Rising seasRise in sea levels forces drastic changes on Florida

Published 15 December 2009

If sea levels rise by only two feet, Florida stands to lose almost 10 percent of its land area and the homes of 1.5 million people; the zone which is vulnerable to 27-inch rise in sea level includes residential real estate worth $130 billion, half of Florida’s beaches, two nuclear reactors, three prisons, 37 nursing homes, and much more; the Florida government is considering changes to building codes and other precautionary measures.

Debates about whether the rising temperature of the atmosphere are the result of human activity or natural forces, and whether this rise is linear or cyclical, continue. In South Florida, though, the issues of global warming and rising seas are more than theoretical. Florida is one of the parts of the United States most vulnerable to a rise in sea level, and officials are beginning to plan how they will cope with it.

NPR’s Greg Allen reports that scientists say the sea level has been rising since the end of the last ice age. The concern now is how fast it is rising, and whether cities and natural ecosystems can adapt fast enough to avoid being devastated. “You hear predictions of up to 3 or 4 feet over the next century,” said Chris Bergh, of the Nature Conservancy’s Florida Keys program. “It really makes you nervous for the future of this place.”

With an average elevation of just 3 or 4 feet, there are few places in America where the rising sea level is a bigger threat than in the Keys.

Changes already visible On Big Pine Key, one of the chain’s largest and most environmentally diverse islands, you can already see changes brought on by the accelerating sea level rise. A spot not far from the island’s coast used to be a pine forest. Now, it is tidal wetlands — home to a few salt-tolerant plant species and the desiccated remnants of the old forest. Bergh described some of the changes brought on by the rising sea level. “This stump is a pine tree — was a pine tree,” Bergh said. “Now, it’s an old weathered pine stump. And it’s literally 100 feet or more away from the nearest living live pine. At one time, pines could live out here in what is now a mangrove marsh.”

At risk are more than a few pines. The Keys are home to many plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world. The Nature Conservancy is working to develop special elevation maps for the Keys and other sensitive areas in Florida that will show which spots are most vulnerable and where action is needed to buy time for endangered ecosystems.

Bergh says it is hoped that with help, rare plants and animals may be able to migrate to higher ground before they are wiped out. “In the long run, the sea will cover the