Why Miami is Doomed

“People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.” Luke 17:27

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me news of an amazing transaction. In Miami, a waterfront downtown 1.25-acre lot had sold for the amazing price of $125,000,000. That’s one-hundred twenty-five MILLION dollars. For a little over an acre of land.

Miami 1.25 acres sold for $125 million

Miami 1.25 acres sold for $125 million

Now, if you’re in London, New York or Hong Kong, you’re used to this kind of thing. You know: location, location, location. But Miami is different. Yes, it’s the Magic City, and awash with money from all over the Americas and Europe, fueling enormous real estate, banking and (sadly) drug transactions. But increasingly, people are coming to terms with the fact that that Miami is living on borrowed time. And the time is beginning to look really, really short.

Oh, no. Not another doomsday scenario! Has this thought crossed your mind?

Well, we’ve been talking about Miami’s last days for several years now. But with the passing of time, the most serious doubts have been removed. We’ve learned that Miami is the world’s #1 loser to sea-level rise over the balance of this century, with more than $400 billion of assets exposed to projected sea levels at present. But recently, the evidence has mounted that Miami will succumb long before the tides inundate the city.

Here’s why Miami is headed the way of Atlantis:

  • Global sea levels are rising faster than anyone expected, and will, within decades, inundate much of south Florida.
  • More severe storms are projected for the region, with higher and higher storm surges, aggravating the impact of sea-level rise.
  • Miami suffers from fatal geology: a porous limestone ridge beneath the city permits salt water to bubble up through “swiss cheese” rock formations beneath the ground, making dikes and levees useless.
  • The topography is flat and low, with much of the most expensive infrastructure right on the waterfront. Even Miami’s enormous nuclear power plant is vulnerable to storm surges today.
  • And the city’s freshwater supply is protected by flood gates that are also just barely above high tide at today’s levels, let alone in coming decades as polar ice continues to melt.

These factors make Miami “ground zero” for climate change. That’s why Harold Wanless, chairman of University of Miami’s department of geological sciences has said flatly: “Miami, as we know it today, is doomed. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.”

“If you live in South Florida and you’re not building a boat,” says Wanless, “you’re not facing reality.”

Florida’s leading climate scientists share many of Wanless’ conclusions. Last month, they wrote a letter to Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, who has pleaded ignorance about climate change. “Florida is one of the most vulnerable places in the country with respect to climate change,” they wrote, “with southeastern Florida of particular concern.” And by “southeastern Florida,” they mean Miami.

But not everyone seems to share the scientists concerns. Of course, there are the politicians. Gov. Rick Scott has gutted his predecessor’s climate action plans, while claiming ignorance: “I am not a scientist,” he says. Senator Marco Rubio, positioning himself for a Republican presidential run, tells us that “no matter how many job-killing­ laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather.” Former Governor Jeb Bush says: “I’m a skeptic. I’m not a scientist. I think the science has been politicized.” And Tom Gustafson, a former Florida speaker of the House and a climate-change-policy advocate says that the entire Florida legislature is firmly committed to climate denial. “You can’t even say the words ‘climate change’ on the House floor without being run out of the building,” he says.

But as the $125-million Miami acre proves, the politicians aren’t alone. It’s people like us, who have bought into the technological myth of our time – that the Creation can be tamed, or made irrelevant. Somehow God’s rules of nature won’t apply to us. At first glance, it reflects confidence in human ingenuity – or perhaps hubris — to somehow “subdue the earth,” arguably one of the most misunderstood of biblical concepts.

But there’s a simpler calculus at work here as well: Somehow, the rest of the country will bail us out. No leader has ever failed to assure disaster victims: “Your city will come back stronger than ever!” After Katrina, it took $40 billion in Federal taxpayer dollars. After Sandy, it was $60 billion. Abandon Miami? Surely, the country won’t allow it.

But for Miami, the country will have no choice. Here’s why.

Sea levels are rising much faster than scientists had forecasted. Skeptics hoped that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sea level forecasts might be wrong, and it turns out the skeptics were correct. But unfortunately, they were right in the wrong direction. Actual sea levels have risen 60% FASTER than the estimates made in the 3rd and 4th IPCC reports, according to new research. And the IPCC estimates have called for approximately three feet of sea level rise this century – EXCLUDING the all-important influence of polar ice sheet melting, and they are rapidly becoming unstable, or collapsing.Picture3

But  — ignoring the melting ice sheets — with only three feet of sea-level rise, more than a third of southern Florida will be awash. With six feet, half will be inundated. And even though some scientists have concluded that 69 feet of eventual sea level rise has already been baked into the climate systems because of our global carbon binge, just twelve feet would reduce south Florida to an isolated archipelago punctuated by offshore abandoned buildings and crumbling highway overpasses.

Miami’s geology rules out a system of levee defenses. The city sits above porous limestone substrates, which permit sea water to migrate through the ground into low-lying areas. If we were hoping that we could take a page out of the Dutch playbook, it just won’t work here. In fact, none of the Dutch engineering firms which have been called on to protect Miami has any idea about how to protect the city. In the words of Piet Dircke, a prominent Dutch water engineer, “Miami is different [from Holland or New Orleans]. It is also a low-­lying city but far more complicated because of issues about water quality, the porousness of the limestone the city sits on, as well as water coming in from the west, through the Everglades.”

Flat and low-lying topography: Miami was little more than swampland for thousands of years, and uninhabited prior to the late 1800’s. Engineers could do nothing with the massive Everglades, but they did manage to drain and develop the strip of land running down the eastern edge of south Florida. Today, the region’s 5.5 million people are crowded on a narrow strip running from Homestead in the south up to Jupiter, most of it within ten feet of the current sea levels, and almost none of it above 20 feet. Their greatest threat, however, does not come from the Atlantic tides on the eastern beaches. Only a few miles to the west, the Everglades are giving way, year by year, to the rising Gulf of Mexico. And it’s from that direction that the fatal blow to Miami is most likely to fall.

The city will die of thirst long before it drowns: South Florida’s fresh water comes from a massive underground lake called the Biscayne Aquifer. With rising sea levels, sea water began to infiltrate the aquifer in the middle of the last century, forcing engineers to develop a complex system of salinity control water-gates to hold the saltwater at bay. In the 1960’s, the freshwater on the land-side of those water-gates was about 18 inches higher than the saltwater on the sea-side, resulting in hydrostatic pressures that held back the seawater. Today, that 18-inch margin has shrunk to only 10 inches, and it’s declining every year. And while there are short-term engineering solutions, they are incredibly expensive. Flood control pumps cost $70 million each. Desalinization plants – there are already 35 in south Florida – require massive amounts of energy. And the construction budget for a new set of plants on the drawing board totals $6 billion. The price tag for a complete desalinization system? $20 billion to $30 billion for construction alone.

Oh, and that nuclear power plant? Yes, the city of Miami built the Turkey Point Nuclear Plant on the edge of Biscayne Bay in the early 1970’s, when no one was talking about a warming earth and rising seas. Today, it has two reactors perched 20 feet above sea level – a mere three feet above the level of Hurricane Andrew’s storm surge. And with a projected 27 inches of sea-level rise this century, those reactors would be awash in such a storm. However, the problem is much more immediate: At 27 inches of higher seas, Turkey Point would be essentially an island, accessible only by helicopter or boat, and its water cooling canals would be awash in the bay.

But the plant’s owner, Florida Power & Light, still thinks Turkey Point is a great place for a nuclear plant – so much so that they are proposing two more reactors for the site. With projected 70-year useful lives, this would mean that Miami would still have nuclear plants at Turkey Point in the year 2085. You would have to wonder who, in their right minds, would invest in such a project?

But then again, who would pay $125 million for a little over an acre of Miami waterfront land?

And this brings us back to Jesus’ warning about the story of Noah, doesn’t it? Somehow, we have developed the ability to look the other way when obvious danger signs appear on the horizon. Maybe “American ingenuity” will somehow see us through? Or maybe the Federal government will do something to rescue us? Or maybe those self-interested scientists are just trying to scare into funding their next projects (all of them, all over the world)? Or maybe they’re right, but it will be the kids, not us, who bear the consequences?

But as Miami’s story makes clear, the rules of nature DO apply to us. The Creation will NOT make a special case for us. Our fellow citizens will NOT – indeed, cannot – bear the cost of endlessly subsidizing flood-zone development. And it’s well past time for us to come to grips with the fact that reckless carbon pollution anywhere harms coastal dwellers everywhere. Bangladesh, Micronesia, New Orleans, Vietnam, Boston, New York and Kolkata – just a few places that will share much or more of Miami’s fate.

It will be interesting to see how Florida’s voters digest these realities. They are faced in the coming months with a choice for governor, pitting climate-aware Independent Charlie Crist against climate-denying Rick Scott. Of course, people choose their leaders for scores of reasons. But faced with the existential threat of unstoppable rising seas, will they finally decide to get serious about climate action? Or will the words of Jesus once again ring true – with people “eating, drinking, and marrying … right up to the day Noah entered the ark?”

Note: For further reading, see an excellent article titled Goodbye, Miami, written by Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/why-the-city-of-miami-is-doomed-to-drown-20130620?page=3

4 thoughts on “Why Miami is Doomed

  1. Darren

    Kind of a random question Do they have to take out flood insurance in Miami? I had read after Sandy that there was talk that FEMA might no longer subsidize flood insurance in certain parts of the country. Of course when FEMA gives subsidized flood insurance to people in Miami, it’s really the tax payer who is stuck holding the tab and who is left assuming the risk.

  2. John Elwood Post author

    Darren, we’ve written several times about the National Flood Insurance Program, which was revised last year after the $20 billion deficit after Katrina and Sandy. Yes, there were plans to severely limit access to NFIP for repeat-flood properties, and to revise flood maps, as well as increase premiums. Last I knew, however, many in Congress were trying to undo some of these changes, as constituents on the waterfront were howling. Do you know what the current status is?

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