Is Miami Beach drowning?

We learn from the Guardian newspaper that the front line in America’s battle against climate-change-induced sea level rise is Miami Beach, and specifically the area along Alton Road. I have fond memories of Alton Road — of cruising down that winding boulevard in my 1964 Cadillac convertible, livin’ large, lookin’ goofy. I worked in the cramped office of Beach Neighbors, the twice-weekly supplement of the Miami Herald. The  office was near the intersection of Alton and Arthur Godfrey, and on any given day we’d shoot down Alton to the Villa Deli, or perhaps shoot some pool at the Irish House.

Alton Road runs along the west side of Miami Beach, close to the water of Biscayne Bay, and, as the Guardian reports, there are times, particularly during the spring and fall, when this part of Miami Beach is approximately zero feet above sea level, or actually into the negative. It’s flooded. It’s under water. Or, as the Guardian’s science editor puts it, it’s drowning.

The effect is calamitous. Shops and houses are inundated; city life is paralysed; cars are ruined by the corrosive seawater that immerses them. During one recent high spring tide, laundromat owner Eliseo Toussaint watched as slimy green saltwater bubbled up from the gutters. It rapidly filled the street and then blocked his front door. “This never used to happen,” Toussaint told the New York Times. “I’ve owned this place eight years and now it’s all the time.”

Today, shop owners keep plastic bags and rubber bands handy to wrap around their feet when they have to get to their cars through rising waters, while householders have found that ground-floor spaces in garages are no longer safe to keep their cars. Only those on higher floors can hope to protect their cars from surging sea waters that corrode and rot the innards of their vehicles.

My friend and former Post colleague Michael Grunwald, a Time magazine writer who lives in Miami Beach, has responded to the Guardian piece:

 I’ve described South Beach as the canary in America’s coal mine for climate change, and the canary has started coughing a bit, but it isn’t dead or even very sick. I’m sorry to spoil the climate porn, but while the periodic puddles in my Whole Foods parking lot are harbingers of a potentially catastrophic future, they are not currently catastrophic. They are annoying. And so is this kind of yellow climate journalism.

Joe Romm at ClimateProgress objects to the Grunwald piece in a post headlined “Neverglades: Sorry Michael Grunwald, South Florida IS Drowning”:

Hmm, if the waters are rising around you and your current course of action must inevitably lead to your total inundation and death, is that “drowning”? As purely semantic questions go, I suppose it might have some interest to linguists and journalists. As existential questions go, however, everyone in Miami needs to understand that the city simply is not going to exist unless we immediately start ignoring the do-nothing and do-little crowds.

Mike Grunwald wrote a terrific book on South Florida called “The Swamp,” and he knows the terrain and hydrology as well as anyone. He also knows that South Florida is a completely engineered environment, a kind of instant metropolis, with the natural landscape thoroughly reworked, and arguably the whole place a terrible mistake — see any Carl Hiaasen novel for that perspective. (Carl would probably tell you that the catastrophe has already happened — bring on the floodwaters!)

Miami Beach is an affluent place; I’m not worried about those folks all that much. Climate change is a more serious problem for people in developing countries who lack resources and can’t pack up and move when the sea rises. The Guardian article carried a photograph of one of the ritzy islands in Biscayne Bay — a totally man-made island built from dredged material — that are threatened by rising sea levels. I’d venture a guess that every person who lives on that little island is wealthy. This is the kind of place that Sly Stallone would live, or Madonna. They’re gonna survive this catastrophe somehow.

But I’m not so sure about the magnificent coral reefs of South Florida. If sea level rise is on the higher end of projections, beautiful East Coast barrier islands such as Assateague could see much of their marshland turn into deep water. And there are other consequences to climate change, not least of which is the loss of biodiversity as habitats change more quickly than organisms can adapt.

Humans are, in fact, unusually adaptive — it’s kind of our shtick. Now we have to make the ultimate adaptation and figure out how to stop poisoning the atmosphere and stop trampling on all the other organisms on the planet.

Miami is a harbinger for the future not simply because it’s imperiled at the margins by sea level rise. It’s existence as an engineered place is a metaphor for much of the world of the future. There’s just not a lot of wilderness left — until you get beyond the levees and into the Everglades. The Glades themselves aren’t what they used to be before the coming of the developers. They’ve been dried up by the replumbing of South Florida. The Army Corps of Engineers is now spending billions of dollars trying to undo what it did in the 20th century. The finished product is not going to be “natural” so much as it will be a closely regulated environment, an ongoing negotiation featuring the valuable currency of fresh water — some to the swamp, some to the metropolis.

Science writers have an obligation to get it right, and that includes not exaggerating. The facts are strong enough. Grunwald writes:

We should fight global warming — and the powers that be, including Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Rick Scott, should stop looking away — because it’s a potential disaster for Miami and the rest of this very nice planet. But we shouldn’t pretend it’s a disaster now.

… fortunately, the effects are not yet calamitous; the reason we ought to DO SOMETHING is that they’ll get calamitous if we don’t. If we think once-a-month ankle-deep water is drowning, then why should Americans care whether we drown?

 

 

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | July 10