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Flooding Cities: Why Rising Sea Levels will Sink Florida
8 Minute Read
Kevin Forestell headshot
Kevin Forestell
October 21, 2019

Why Rising Sea Levels are Sinking Florida and Miami Beach


And it is not alone.

Cities all over the world are being affected by rising sea levels caused by changes in our oceans. “Mid-range predictions” indicate that sea levels could rise as much at 19 inches (1.58 feet) by 2050.

Our love of coastal cities and ocean views is almost ingrained in us as humans. 40% of the world’s population lives within 100km (62 miles) of the coast. In the US, almost 5 million people live in homes less than 4 feet above high tide. While property values and beautiful developments have reflected the status of living by the coast, the sea-side living is in danger of extinction.

Florida cities like Miami are built on limestone are are at sea level. They are at great risk of flooding with rising sea levels.  Image borrowed from  Business Insider .


Florida cities like Miami are built on limestone are at sea level. They are at great risk of flooding with rising sea levels.  Image borrowed from Business Insider.

Hundreds of coastal cities around the world are at risk of flooding. 5 of the 20 urban areas that will be affected by rising sea levels and flooding in the US are Florida cities. They include St Petersburg, Tampa, Miami, Miami Beach and Panama City. By 2100, an estimated loss of $413 billion in property is predicted, as one in eight homes in Florida is expected to be underwater.

What Does Rising Sea Levels Mean For Florida

Rising sea levels is not a “what if” topic. It is a fact. It is actively happening and demands our attention. Florida in particular is at risk not only because of its man-made coastal regions and low-lying urban areas, but also because it sits on a bed of porous limestone.

What this means is that as ocean levels rise, the water will seep into the bedrock under Florida cities and rise up through the pores of the stone. This causes flooding in sewers, storm drains and even sink and shower drains within residential houses and commercial buildings.

The Fallout of Flooding

The impact of flooding is varied and will affect more than just the people living on the coast. An article from National Geographic cites a study done by Bruce Douglas. Mr. Douglas is a coastal researcher at Florida International University. His study calculated that for every inch of sea-level rise, eight feet of horizontal beach shoreline will be lost due to erosion. Beaches all along the coasts of Florida, and outside of the state, are at risk of being destroyed altogether. But the result of rising ocean levels goes beyond the ability of locals and tourists to walk in the sand.

Flooded sewer systems will carry bacteria and waste into the streets while excess water impacts both the structure and foundation of residential and commercial buildings. The health, safety, sanitation, and living areas for hundreds – if not thousands – if people will be impacted.

The state of Florida has 2.6 million septic systems – 12% of all septic systems in the entire country. It is a system of waste removal that cannot function properly in wet and flooded areas. The cost to convert these septic systems into a centralized sewer system would be in the billions.

Roads, sidewalks, piers and boardwalks are all at risk of damage as constant flooding will undermine their foundations.

Non-salt agriculture and fauna will be destroyed as salty seawater invades their soil systems.  As saltwater floods and seeps into all water systems, water used to irrigate farmland and crops as well as groundwater and other drinking water sources would be at risk of contamination by saltwater.

Adaptation to rising sea levels will take more than relocating people inland; It will affect the way infrastructure is built, water is stored, and crops are grown both in Florida and in other coastal regions of the US and the world. This crisis demands a complete overhaul in how cities are planned, organized and built, let alone the lifestyle trends that those living in the cities are used to.

Reclaimed VS Man-Made Cities

The Netherlands is a country that reclaimed about ⅓ of its entire landmass from the sea. Unlike Miami which was built up from the ocean, The Netherlands was designed by pumping seawater out to expose the ground on which to build up the country. With a complex system of dykes, dams, pumps, and barriers to help keep the land separate from the sea, the anti-flooding system in the Netherlands is set up to protect the country from rising sea levels. It is the most complex anti-flood system in the world.

The Netherlands Before and After Land Reclamation. Map borrowed from  Brilliant Maps .


The Netherlands Before and After Land Reclamation.
Map borrowed from Brilliant Maps.

Miami is was made in the opposite way: it was built by mounding up land until it stood above sea level. Miami Beach is actually 100% man-made. But the creation of these city spaces was done without rising sea levels in mind. They do not have the same preventative systems in place as a country like The Netherlands. They are not created to stand up against the level of rising sea levels expected in Florida areas.

Miami Condos conducted a study to analyze areas in Miami and discover which areas would be at risk of flooding in the coming years. They created a graphic to visually represent how it could look. This study tells us two things:

  1. This phenomenon is not a surprise for those in the business of building. If a condo company is looking into rising sea levels, the reality of the influence that it will have on real estate, housing prices, and building patterns is sure to follow. There will be no denying it when it happens.
  2. Real action is needed to help prepare people in these areas for the future and it needs to be taken now. Updating building codes, support for relocation, or setting up a plan with insurance companies to help those who will be affected by flooding are action items that cannot happen soon enough.
Map showing rising sea levels in Miami and its impact.


Map showing rising sea levels in Miami and its impact. Graphic borrowed from Miami Condo.
Condos that would be affected at 2 feet of sea level rise – RED ZONE
Condos that would be affected at 3 feet of sea level rise – Yellow
Condos that would be affected at 4 feet of sea level rise – Blue

What Causes Rising Sea Levels?

The short answer for this global flooding crisis is climate change.

The longer answer is that rising temperatures around the globe are melting glaciers and ice sheets. The warming temperature is heating ocean water, causing thermal expansion which increases the actual volume of the ocean. The melting of glaciers and icecaps into the ocean is slowing down the Gulf Stream which impacts Florida in particular in many ways.

Melting Ice 

It has long been known that the ice caps are melting. As glaciers and ice sheets continue to melt, additional larger ice sheets are weakened and become more prone to melting as well. More and more water is flowing down into oceans from these enormous, previously frozen sheets of land ice.

In fact, an estimated 1,700 trillion pounds of meltwater flows from land out to the sea every year. That’s the same as dropping 800,000 ice Empire State Buildings into the ocean. Melting ice is contributing to about half of global sea-level rise and mainly comes from Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets.

Warming Water

Thermal expansion is the scientific term for expanding water. It’s similar to how a pot of water can boil over as its molecules expand when heated. There is a 1.2-degree difference in the temperature of the ocean from 1950 to today. That small difference has resulted in over 6 inches if sea level rise A study from NASA found that half of sea-level rise in the past 25 years comes from thermal expansion. The same study found that these levels are now accelerating quicker than predicted. As water temperatures continue to go up, so will sea levels.

The Gulf Stream

The Gulf Stream is a section of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation current (Amcoc) that comes in and out of the Gulf of Mexico. The current carries warm water from the tropics up towards the north pole, where it cools and sinks before flowing back down towards the south, where it warms, rises, and then flows back north again.

Graphic showing the flow of water in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation current  Graphic borrowed from  The Daily Mail UK


Graphic showing the flow of water in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation current. Graphic borrowed from The Daily Mail UK

The Gulf Stream is currently at its weakest point in 1,600 years: 15% weaker than it was in the mid 1900’s. The impact of this is that water moves slower, gets warmer, and contributes to both rising sea levels for Florida, stronger hurricanes in the future and potentially more intense cases of Red Tide.

As the Stream slows, water sinks at a reduced rate which causes a pile-up of water within the Gulf and along the East Coast. The water that will be accumulating on “top” will become warmer than normal since it has come up from the tropics and sitting in the Gulf of Mexico where the sun is hot. It will be spending more time in this area and move slowly towards the north, meaning more hot water for the Florida area. One impact of this is that the already vulnerable Florida is susceptible to more intense hurricanes since hurricanes absorb warmer water at quicker rates.

The other impact of the slowing Gulf Stream is the severity of the Red Tide. Becoming more and more destructive every year, warming ocean waters is believed by scientists to be a big part of the worsening Red Tide. If the Gulf and water surrounding Florida is predicted to warm up every year, then Red Tide will grow with it.

Not only are sea creatures, birds and animals at risk of a growing Red Tide, but the toxin created by the algae is carried in the air and causes respiratory problems in people living inland. If seawater rises, bringing red tide closer to highly populated areas, the prevalence of these problems is positioned to grow.

Everyone Will Be Impacted By Rising Sea Levels

Whether you believe in climate change or not, the reality of rising sea levels cannot be ignored. Construction in coastal cities – both within Florida and outside of it – will need to adapt in order to better prepare – both reactively now and proactively in the future – to the impact of climate change and rising sea levels.

Building a sea wall is not going to be enough; the makeup of South Florida, in particular, is at too great of a risk to be avoided with such a simple solution. In fact, a simple is no longer an option.

Changes to building codes and potential mass migration of Florida residences inland could greatly impact Florida construction. These building codes are coming as Florida governments are being pushed to limit spending on coastal builds and, instead, to toughen up on existing standards for tropical storms, hurricanes, and flooding. Recognition of the dangers in coastal investments and buildings will help move building projects inland. This is a trend already being seen within the construction industry. Florida construction company Coastal Construction is moving its business to Orlando and North Florida. Farmers like Ten Mothers Farm are purchasing land away from the coast and moving inland.

What should we do now?

Looking for an easy solution is not the way to address this problem. Doing so with short-term fixes is also not the way to address it. Long-term, costly, and data-driven decisions are the only way to address the rising sea level trend.

Adjustments to building materials, code requirements, or banned areas for new development are three ways that construction companies in Florida may be impacted by this trend. The kind of repairs and projects may also be changing over the next few years; flood damage, infrastructure repair, or repurposing sewers and drainage systems are projects which may become more popular. Multi-dwelling buildings such as condos and apartments may become more popular as the drive to house more people inland impacts the type of projects that become available in certain areas. Don’t be surprised if a previously underdeveloped area suddenly has an influx of interest; As the coast becomes less inhabitable, development in new areas is inevitable. People must live somewhere.

The Gist Of It

As sea levels rise, coastal cities all around the world are at risk of flooding. Mass migration of people from coats into inner cities and inland residences could impact the look and feel out these places. Health concerns associated with rising sea levels and temperatures, as well as the requirement for new building codes, water storage, and drinking-water treatment, are only a few examples of what will need to take to address the fallout of the phenomenon of rising sea levels.

What is made clear from this trend is that the consequences of a single thing – like flooding – is always way more complicated than it may seem. Those who are able to think long term, look for long-term solutions, and tackle the problem without a “quick fix” mentality will be the most successful in the future.

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Kevin Forestell headshot
Kevin Forestell
Kevin Forestell is CEO of DOZR and one of the co-founders. Kevin first got started as an entrepreneur when he founded Forestell Landscaping right after graduating from University. His love and passion for the industry and desire to help solve an equipment problem that contractors faced every day is what brought the founding team to start DOZR. Kevin is proud of the level of efficiency brought to the industry through DOZR and hopes that DOZR will help change the standard way equipment is rented.
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