By County Commissioner Xavier Suarez

Sea level rise is a global phenomenon that is affecting every country in the world, but the impact of sea level rise on South Florida is unique.

South Florida is experiencing an exponential rise in sea-level due to our proximity to the Gulf Stream, along with seasonal tidal fluctuations. These factors, in conjunction with the three generic factors that contribute to sea level rise (thermal expansion, melting of ice caps, and geologic activity that affects ocean depth) are creating additional challenges and uncertainties for the region. These unique geographical phenomena must be taken into consideration when we analyze data trends in sea level rise.

South Florida is so unpredictable that we actually see significant variations in sea level measurements depending on the specific geographic location. For example, when we make a quantitative reference of 3 millimeters per year (0.12 inches) of sea level rise, we are referring to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data obtained in either Key West or Cedar Key.

Unfortunately, the data we have been collecting at the Virginia Key NOAA is exponentially higher. Although the discrepancies in data varying from site to site seem minimal, the effect of this trend over a large span of time could become significant. Therefore, Miami-Dade County must take extraordinary precautions.

The NOAA has found that sea levels have risen in South Florida at an average rate of 0.21 inches per year since 1996, with data trending closer to 0.36 inches per year within the past decade. This data is measured by a sea-level gauge tube on the dock of the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS), and through buoys, which could be reflective of the effect of the Gulf Stream.

The Gulf Stream is a powerful, warm current of water that flows by the tip of South Florida and continues northward along the eastern coastline of the United States. The current then makes its way across the Atlantic Ocean toward Greenland, where cold water from the glaciers cools the current and slows it down through reverse pressure of the melting ice caps.

It is uncertain whether or not the identified changes in the speed and height of the Gulf Stream will continue to fluctuate and what specific role the Gulf Stream is playing in uniquely affecting South Florida’s sea-level rise. For the time being, policymakers must tackle the issue by developing adaptation and mitigation plans that take into account the impacts of sea-level rise on Miami.

It is evident from measurements taken at Virginia Key that sea-level rise is having a greater effect on Miami. It is probable that the inconsistency is the result of changes in the speed and height of the Gulf Stream. The coupling of the three generic factors, with the proximity to a changing Gulf Stream, makes South Florida so unpredictable that even the top experts in the field hold differing opinions. Given the substantial impact of sea-level rise on Miami, it is imperative that we analyze data cautiously and prepare accordingly.

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