‘All you can do is get out of its way’

South Florida is perpetually in the news as a poster child of the perils of sea level rise — and the lack of action on the distant, but inevitable problem. Just this week, a study came out showing the oceans are rising at the fastest rate in 28 centuries.

Local expert John Englander, an oceanographer, consultant, and president of the International Sea Level Institute, has made it his mission with his book High Tide on Main Street to make people wake up to the perils of sea level rise.

The book explains the scientific evidence of sea level rise, what coastal cities like Miami ought to expect, and how cities far away coastlines might be impacted.  

We spoke to Englander about what can be done to prepare for the rising seas.

Why did you write
High Tide on Main Street?

Well, I’ve been concerned with the environment my whole life, but for the past 15 to 20 years, I’ve been trying to figure out climate change, both as a scientist and for myself. I was always interested in how to communicate science to the public. When I was in Greenland, suddenly it was very clear to me — as the ocean heats up, the ice on the planet melts, and that raises the sea level and moves the shoreline up.

It’s a very clear picture of climate change, and I thought that if I could explain that, it might clarify some of the confusion surrounding climate change. The book was published three years ago, and since then I’ve been speaking and trying to explain that to different audiences.

What are some short-term and long-term solutions Miami and Miami Beach should consider?

We need to do two things: slow global warming and plan for sea level rise, because the planet is already warmer and that can’t be reversed quickly. We need to do everything possible to slow the warming, but we also need to adapt to the rising seas.

There are a few things you can do to adapt to sea level rise, but they are limited. If the ocean is going to be three feet higher, all you can do is get out of its way — that means either elevating, relocating, or putting in pumps for short-term flooding.

Places can flood because of a combination of the cycle of the full moon, high tide, storm surges, rainfall, or sea level rise. Unlike some of the other factors that contribute to flooding, sea level rise doesn’t ever go down, it keeps rising for centuries. So when the sea level is higher, the next tide is going to be higher.

While other factors that contribute to flooding are temporary, sea level rise is permanent.  

What the City of Miami Beach is doing is prepare for the temporary flooding that happens is a good short-term measure — and it is going to make things better for a decade or two or longer.

Miami Beach is a little bit ahead of Miami, because they’ve been putting in pumps and raising streets. That’s really all they can do in the short term.

The City of Miami recently appointed its own sea level rise committee and a sustainability director, that is a step forward. Another thing the city can do is elevate buildings. For example, the Pérez Art Museum Miami was elevated so that when there is temporary flooding from high tides, the building is not affected.

In the long term, we’re hoping for some new technology that can address permanent flooding. Perhaps someday we’ll be able to inject grout into the porous rock, or maybe lift the city up and put a membrane over it — but those solutions are just not realistic. The county is doing the things it can right now, but in the long-term there is a much bigger problem.

What can individuals do to adapt?

Elevate your homes and install pumps if you are in a low-lying area. Sea level rise comes from the melting of the ice sheets, and that’s going to continue because the oceans are already warmer. People have to understand that slowing global warming and climate change comes from slowing greenhouse emissions, but that won’t stop sea level rise. The oceans are already 1.5 degrees warmer, and the ice sheets are already melting.

Covers-HTOMS-RSLCCC tight
Courtesy of www.johnenglander.net

If the long term impacts of sea level rise are inevitable, why is there a development and real estate boom right now?

In condos, which is what most of those new buildings are, the developers are only there for the time it takes to design, permit, and sell the building. The people who buy those condos and apartment buildings are on the hook for much longer.

I can’t make a blanket statement about when the concern for sea level rise will affect real estate values, but at the moment it doesn’t seem to be a problem. I don’t know when property values will be affected because Miami is a hot area —  people want to move in right now.

Who knows when the public will get concerned about more frequent flooding. That was the point “The siege of Miami,” Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent New Yorker article. There’s also couple of famous articles by Jeff Goodell, like “Goodbye, Miami published in the Rolling Stone, about when property values might be affected.

It could be during the hurricane season when flooding is more frequent. But it’s a psychological issue more than anything, because sea level rise is slow — it just kind of creeps along.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. A previous version incorrectly described a new study on the rate of sea level rise, it has been amended.