Where Goes the Arctic, There Goes Miami: Florida, the Arctic, and Our Rising Seas

By Dr. Colin Polsky, Professor of Geosciences and Director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University (FAU); Dr. Leonard Berry of Coastal Risk Consulting; and Serena Hoermann, coordinator for the Florida Climate Institute at FAU.

(Photo credit: Dee Young)

They have snowshoes, we wear flip-flops. They have snow machines and sled dogs to carry them over pristine frozen ice, we have scuba boats for year round diving in sparkling warm waters. They have the city of Barrow, the northernmost incorporated place in all the U.S. territory, and we have Key West, the southernmost incorporated place in the contiguous 48 states.

Obviously, Alaskans and Floridians live at opposite extremes in worlds so distant and different, they seem completely unconnected. But today, with our increasing understanding of changing ice and weather patterns, we see that these places are linked. Unfolding changes in Alaska and elsewhere in the Arctic reverberate throughout the United States. These effects may be most evident along the eastern coastline that many Floridians call home.

(Graphic credit: Ferdi Rizkiyanto)

Floridians mostly reap the consequences of the Arctic thaw in the form of sea level rise. Warming air temperatures unleash two processes relevant here. First, warmer air means warmer water, and as the water heats, it expands. This added volume is felt as a rise in sea levels. This warming is happening in many parts of the world, but nowhere more pronounced than in the Arctic. Second, warmer air melts land ice, which flows to the coasts, increasing ocean volume locally. These local outcomes are eventually felt globally, as the world’s oceans are not stationary but instead circulate across the globe over time.

Some of these predictions are already being observed in Florida. In the last 50 years we’ve seen 9” of sea-level rise, already compromising drainage canals and causing local flooding. A local working group of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact projects additional rises of 6 to 10 inches by 2030 and up to 2 feet by 2060.

In addition to the science, we must also explore the current and future risks of Arctic-influenced sea level rise, raise awareness among all spheres of society, search for policy solutions, and find ways to combine mitigation efforts with those of adaptation. Many efforts are already underway across Florida to meet this challenge, engaging not only academia but also the public and private sectors, and civil society.

When Sarah (left) reaches the age of her life expectancy in 2068, sea levels in Portland, Oregon, may be 26 inches higher than it is today. When Roy (right) reaches his life expectancy in 2076, sea levels in New Orleans may be 39 inches higher than today. (Photo credit: Mary Brandenburg)

In 2013, FAU commissioned Florida-based photographer Mary Brandenburg to take a series of photographs that would draw further attention to sea-level rise. Together with Climate Central’s Ben Strauss, calculations were made for how much sea levels are expected to rise in different coastal cities around the U.S. The result was series titled “Sea Level Rise in My Lifetime.” The photographs are a powerful testament to the future that awaits America’s children living in coastal areas.

In Fort Lauderdale this coming May, we at the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) will host our third Sea-Level Rise Summit on May 3–5, 2016. We’ve selected the theme Connected Futures from Alaska to Florida, as it is critical to compare and contrast impacts and responses in both places and present opportunities for building coastal resilience locally and globally. As in years past, the meeting will convene hundreds of leading researchers, decision makers, and private-sector stakeholders from both states. Together with national and international experts, we will discuss the state of sea-level rise science and how public policy and private adaptation efforts can lessen impacts in the areas of human health; infrastructure; ecosystems; society & water; governance; and national security & international responses. The event will shape not only nascent efforts to improve coastal resilience in both the private sector and all levels of government, but also invite a big-picture perspective through internationally-oriented discussions.

Sunny-day flooding at Stranahan House in Fort Lauderdale built in 1901. (Photo credit: Serena Hoermann)

Other similar efforts to study different aspects of Arctic science, oceans, and the impacts of sea level rise are being made across the state. In early March, a UNESCO World Field Laboratory: Sea Level Rise and the Future of Coastal Settlements to examine the effect of sea-level rise on Miami-Dade County will take place with the support of the University of Florida. There are even Floridians finding their way to the North Pole in support of Arctic science. In August 2015,three Florida State University researchers joined David Kadko and a team from Florida International University on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the United States’ largest and most technologically advanced icebreaker. Notably, it was during this particular journey the weakened state of the melting ice permitted the Healy to actually make it all the way to the North Pole, becoming the first American ship ever to do so.

Dr. Bill Landing of Florida State University plays his saxophone at the North Pole in August 2015. (Photo credit: Bill Schmoker, PolarTREC)

In addition to efforts being made by our universities, South Florida businesses like Grey Door Luxury Homes are taking sea-level rise into account when developing coastal property, assisted by firms like Coastal Risk Consulting who provide flood risk assessment.

Thank you for taking the time to read our piece and we hope that you can see more clearly how Alaska, our nation’s Arctic state, and Florida, our nation’s sunshine state, are much more closely connected than one might think at first.

What happens in Alaska — and across the Arctic — directly affects those of us in Florida to a greater degree with each passing year, and we are looking forward to discovering more of these connections at our May summit. Oh, and as we prepared this blog, we discovered one other thing that Floridians have in common with Alaskans: we both surf.

Mt. St. Elias keeps watch over Don ‘Iceman’ McNamara as he catches a wave near Yukatat, a small town in southeast Alaska on Thanksgiving Day, 2010. (Photo credit: Scott Dickerson)

About the authors:

Dr. Colin Polsky is a Professor of Geosciences and Director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University. Dr. Polsky is trained as a Geographer, specializing in the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change. His background in mathematics, humanities, French, geography, and Science & International Affairs (from U. Texas, Penn State, and Harvard, respectively) has led to a sustained interest in advancing knowledge of U.S. climate vulnerabilities, in both methodological and applied terms.

Dr. Leonard Berry, recently retired founder and Director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at FAU, continues his work in sea level rise on the local, national and global scale with Coastal Risk Consulting. Dr. Berry is regarded as a leading scientist and spokesman locally and nationally, appearing regularly in print, on the radio and television. A co-author of the National Climate Assessment (2014), Dr. Berry has testified on Sea Level Rise issues to a full committee of the US Senate, has personally briefed senior senators and governors on this issue and has organized and directed a number of regional conferences dedicated to public understanding, awareness and response.

Serena Hoermann serves as Coordinator for the Florida Climate Institute at Florida Atlantic University, a multi-disciplinary network concerned with achieving a better understanding of climate variability and change. When not writing for scientists at the Florida Center for Environmental Studies, she writes fiction and promotes literacy.