Is Miami Going Underwater?

Whether Miami is going underwater has been circulating in the media for years. Now even Hollywood is getting on board to make us aware of the inevitable. In 2021, the film Reminiscence presented its viewers with a fictional backdrop that might just have been all too real: a flooded future Miami.    

As a result of climate change, Miami’s sea level is rising approximately an inch every three years, with scientists predicting another 6-inch rise by 2035. Scientists predict Miami might be underwater by 2100 if the municipal, state, federal, and private powers cannot mitigate the issue.

Climate change is a reality everyone is currently facing. As a result, we are seeing a rise in global temperatures and sea levels, intensified storms (e.g., hurricanes), and coastal erosion. These effects of climate change could all contribute to Miami experiencing an overflow of water in their streets and homes in the future, making much of their landmass uninhabitable.

Why Is Miami Going Underwater?

Many cities worldwide are at risk of going underwater because of climate change and human activity’s impact on the environment. Miami is one such example. This southeastern Florida city is currently experiencing the severe effects of climate change. It is also contributing to Miamians’ fears of reaching a state where inhabitable landmass will disappear in the future.

Rising Sea Levels

The Nature Climate Change journal recently published a study that warns people of higher sea levels that will become more frequent towards the end of the century, with levels rising to 40-80 inches by 2100. To help address this issue, one must understand why the levels are rising in the first place. Two main reasons for the increase in sea levels are thermal expansion and melting of the polar ice caps.

The planet has experienced 15 of the hottest years on record since the year 2000. Due to this increase in average temperatures worldwide, land and water masses are becoming warmer. This increase in heat warms up the ocean, which leads to an expansion that causes a rise in sea level.

The other reason for higher ocean levels is the warmer climate that has completely changed the Arctic’s environment. The warmer temperatures rapidly melt the ice, including glaciers and ice sheets, which end up in the ocean. This freshwater causes the sea levels to rise, affecting all coastal communities.

These rising sea levels have exacerbated king tides in Miami, which occur routinely between September and November every year. King tides are higher-than-normal tides that cause residents to experience floods (also known as “sunny day flooding”) in areas when it is not raining. NASA predicts that these high tides will soon cause a surge in severe flooding in other U.S. coastal areas as well.

Coastal Erosion

When you look at tourist brochures of Miami, you have pictures of miles of golden, sandy beaches staring back at you, enticing you to take that well-deserved beach holiday. A “critically eroded” coastline is not what comes to mind, yet this is how the Florida Department of Environmental Protection describes the entire coast from Miami to Cape Canaveral.

Coastal erosion is a consequence of high tide floods or “sunny day floods,” rising sea levels, and more severe weather (e.g., hurricanes). The ocean reclaims pieces of the land, which is about four times more common today than 15 years ago, and which causes flooding of Miami’s coastline and ends in an enormous amount of sand loss.

This type of erosion is not a new problem. The sea has been eating away at the coastline for years. Not surprisingly, the sea level has been rising a third of an inch each year and shows no signs of stopping.

Miami has already spent millions of dollars gathering sand from the ocean bed to replace what it loses on shore. The problem is that the effects of climate change are constant, and it simply washes the transported sand away again. Yet, authorities are adamant about upholding their picture-perfect image of Miami beach to maintain the income gained from tourism and their coastal properties.

Miami’s Limestone Bedrock

Although the U.S.’s entire east coast is at risk of an overflow of water, Miami is especially vulnerable because of its underlying limestone bedrock. Limestone rock is porous, which allows the ocean to swell up through the ground. It almost acts like a calcified sponge, pushing water through its holes. Add the weight of Miami’s built structures and human activity to the water level, and it becomes an issue.

The problem in Miami, specifically, is not that its residents live in denial of the effects of climate change. How could anyone doubt its impact when Miami’s hurricane season returns yearly with more powerful and regular storms than before or when it gets increasingly difficult to find affordable flood insurance?

The trouble is the scale of all these interconnected issues the city and the entire Florida region face. It can easily overwhelm its residents and local authorities since none of the potential solutions is cheap or easy.

When Will Miami Be Underwater?

Scientists have measured the sea level of South Florida since 1993, and it is risen almost six inches since then. They estimate that the sea level will rise another six inches within half the time (by approximately 2030). The speed at which sea levels rise is increasing so rapidly that the same rise that took 31 years will now only take 15 years.

Based on this data, scientists further predict that the ocean’s levels can rise to 31 inches by 2060, which would still be during the lifetime of many Miamians. This prediction is incredibly devastating since an estimated 120 000 properties are found on or near Miami’s coastline, putting them at a higher risk of being impacted within the next few decades.

By 2100, the sea levels would have risen 5-6 feet, resulting in one in every eight properties being underwater. This scenario won’t be at the magnitude of Atlantis, for example. Still, it will cause constant flooding, disrupting Miami to the point where parts of the city will be uninhabitable.

How Much Of Miami Will Be Underwater?

Scientists estimate that about 20% of Miami will be underwater during a high tide flood in 2045. By 2050, Miami properties worth about $15-23 billion will be underwater, including Miami Beach landmarks, like the world-famous South Beach and the charming art deco hotels of Ocean Drive.

By 2100, some scientists predict that 94.1% of Miami’s habitable land will experience an overflow of water. This flooding could potentially displace 800,000 Miami-Dade County residents, nearly a third of its current population.

The Effects Of Miami’s Rising Sea Level

In Miami, the effects of the rising sea level are already an unavoidable part of daily life. Miamians must endure flooding that often forces people to abandon their homes, small businesses must close for days at a time, and it hinders students from traveling to and from school. There are also other, less obvious but equally problematic impacts.

Climate Gentrification

Climate gentrification is a buzzword around low-laying south Florida, particularly Miami, and refers to how climate change contributes to shifts in a community, for example, the displacement of vulnerable residents through changes in property value.

Historically, Miami’s marginalized residents were segregated to inner-city neighborhoods and onto the region’s high ground, away from the desirable coastline. Once impoverished and unappealing, these residential areas have become prime real estate locations since they are based on higher ground and pose less long-term risk than properties by the sea.

Property developers in Miami are already eyeing historically black, working-class, and poorer areas, replacing affordable housing with upscale developments and accommodations only the wealthy can afford. This move, unfortunately, leaves middle-class residents – who have most of their savings tied up in their homes — without options.

One such development, the controversial Magic City Innovation District, has even resulted in legal action from locals who say this motion is suppressing their rights.

Drainage And Septic Tanks

The Miami-Dade region is already experiencing disruptions from the rising sea levels, which is threatening the viability of its regional drainage system. These drains ultimately keep the city from returning to a swamp. A drainage system under this kind of pressure needs to be updated and adapted to work under the impacts of climate change, but a project like this could cost $7 billion.

Currently, local water management bodies overseeing Miami drainage systems are trying to get funds from the federal government for a complete system overhaul. Meanwhile, parts of Miami, especially along the river and farther inland, are experiencing increased floods that put a lot of pressure on their drains, leaving the middle- and working-class residents vulnerable. 

Septic tanks do not work when the groundwater levels rise along with the sea levels. Scientists suggest that, once the sea levels rise two feet or more, several thousand septic tanks in the Miami area will become inoperable. Given that the entire Miami-Dade county has about 108,000 properties that are still running on septic systems, this could be disastrous if the system fails.

The county predicts that building an entirely new sewer system that reaches everyone would cost roughly $3 billion, excluding the amount of money each homeowner will have to cough up to connect their house to the system. The additional costs per home could be anything from $15,000 to $50,000.

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Plans To Keep Miami From Going Underwater

Many municipalities, the counties of southeast Florida, and partner groups have combined efforts through a regional action climate plan to tackle the crisis.

This plan is already underway in various cities, like Miami, and includes

Miami already has seawalls and pumps to send water back to the ocean, but the Army Corps of Engineers proposes building more. Some experts in the scientific community regard this plan as too expensive and impractical since the water that the walls (or flood barriers) would attempt to keep out will eventually rise out of the ground, which is already happening during high tide floods.

Another part of the Army Corps draft plan includes

In the Florida Keys area, the approach is slightly different. The plan is to abandon regions that are too expensive to maintain and let them disappear in the next decade or two. The focus will shift to measures with a better cost-benefit ratio.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also issues 2–4-day flooding forecasts based on tides and computer models. These forecasts help the different municipalities prepare and increase their budgets, ensuring they can manage the effects of severe floods and rising sea levels in the coming years.

Which Other U.S. Cities Are At Risk Of Going Underwater?

According to the NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer, and given the current sea-level rise estimates of 10 -12 inches by 2050, certain areas in the U.S. are more vulnerable to rising sea levels and subsequent flooding.  

1. Louisiana seaboard

While New Orleans protection consists of a system of levees and flood defenses, areas like Cameron, Garden City, Morgan City, and Houma are all still at risk.

2. Washington state

Many cities along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, including Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, and Olympia, are predicted to increase floods from severe storms and rainfall in the coming years.

3. Southern Florida

Much of the southern coast of Florida, from Miami and Homestead to Key West, Naples, and the Everglades, are low-lying areas that are already prone to severe weather events that will only worsen in the next couple of decades.

4. Western Oregon

With its vast rivers and sea-facing communities, Oregon could suffer the negative impact of climate change. Low-lying areas on the state’s western side, like Florence, Siltcoos Lake, Coos Bay, and the Coquille River, are also at risk.

5. Southeastern coast

The NOAA states that the east coast sea levels could rise much more than the west, posing a threat to cities like Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, and Norfolk.

6. Southern California

Many of southern California’s regions are already vulnerable to adverse weather because of climate change. Local authorities should take more action to protect its coast from flooding, especially in the San Diego area, including Carlsbad, Mission Bay Park, and the San Elijo Lagoon.

Conclusion

Scientists predict that the same sea-level rise that has occurred over the past 100 years will happen in the next 30 years. This prediction puts low-lying coastal cities like Miami at a very high risk of becoming almost inhabitable by 2100 because of flooding.

One thing to remember is that climate change science and corresponding data are constantly changing. The reality is that the outcomes of the rising sea levels could be worse or better than expected. To prevent the worst-case scenario, governments should build appropriate protection and focus on landforms and flood defenses to curb the issue.

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