Sea Levels Worry Floridians
By Mark Weisenmiller
19 August, 2006
TAMPA, Florida, Aug
18 (IPS) - A dramatic rise in sea levels predicted by researchers
at a major U.S. government agency has renewed concerns among scientists
and community planners about the fate of Florida's coastlines.
According to "The Probability
of Sea Level Rise," a study written by two U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) scientists, sea level rises for the southwest Florida area
could range anywhere from 7.1 to 26.9 centimetres by 2025.
The consequences could include
higher hurricane storm surges and saltwater intrusion into freshwater
catches, and, in the longer term, the disappearance of existing coastal
areas and wetlands.
Although the EPA report came
out in 1995, the data sets used to create the models are still valid,
Daniel L. Trescott, the principal planner for the Southwest Florida
Regional Planning Council, told IPS.
The report became a subject
of debate last week when it was widely released for the first time by
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national
alliance of local, state and federal environmental resource professionals.
"We want to get people
to start talking about how their Florida state government will deal
with this," said Trescott, whose main concern is how to mitigate
the potential impacts.
He works with one of 11 regional
planning councils whose public mandate is to serve as a bridge between
communities and their state and local governments.
"There is no question
that growth management in Florida can be controlled by a few people,
such as the governor and some secretaries of state agencies. But it
all comes back to the fact that people want to build their homes near
the water," Trescott said.
The boom in construction
of homes and businesses along Florida's picturesque coasts has had other
negative effects on the state's ecosystems, he said, adding that he
does not believe that the state or federal governments are incorporating
the data on sea levels into their long-range development plans.
In late June, Trescott presented
a report based on the EPA study and data gathered over the last century
by tide gauges in Key West and other sites at the Southwest Florida
Symposium, a meeting of scientists to discuss issues affecting the local
environment that was held in Fort Myers.
According to Trescott's report,
if the rate predicted by the EPA models proves to be accurate, by the
end of this century, the sea level would rise two feet, and an additional
three feet by the end of the 22nd century.
"Tides are increasing
in height," warned Jerry Phillips, director of the Florida division
of PEER. "If we don't do something soon, parts of Florida are going
to end up like Atlantis (the island of Greek legend that became submerged
due to an earthquake)."
Not all scientists agree
with Trescott's predictions.
"Those numbers (from
Trescott's SFS briefing) are somewhat speculative at the present rate
of rises," said Bob Weisberg, a 30-year professor of physical oceanography
at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus.
"But if such things
as global warming and the melting of the icecaps start going at a faster
rate than what is now happening, those numbers are within the realm
of possibility. But those numbers just aren't present in the current
(sea level) data base," he added.
Estimates by the Centre for
Coastal Ecology at Mote Marine Laboratory place the current rate of
sea level rise in the Florida region at two millimetres a year, but
some scientists and environmentalists say this would almost certainly
accelerate due to global warming.
Administrators for the U.S.
Corps of Engineers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection
(FDEP) were invited to the Southwest Florida Symposium, where the data
from Mote was also presented.
"The Corps of Engineers
had a Jacksonville (Florida) attorney representing them in the afternoon
of the second day of the conference but the Corps of Engineers had no
employees there for most of the weekend conference," Trescott said.
The federal agency did not
respond to inquiries to verify Trescott's claim.
Anthony De Luise, spokesman
for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, told IPS that,
"The (EPA) report is being reviewed by people here at the DEP,
but I'm not sure when we will have a comment on it. We're aware of (construction)
growth and the implications of development."
The subject of rising sea
levels is very complex and involves numerous fields, Weisberg explained,
including chemistry, geology and physics. "The average person has
to understand that the physical sciences are constantly changing and
that the level of the sea is going to ebb and flow even without global
warming," he said.
Sea levels between different
areas on Earth vary, sometimes in numbers that are note- worthy to scientists.
For example, the sea levels of Nova Scotia and Florida can differ by
as much as 16 inches.
These variances are related
to a number of factors. James G. Titus and Vijay Narayanan, the two
authors of the EPA report, mention some, including the concentration
of greenhouse gases; climate change-related temperature increases and
thermal expansion; and changes in polar precipitation and in the Arctic,
Antarctic, and Greenland Ice Sheets.
"The Probability of
Sea Level Rise" includes a graph titled "Historic Greenhouse
Contribution to Sea Level, 1880-1990," which shows a massive increase
in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide since the time of the Industrial
It notes that the Earth's
average surface temperature has risen approximately 0.6 degrees C. in
the last century, and the nine warmest years have all occurred since
by the year 2025 could cut the rate of sea level rise in half,"
the authors add. "[But] if a high global rate of emissions growth
occurs in the next century, sea level is likely to rise 6.2 mm/yr by
Their report was written
during the Bill Clinton administration. Since then, Pres. George W.
Bush has abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty to curb
industrialised countries' greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent below
1990 levels by 2008-12.
Meanwhile, another study
released last week in the journal Science found that the Greenland Ice
Sheet, Earth's second-largest reservoir of fresh water, is melting at
three times the rate of the previous five years.
And the impacts of rising
sea levels are already being felt in South Pacific islands like Tonga
and Tuvalu, which have reported sea level rises of 10 centimetres in
just the past dozen years, according to the South Pacific Sea Level
and Climate Monitoring Project.
In Fiji, a group of Pacific
islands comprising 18,250 sq kms, sea level has risen by eight centimetres
and will be at least another 30 centimeters higher by 2050.
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.