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Sea-level rise must be taken seriously

By Staff | Sep 19, 2018

We, a United States Representative and a scientist from our regional state university, have come together to acknowledge that sea-level rise is an urgent problem for our community, but one that we must and can address.

It’s not uncommon to hear people mention that they are worried about the future, whether environmental, social or economic. Partisanship and polarization seem to dominate our political landscape right now, with little interest in debate or compromise, making it difficult to come together to resolve differences of opinion. However, here in Southwest Florida, we know that our lives are intermingled with the water and the coastal environment, and many people have set aside political affiliations to come together to address serious challenges they face.

We have watched as higher seas, stronger storms and more frequent floods have become part of a new normal that is costlier for the average Floridian. This new normal can mean dozens of days of flooding in our homes and streets, even on sunny days, longer commutes caused by flooded roads, and leading to reduced value of our residential properties.

For our cities, these changes mean added costs for infrastructure and drainage systems and erosion of our pristine beaches. Rising seas can even push saltwater into our drinking water aquifers and threaten the viability of the Everglades marshes.

Collier County and three of its municipalities (Naples, Marco Island and Everglades City), along with local leaders throughout the region, have recently embraced the need for adaptation to sea-level rise. Through a three-year, $1-million grant awarded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made to the University of Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University, a team of scientists is working closely with managers and decision-makers to predict the effects of sea-level rise and stronger storms. Our leaders deserve the best information possible with which to evaluate and prioritize how to adapt to these changes, and this is what the science team is delivering with multiple storm intensity and sea-level rise scenarios. Now, these tools will be in the hands of nearly 100 decision-makers who can use them to make a difference in Collier County.

Inaction is already costing us billions. Hurricane Irma cost the United States $50 billion. We also know that 40 percent to 60 percent of small businesses never reopen their doors following a disaster, which has a ripple effect on our economy. Cities in Florida alone are already spending over $4 billion to harden infrastructure, improve drainage, renourish beaches and combat tidal flooding. This is the result of just 6 inches of sea-level rise over the last 30 years – we’re expecting as much as another 6 inches in the next 15 years alone.

Moreover, it is not enough to adapt to these changes locally and move forward without looking at the root causes and working toward a broader and more preventative solution. Adaptation should be accompanied by mitigation – which means a change in our nation’s usage of fossil fuels. We can control our destiny – clean energy policies can reduce sea-level rise and mitigate its costly impacts.

We know warming of the atmosphere and the oceans melts more glacial ice and causes seawater to expand, both of which increase the volume of water in the oceans. This same warming fuels changes in the development of tropical storms, causing them to strengthen more rapidly and more intensely than in our previous history. Even a few additional inches of sea-level rise can make a hurricane push more water onto shore and further inland, even if the hurricane itself doesn’t make landfall. Had Irma continued on its forecast track instead of diverting easterly over Marco Island, more expansive portions of Collier and Lee Counties would have experienced this devastation first-hand. Everglades City and parts of Marco Island, which were located east of the storm eye’s landfall, were less fortunate and experienced as much as 9 feet of storm surge.

How do we adapt to sea-level rise while working to mitigate the predicted additional rise if we do not change course in our use of fossil fuels? We must all collaborate to influence decisions that can make a difference. What better way to show this as a bipartisan effort than to pair an earth scientist with the Republican Congressman for Florida’s 19th District as supporters, advocates and end users of the NOAA project? Now we look ahead to create solutions, in a bipartisan way, for our burgeoning climate-related problems in Southwest Florida and beyond.

U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney represents Florida’s District 19, which includes Sanibel and Captiva.

Dr. Michael Savarese is a coastal geologist and professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.