Mary Lightner, of Easley, South Carolina, writes:
Can you tell me what specific effect climate change is expected to have on Florida? We are considering moving there in retirement. What areas would be the safest?
Laura Geselbracht, senior marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy in Florida, replies:
While there is still some uncertainty regarding the specific effects climate change will have on Florida, the latest projections suggest the state will experience:
* higher temperatures (3 to 10°F),
* more frequent and intense rain storms,
* more frequent and intense periods of drought,
* sea level rise,
* coastal flooding,
* increased storm surge,
* accelerated erosion of beaches,
* saltwater intrusion into important aquifers, and
* increases in tropical insect-born diseases.
One of the most certain and significant impacts to Florida will be sea level rise. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted global sea level would rise by 7 to 23 inches by the end of the century. This prediction is now considered conservative.
Studies that have factored in the melting of polar ice caps predict sea levels could rise by 3 to 6 feet over the same period. Florida is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise due to its extensive low elevation coastal areas (more than 3,000 square miles under 3 feet in elevation)—where most of Florida's residents currently live.
The safest areas to live in Florida will be the highest elevation areas set far enough back from the coast to avoid storm surge and intrusion of salt water into aquifers supplying potable water. Excessive heat and related impacts can be minimized by living in the northern portion of the state.
And Evan Girvetz, senior scientist with the Conservancy's Global Climate Change Program, adds the following:
I agree with Laura: Sea level rise and increased storm surges are certainly the biggest ways climate change will impact people living in Florida.
Southeast Florida (Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Palm Beach) leads the nation in current potential financial losses due to storm surges at $53.6 billion, according to a recent study by a private risk-assessment company. (Jacksonville and Tampa rank 7th and 3rd—by comparison, New Orleans ranks 6th.)
Based on climate change projection maps, Gainesville and Tallahassee are the major cities that will not be directly impacted, while some areas, such as southeast Florida, are likely to be extensively inundated with water. If you find a city along the coast where you might want to live, you can identify the most protected areas by looking at local maps of storm surge risk provided by the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
While all this sounds grim, there are actions that can be taken to protect people from the impacts of climate change. Nature conservation plays a big role in protecting people through what we call ecosystem-based adaptation strategies to climate change.
What are adaptation strategies? In short, they are ways of planning for the potential impacts of climate change. For example, protecting coastal wetlands and shellfish reefs now can help to reduce future storm surges and the impacts of sea level rise. The Nature Conservancy's Coastal Resilience Program is working with local communities to assist in coastal planning and management decisions to lower the risk from sea level rise and coastal hazards.
And if you end up moving to Florida, I would encourage you to learn more about local, state and national efforts to plan for climate change, and help to bring good information about effective ecosystem-based adaption to those efforts.
Originally posted in November 2010.