Florida is 'Ground Zero' for sea level rise and other climate threats

MIAMI BEACH (AFP) - Warm sunshine and sandy beaches make south Florida and its crown city, Miami, a haven for tourists, but the area is increasingly endangered by sea level rise, experts said Tuesday.

During a special Senate hearing held in Miami Beach, Senator Bill Nelson described south Florida as "Ground Zero" for climate change and its threats to coastal communities.

The perils for Miami are particularly concerning because it has the most assets at stake in the world in terms of assets like homes, beachfront hotels and businesses, according to the World Resources Institute, a global research firm.

Not only is there US$14.7 billion (S$18.47 billion) in beachfront property, but Miami is also home to the world's fourth largest population of people vulnerable to sea level rise, the WRI said.

Nearly 20 million people live in the entire state of Florida, and about three quarters live on the coast, said Nelson.

The waters around south Florida are rising fast. The Florida coast has already seen 30 centimeters of sea rise since 1870. Another 23 to 61 centimeters are anticipated by 2060, said the WRI.

Miami is located just 1.22 meters above sea level.

"We are on this massive substrate of limestone and coquina rock which is porous and infused by water," Nelson said at the hearing, held on the 44th anniversary of Earth Day.

"You could put up a dyke but it is not going to do any good," he added, describing the land beneath Florida as "like Swiss cheese."

"So we have to come up with new, innovative kinds of solutions," said Nelson, a Democratic senator who was born in Miami.

The mayor of Miami Beach, Philip Levine, said residents are commonly seen wading through knee-deep waters to get to their homes and businesses during high tides and floods.

"This reality is not acceptable and it is getting worse," said Levine.

Officials are investigating the use of tidal control valves and new water pumps to improve drainage, with three pumps planned for installation before October's high tides, Levine said.

"We are projecting the cost of being anywhere from three and four hundred million dollars," he said. Discussions are also under way on urban designs and city plans that could better equip the area for rising sea levels, he said.