Rising sea levels a major threat to Miami area

Junette Reyes/Staff Writer

Forget about Atlantis; give South Florida a few more years of sea-level rise and Miami will definitely be the new “Lost City” of the world. Only this time, it would not be as mythical but as serious as finding our very own FIU to be the new underwater university of the future.

This predicament of the rising sea-level is the focus of the South Florida Water, Sustainability and Climate project, led by FIU’s Dr. Michael Sukop, associate professor in the department of earth and environment. The SFWSC study has been recognized by the National Science Foundation as part of their Water, Sustainability and Climate Program, who has awarded the project a grant of $5 million.

The SFWSC is using an integrative approach to do research on the hydrologic, ecologic, and economic components of managing South Florida’s water in order to understand how plans can be formulated when it comes to decision-making for water management.

“We can’t come up with any kind of definitive, binding plans for people to follow but we can come up with strategies and try to understand the whole process,” said Sukop.

Miami is ranked first in a list of 20 cities worldwide as having the most infrastructures exposed to the sea-level rise and coastal flooding. The value of these economic assets are estimated to be $416.29 billion as reported by the Cities and Climate Change project of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

A currently exposed population of 2,003 puts Miami in ninth place in an additional list of 20 cities. The estimations are projected to only go up from there to the point of year 2070 seeing a little over $3 trillion worth of infrastructures and a population of nearly 5 million exposed to the sea-level rise.

“Sea-level rise is an issue for us in the sense that there has always been seawater intrusion; seawater intrusion means that the saltwater from the ocean comes underground into the wells that supply our water and sea-level rise will make this problem worse,” said Sukop.

The SFWC research team is made up of a group of diverse and multi-disciplined scientists, including hydrologists, engineers, behavioral scientists, economists, ecosystem scientists and landscape ecologists.

According to Sukop, ecologists are focusing on the mangrove forests which are collecting a lot of peat, an organic soil with a lot of carbon, as well as an estuary in the same area that acts as a nursery and feeding ground for fish.

Economists are working on aspects such as the economic valuation of ecosystem services and the value of water for other uses.

Sukop explained, for example, that bringing in more fresh water from Lake Okeechobee, as well as other sources, can possibly hold back the sea water more efficiently.

“But it’s a double-edged sword; to hold the seawater back, we have to raise the water level on the land side but the problem is that the water level is only a few feet or meters down in a lot of places already and by raising the water level to hold the seawater back, you can actually create more flooding problems,” said Sukop.

Behavioral scientists are working on the decision-making aspect of the research, particularly individual valuations of water management and the perception of risk.

The research proposal placed an emphasis on a “hydro-economic optimization model” meant to incorporate the decision-making criteria of water allocation by comprehending the cognitive and perceptual biases in both individual valuations and group decision-making.

“We have people who are behavioral specialists, basically, trying to understand how people make decisions about this; not only just how they make decisions but how, when presented with information in different ways, like the framing of the questions, that changes the possible decisions,”  said Sukop.

As project leader of the study, Sukop has attended what NSF calls “principal investigator” meetings, which involves people that have projects in the WSC program.

“It’s really kind of a pleasure to go up there and hear about everybody else’s but it also allows me to put South Florida’s circumstances into perspective; I can see that we really have some potentially dire circumstances here relative to other places,” said Sukop.

The SFWSC project has a five-year expectancy and is a collaborative effort alongside University of Miami, University of South Florida, University of Florida, Florida State University, University of Central Florida, University of Hawaii, Michigan Technological University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Pennsylvania, and Geodesign Technologies.