Research In Action 2021

Photo Research in Action Jeffrey Huber

Reconstructing Miami's Salty Skyline

Jeffrey Huber
Associate Professor, School of Architecture,
Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters

1. What are the best trees for absorbing water in Florida?    

This is a somewhat difficult question due to the issues surrounding research and study of subtropical species found in south Florida. However, there is much known that mangroves, especially red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle), are superb for saltwater areas as is the green buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus). When it comes to freshwater species that can tolerate a certain level of saltwater the gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba) and seagrape (Coccoloba uvifera) will fair well. Where saltwater is not a challenge there are several varieties like, coastalplain willow (Salix caroliniana), red maple (Acer rubrum), pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens), bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), strangler fig (Ficus aurea), live oak (Quercus virginiana), and mahogany (Swietenia mahagonl). These are the best natives to address stormwater.

2. I live on Fort Lauderdale Beach. The Commission is still both considering and approving buildings on the beach that have underground parking. I would appreciate your commenting on this.    

Underground parking can be achieved, but at great expense and energy use to continue to pump the ground water out. The burning of fossil fuels is what precipitated rising seas due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The commission cannot prevent developments that are simply doing what is allowed by code/zoning – that would require codes or zoning to change should the local community not want underground parking.

3. Is sea-level rise happening now? How much longer before it’s impacting more and more of us?    

Sea level is currently rising. As demonstrated in my presentation, it has risen about 10 inches since the early 1900s. The main issue though is that it will continue to rise and become more accelerated over time. This is why you see projects for only 17 inches by 2040, 40 inches by 2070 and 92 inches by 2100. Essentially it will double every 30 years based on the current projections from the South Florida Regional Climate Change Compact's 2019 Unified Projections that can be accessed here.

4. Are sea levels rising the same all over the world, as if we're filling a giant bathtub?   

Generally speaking yes, but due to geography, ocean temperatures and tidal variations, it can deviate from region to region. Interestingly, there is a three-foot difference in sea level from the east coast of Florida to the Bahamas due to the current and ocean temperatures.

5. Why are sea levels rising? Can we stop them?    

Sea is rising due to the presence of greenhouse gasses (GHG) in the atmosphere. Particularly GHG, like carbon dioxide and methane are the major contributors. These GHG allow for heat to build up in the atmosphere, thus melting land-based icesheets and glaciers. We know that the potential of sea rise is 212 feet above the current level because this is how much ice on land, if melted, would rise seas. John Englander in his new book, “Moving to Higher Ground,” is a great resource to understand the science. In this book he mentions that roughly 20 feet of potential sea rise is stored on Greenland and roughly 190 feet are stored in the ice on Antarctica. Another two feet is stored within icesheets and glaciers in all other areas of the globe. This is why you hear about Greenland and Antarctica since they are critical in understanding how much and how fast seas will rise. There is also the transfer of heat into the oceans – think of the ocean as a battery that stores immense amounts of energy. Once the oceans are warmed to a critical tipping point it could have profound effects on sea and terrestrial life.

Unfortunately, we cannot stop seas from rising. We have bought into a certain amount of sea level rise, if not the full 212 feet of it. The thinking we should have now is “can we slow it to a point where we are able to adapt effectively?” The fact that the ocean has warmed and continues to warm will persist and it takes much longer to cool the ocean unlike the atmosphere. Even the most aggressive cutting of GHG will not stop seas from rising, but will slow the rise potentially.

6. Will Florida eventually disappear under water?    

No, not entirely. The seas can only rise by 212 feet, so Orlando may become ocean front property in the future. If you look at maps from the early Pliocene some five million years ago, it shows generally the last time an extreme warming event occurred that melted ice on land.

7. How many people will be displaced by rising seas?    

Globally the number is quite high potentially. That is why it is important to start planning now. In South Florida that number is in the millions of residents who will be displaced by rising seas over the next 100 years if we continue building the way we do. Salty urbanism questions our assumptions of how we live currently and asks us to recalibrate our lifestyles to living with, on and over water. This will surely have consequences regarding how we see property and plan for transportation, but could make our region a unique and desirable destination or place to live.

8. Will sea-level rise harm our supply of fresh water?    

Yes, it will cause the Biscayne aquifer to be impacted by saltwater intrusion. As seas rise, freshwater at the surface will also become diminished and relegated to freshwater lenses under higher ground as long as there is enough mass to push back lighter saltwater. Also, it is important to note that south Florida will be more like the Florida Keys.

9. Will property values be affected by sea-level rise?    

Yes, absolutely. We are already seeing evidence of this in other areas of the country. Especially since flood insurance is required or unobtainable for some properties now and in the future. Banks would not lend money for mortgages, etc. And city utilities would be cut off with no access to fire, water, police, sewer, etc. All these things will contribute to loss of property value.

10. I see windmills as energy providers. That's an unsustainable energy. Is that going to be in combination with electric and gas? Intermittent energy?    

Windmills, solar, OTEC (ocean thermal energy conversion), tidal and other alternative energy sources will need to be considered. Redundant, diverse and decentralized energy grids will become more normal in the future.

11. How high will sea-level rise go? Or will it eventually stop?    

See above, 212 feet.

12. Do you have a projected cost to implement your toolboxes in the specified area in Fort Lauderdale?    

The cost is comparable to current infrastructure. Unlike a pipe, a plant gets better with age. Fort Lauderdale understands that more than many other communities. However, the proposed solutions and toolboxes will need to be tailored specifically to a neighborhood. Some may be more costly than others, but evidence suggests that for every $1 spent on resiliency efforts upfront saves $6 post disaster a study by the NIBS (National Institute of Building Sciences) found.

13. Would there be concern for water snakes going into each habitat island?    

No different than there is now. But obviously using natural and nature-based features in our infrastructure and built environment would create habitat and refuge for all animal life, including that of the predators of snakes.

14. Will boats become as common as cars are today?    

Boats will absolutely be a part of any future transportation systems. Currently in Fort Lauderdale, it is not very common, but historically was the primary means of travel, with rail and cars coming in later.

15. Would Cypress trees mitigate flooding risks for homes?    

Yes, see comments from question three above.

16. Do you have recommendations for information to share with HOAs that want to remove shade trees and replace them with palm trees?    

Shade canopy will be more critical as future temperatures will get hotter. This is why Miami has a chief heat officer. Not having a plan for shade trees will be a big mistake.