Keeping the Runway Dry (and Other Florida Key Battles Against the Sea)

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn, Your Climate Stories

Editor’s Note: The climate challenges being faced by Southern Florida communities were featured this week as part of a special series on Cities by ClimateWire, an online publication of E&E Publishing LLC. Today Planet Change shares some highlights of these stories, which included perspectives from one of The Nature Conservancy’s experts in Florida.

The views from Chris Bergh’s neighborhood include a lush forest that slowly gives way along its low-lying edges to a mangrove swamp. It’s an unfolding transition of the landscape that he expects to continue in the coming decades as the sea overtakes the land.

A Nature Conservancy scientist and program director who works on climate change in Florida’s Monroe County, which includes most of the Florida Keys and some of the Everglades, Bergh hasn’t given up on finding solutions to sea level rise and other challenges from climate change. In fact, he’s put an addition on the house where he lives with his family on Big Pine Key.

Engineered solutions to holding back the water, such as levees and sea walls, are less effective in South Florida because of its geology of porous limestone.

“If you put in a sea wall, the water would just flow underneath it and seep up through the ground,” said Bergh, according to Monday’s ClimateWire article, “Key West ponders a submerged future.”

Bergh is serving as vice chairman of an advisory committee that is working on a county climate change plan that seeks to address many issues facing the Keys.

The Nature Conservancy works with local governments and other partners to help coastal communities prepare,  and Conservancy scientists are working to understand the value of natural infrastructure, such as mangroves and oyster reefs, in absorbing waves that batter coastlines during storms and high tides. Another strategy that may be included in the Monroe County plan is controlled burning of vulnerable trees to make their roots more resilient against surges of salt water.

Climate models show that with global warming, South Florida could experience as much as a 7-inch-increase in sea levels by 2030, and up to about three feet by 2100, with a number of different possibilities in between. So officials in Southern Florida aren’t exactly sure how bad things could get. But inundation of low-lying areas and ongoing battles with sea water intrusion are expected.

As Monroe County considers a climate plan, officials in Key West are worried about their international airport, a crucial link to the mainland for residents and tourists alike. High tides, not to mention wind-driven waves from storms, now frequently challenge the ability of pumps to remove the water, on this farthest-flung of the Florida Keys, sitting between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean and emerging only 3-4 feet above sea level in most places.

“I’ve been here since 1988, and it’s getting harder and harder to move the water out of here,” Peter Horton, director of airports told ClimateWire reporter Christa Marshall. “I’m very concerned about the long-term prognosis for this airport and the rest of Key West.”

Stay tuned to Planet Change to learn more about the solutions pursued by South Florida’s communities to stay above water.

Lisa Hayden is a blogger for The Nature Conservancy.

Featured photo by: Flickr user PMC 1stPix (An osprey nest in a partially submerged tree along the Long Beach coastline, Big Pine Key, Florida).

Inset photo by: Flickr user Florida Keys–Public Libraries (Key West International Airport, where intruding pools of water must often be pumped.)

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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