The projected sea-level rise of the next quarter-century or so because of climate change will occur, albeit briefly, in Miami Beach next Thursday. On that day, the alignment of the sun, earth and moon will produce a King Tide — the highest high tide of the year, a full foot above normal, or about half the sea level rise Miami is expected to experience by 2060. Construction crews are racing to fit plugs in the city’s stormwater drains that dump into the sea and, suddenly, provide a conduit for rising seawater directly to the streets, and to complete installation of four enormous pumps with which to fight the incoming tide. (By pumping the water where? Um, back into the rising sea. Isn’t that a little like bailing one end of a boat into the other?) Thus we get a preview not just of sea level rise, but of the hapless human response to it.
Actually, the preview has been underway along the entire US East Coast for several years now. A NOAA study released in July found that coastal flooding not only is increasing along the entire East and Gulf Coasts, but the rate of increase is increasing.
Ground zero for this slow-motion disaster is Norfolk, Virginia, where the sea is rising faster than anywhere on the coast and the ground is sinking — not only from geologic subsidence, which is usually named as the culprit, but because of enormous withdrawals of water from the aquifers underlying the land. Turns out those seaside condo high-rises are flushing their own foundations. When it rains at high tide in Norfolk, anything more than a heavy dew, streets and basements flood and the light rail system, just three years old, has to shut down.Norfolk Mayor Paul Frain is in a desperate search for a billion dollars to build seawalls, raise roads and install drains to deal with a disaster that is no longer approaching. It has arrived.
An exhaustive survey of the situation by Reuters, published two weeks ago, found sea level rise well under way from Maine to Florida:
Since 2001, water has reached flood levels an average of 20 days or more a year in Annapolis, Maryland; Wilmington, North Carolina; Washington, D.C.; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Sandy Hook, New Jersey; and Charleston, South Carolina. Before 1971, none of these locations averaged more than five days a year. Annapolis had the highest average number of days a year above flood threshold since 2001, at 34. On the Delmarva Peninsula, the annual average tripled to 18 days at the Lewes, Delaware, tide gauge.
So what is about to happen in Miami is a little like pausing the movie 30 minutes in to look at the trailer again. In this movie’s opening scenes, seawater frequently bubbles up into the city’s streets on perfectly sunny days, swamping streets and damaging businesses. Frantic city administrators looking for help are studiously ignored by state and national politicians who refuse to admit climate change exists and therefore cannot admit that their cities are drowning.
Miami knows it’s going under, but there is little it can do. Seawalls are futile just about everywhere, but especially on Florida’s limestone; it would be like building a dam on top of a sponge. Pumps, even multi-million-dollar pumps that disgorge 7,000 gallons a second, are probably just as futile but Miami has budgeted over 300 million dollars to install 50 of them. Oh, and they’re trying to persuade developers to put new buildings on stilts.
So tune in, next Thursday, for a preview of events that are, as they say, already in progress.
UPDATE: Problem Solved.
The city of Miami Beach demonstrated once again Thursday how technology can always triumph over Mother Nature, holding at bay the sea itself. The city withstood the six hours or so of the King Tide — the annual elevated high tide caused by the proximity of the moon — on top of accumulating sea level rise, without the street flooding that has characterized the event in the past. All it took was $15 million for two enormous pumps each disgorging 7,000 gallons a second, plus months of frantic labor installing them and plugging storm drains at the seaward end.
So the impending disaster of coastal flooding by a rising ocean, further detailed this week in a study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists, has met it match; all we have to do is install one of those pumps about every hundred yards from Miami to Boston. Oh, and did we mention? They will have to run 24/7. Forever.