How to Make Florida Disappear (Not That You'd Want To)

I spent a recent all-too-brief vacation along the southwest coast of Florida, and for those who've never ventured down, let me share a few observations.  First, it’s really, really nice down there.  A few warm and sunny March days spent tooling around beaches, the Everglades and the labyrinths of bays and keys make for a happy tourist.  But here’s the problem: it’s really low and flat along that coast.  It was hard not to imagine what it would be like if a big hurricane were to pass through.  Coastal surges and wind-whipped waves would surely pay little respect to the expanses of real estate built just a few feet above sea level.  Where mangroves once stood – and migrated as sea levels changed – are now homes and condos.   But what if you were to combine predicted rising sea levels with a direct hurricane strike?  How would the southern Florida coast look then?

Now you can get an alarming preview of that troubling scenario, courtesy of Climate Central’s Surging Seas interactive map.  The nonprofit journalism and research group created the first-ever map that lets you see the combined coastal flood threat from sea level rise and storm surge, town by town and city by city along the entire U.S. mainland coastline.

There are fact sheets for each state that lay out specific threats.  For example, 2.4 million Floridians live less than 4 feet above sea level – more than any other state – placing them at risk from coastal flooding by 2050.  If you increase the height of flooding up to 10 feet, then by 2100 over 5 million acres of Florida would be vulnerable to flooding, affecting nearly 6 million residents.

Other states, in particular Louisiana, also face some big decisions about preparing for future storms and sea level rise.  Emergency management, land use and development, and even protection of freshwater are all issues that most coastal towns in America are going to have to grapple with.

But nowhere are these problems as pressing as they are in the Sunshine State.  After spending just a few minutes playing with the Surging Seas map and reading up on the associated reports, it’s clear that climate change will significantly increase the odds of disastrous coastal flooding.  That means there’s a limited window left to reduce carbon emissions from the world’s mounting energy demand before hundreds of thousands of coastal homeowners in Florida are forced to adapt and reestablish their homes like the mangroves, salt marshes and other coastal ecosystems they supplanted once did.

Of course, the situation back home in New York City isn’t really all that different, where wetlands and wilderness have long since been replacedby skyscrapers and streets.  And, just as in Florida, an estimated 13-inch increase in sea level over the next 40 years is expected to triple the chances of intense flooding.

Still, New York lacks those open coastal expanses that make parts of southern Florida so beautiful, and seeing them on the Surging Seas map coldly exposed to a global warming threat that we can all work to prevent was a bit depressing. But this is what these visualizations are all about – forcing us to look at daunting threats that will be even tougher in reality. Here’s hoping this one inspires policy change that might help avoid such a dire future, so that Florida’s gorgeous coast doesn’t change too much too fast.