that the microscopic algae could be occurring more frequently due to increasing amounts of nutrients from lawns and farmlands being absorbed into the waterways. On the east coast, an unprecedented cover of algae bloomed across 47,000 acres of coastline and smothered sea grasses. Dead manatees, pelicans and dolphins washed up on shore.
Yet at the same time – and over a longer timescale – the species seems to be doing well. Before 2007, manatee populations gained ground so well that in the FWS five-year review, the animals were considered good candidates to be reclassified to threatened status. In 2010, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the minimum known population was 5077, more than twice that of a decade earlier.
“Numbers tell us partially what’s going on. What they don’t tell us is how many manatees total we have out there and how healthy they are. We don’t know if the numbers represent 90 percent or half of the population. We don’t have statistical high confidence,” said Underwood.
Part of that vagueness is how the animals are counted. Flight surveys rely on catching a glimpse of the animals when they bob up for air. The weather conditions must be ideal and water must be transparent to see and count them. Plus, the assessments are only done in winter, when manatees predictably migrate to warm waters near power plants and springs.
Yet, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a libertarian-leaning national law firm, is using the numbers in the five-year review as ammunition to change the manatee’s endangered status. The PLF is representing some well-connected waterfront property owners around King’s Bay, who formed the Save Crystal River (SCR) group in 2011.
People have misperceptions that we have two lists. It’s one classification. Being endangered or threatened relates to whether a species is moving toward extinction or not. Manatees will remain protected.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
King’s Bay, which forms the headwaters of the Crystal River, continues to be a critical habitat where manatees migrate each winter. But for boat motorists and local residents, it’s a playground that leads from the river and the bay to the Gulf, as well as a source of both leisure and work activities.
The court fight pits those championing environmental protections against those wanting more human use of the landscape. But in this case, the PLF’s stated goals to protect free enterprise and bring a common-sense approach to environmental regulation have meant attempts to dismantle land-use regulations in what some say are ecologically critical habitats. The SCR has twice before petitioned Florida to remove all manatee protections from the area, and both times they were they were denied. Now it is trying again and the PLF has recently won battles over other species. Last year, the PLF was able to get the formerly endangered wood stork bird reclassified to threatened status.
But as the court fight looms over the manatee, one man thinks he may have an answer for how to protect the animals in their safe zones. And it is a paradoxical one: let boats go faster through their habitat.
Dr. Edmund Gerstein, from Florida Atlantic University, has been testing manatee hearing and said part of the problem is that manatees can’t hear the low frequency sounds made by the propellers of slow-moving boats. He concluded that demanding slower speeds for boats was making things worse because manatees could hear only the propellers sounds of faster boats that produce higher-frequency sounds. This led him to develop an acoustic alarm device that emits high frequency sounds in the water, which he said could be used to warn the animals of boats coming into their path.
Although strikes by fast boats are more likely to result in death than those by slower-moving boats, Gerstein’s conclusions have received enthusiastic support from boating groups – yet not from the FWC.
“The FWC is very resistant to it. They’re waiting for more results,” said Gerstein.
The findings certainly go against the FWC’s own research. In 2007, FWC biologists published a paper that laid out the conceptual basis for why slower boat speeds reduced risks to manatees, and why the FWC and others would continue to use boat speed limits as protective measures.
Given all the debate about manatees – how best to protect them or whether they even need much protection – only one thing seems certain: their reputation as a “tugboat” species remains intact.
“Manatees are like a tugboat pushing and pulling protections for the entire aquatic ecosystem, along with its protections as an endangered species,” said Rose.
The Gulf Stream meanders clockwise from the Gulf of Mexico, past the mid-Atlantic coast toward Europe. It is one of the most powerful currents in the world, and it is full of life.
Many species of pelagic fish, endangered marine turtles and other marine organisms roam the relentless conveyor belt of warm blue water unhindered, flowing beyond the shores of Florida. Their travels were relatively unhindered — until now.
Landbound humanity is hoping to capitalize on the Gulf Stream’s fast-flowing waters, eyeing them as a potential source of endless power and a possible solution to Florida’s energy needs. A pilot project to test a variety of electricity-generating turbines right in the middle of the Gulf Stream has been given the go-ahead in the form of a five-year lease to Florida Atlantic University (FAU). The lease covers 1,000 acres right in the flow of the current.
The environmental upside is obvious. It is believed the Gulf Stream has the potential energy — from a clean and renewable source — to supply Florida with 35 percent of its electrical needs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).
However, there is also concern that there might be an ecological downside. According to a detailed report issued last summer by BOEM, the environmental impact would be minimal. But no one wants to take any chances as the global quest for clean energy aims to bring full-scale commercial deployments of devices, turbines and cable-to-shore systems in the ocean. Many believe it still remains uncertain how life in the current will respond if the industry takes off in a big way and suddenly turbines become a common part of the underwater world.
So the FAU project is aimed at finding out exactly how marine life might react, and prove if it is possible to generate power from the ocean current. “Because there is so little known in certain areas, there is a tendency for everybody to protect everything at all costs when the data may say something else,” said Susan Skemp, executive director of FAU’s Southeast National Marine Renewable Energy Center (SNMREC).
One area of research looks at how schools of fish approach the structures. After all, neither the fish nor the turbine companies want any marine life caught up inside the machines' whirring parts. “It may indicate that the fish are naturally curious, but once they get within a certain distance of an operating system, they may be repelled by it and may move away from it, so that's all part of the research,” Skemp said.
FAU’s project is going to be a serious test bed for a whole new industry. The scheme is trying to bridge the gap from lab to market by encouraging private companies to launch their turbine prototypes from FAU research vessels, which will be moored for weeks at a time, collecting measurements of ocean conditions. Three floating test berths will be connected to buoys anchored to the ocean floor. So far, the center has nondisclosure agreements with over 40 private companies, but “six to 10 have prototypes that are ready for field testing,” said Gabe Alsenas, program manager of SNMREC.
Companies are lining up for offshore testing, which is to take place later this year. That’s when FAU plans to prove that its 5,000-pound turbine will generate electricity. “What is realizable will depend on the systems that are built, and also what environmental regulatory processes we need to have in place,” said Skemp.
But environmentally, very little is known about life from the seafloor to the surface. SNMREC hopes that by deploying these single-device prototypes, it will be more able to predict how an array of permanent industrial equipment in the water column would put the ecosystems at risk.
One company that has already signed an agreement with FAU is Minesto, a Swedish firm that has produced electricity from its prototype, called Deep Green. The unit resembles an underwater kite and a turbine that is tethered to the ocean floor. While the current lifts the kite, a rudder is supposed to guide it in a trajectory shaped like a figure 8. A quarter-scale model is currently undergoing sea trials in Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland.
“Theirs is a tidal system, and they haven’t done it with ocean currents yet. So they will have to revise the design to make it applicable to this type of system,” said Skemp.
A distinctly different design would use a combination of small turbines encased in a large honeycomb-shaped device made of Kevlar and carbon fiber. Bruce Heafitz, CEO of Ocean Current Energy, said the lightweight turbines would have much lower maintenance costs than their competitors. “We’ll suspend this honeycomb structure from the ocean floor and bring it up to the top, where the current is equivalent to 200-mile-an-hour wind force,” said Heafitz.
But even as the focus is on designing the most efficient turbines — which undoubtedly produce “clean” renewable energy — the emphasis on environmental protection is also key. “Environmental groups really do support what we’re doing in terms of renewable energy, because it’s green and clean. But they are concerned about any ancillary affects to corals, marine species, and we’re trying to alleviate those fears in terms of development,” said Camille Coley, associate director of SNMREC.
Several years ago, when wave energy farm proposals were contemplated in California, the research and tracking of gray whales as they migrated past the San Francisco shoreline helped provide key information.
In Florida’s waters, all 16 populations of marine turtles are on the endangered species list, yet their lives remain mostly a mystery.
Jeanette Wyneken, an FAU marine biologist, is heading up a long-term, systematic study of marine sea turtles to answer basic questions about how these protected animals use the Gulf Stream.
“We need to know what is normal. And it’s complicated, to say the least. These species take 25 years to mature, and we have to look at variations in population over 10 years. Water temperature is a major factor in determining the sex ratio of the population — not only that, but climate and seasonal effects too,” said Wyneken.
Many believe the best approach to avoid negative environmental impacts will be some sort of adaptive management system as described by a 2009 U.S. Department of Energy report. As projects expand from small to commercial-scale developments, repeated evaluations of monitoring results will be crucial.
Skemp, who spent nearly three decades in the aerospace industry before heading SNMREC, said the state of ocean current technology is comparable to where space research was decades ago.
“We’ve got to be able to answer that question: What will be the interactions between the developer’s hardware and the marine ecosystem?" asked Skemp. "We don’t have the answers yet.’’