Check Out Miami Beach's Storm Sewers...
(This article, the first in a three-part series, was written on assignment for WhoWhatWhy News)
Miami Beach -– Len Berry was relaxing with colleagues on a hotel patio here one evening last October when one of them shouted, “Look! It’s happening!” Peering over the railing, the group could see water pushing up onto the street below from storm sewer drains – something that thanks to sea level rise has been happening with increasing frequency in this low-lying resort city. Berry, director of Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Environmental Studies, says he and the others were in town to attend a conference on climate change when they got this first-hand view of the crisis.
Far north of Florida, skeptics of the chaos caused by climate change are rare. The denizens of Alaska, Siberia, Scandinavia, Greenland and northern Canada have been witnessing firsthand the frightening effects of a rapidly heating Earth: Lakes and shallow seas bubbling with methane, the Arctic Ocean’s icecap shrinking, soon to vanish altogether in summer, “drunken forests” whose tree roots once sat firmly atop permafrost, now wobbling helplessly on mud. They know what’s happening.
But in America’s Lower 48, there are still plenty of climate-change naysayers. In Florida, you will find fewer and fewer of them, though, especially along the state’s long, low-lying coastline. The evidence of climate change is getting harder to ignore down here, too.
The playground city of Miami Beach may seem an unlikely place to spot such radical changes. But at its greatest elevation this heavily developed island sits just four feet above mean sea level. Much of the land is even lower and these days it gets inundated when the tide is high.
I went there earlier this month to check out a 10-block stretch of Alton Road, also known as State Road 907. It is a massive construction project at the moment, with the pavement all torn up and removed, and huge sections of concrete conduit stacked along the closed roadway, where they will eventually be laid in place well below sea level.
The reason for this hugely disruptive $38-million, one-to-two-year project is that this road, at an elevation of about one foot above current mean sea level, has become routinely subject to flooding.
During the so-called “King Tides” in spring and fall, when moon and sun are aligned to produce the highest tides, the rising sea pushes its way up through the storm sewer and drains onto the street.
Thanks to melting polar ice and a warming ocean the local sea level is up about 10” since the 1930s, when the original storm drains were installed. As a result, this flooding has lately been happening with ordinary high tides—even in December when high tides are lowest.