Sea level, hurricanes and Tampa

“Hurricane Isabel from ISS,” Image courtesy of Mike Trenchard, Earth Sciences & Image Analysis Laboratory , Johnson Space Center. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My parents lived in Florida for six months a year over nearly twenty-five years, and other family members have lived there for longer, so it’s a state that I love. I think that the West Coast is a particularly beautiful place, where you can kayak through a river with alligators in the morning, before finishing the day on the beach looking for the green flash.  As I’ve talked about before, though, I don’t think Florida as a state has sufficiently acted upon the reality of sea level rise. Florida is not unique, as cities like Jakarta and Shanghai wrestle with the same issue. Still, Florida has to deal with a double threat, because it has to worry not only about the rising waters but also the implications this has for hurricanes. The 1935 Hurricane devastated Key West. While people are aware of how vulnerable South Florida is to a hurricane, though, perhaps the greatest threat is in the Tampa Bay area. Darryl Fears has a new article titled, “Tampa Bay’s Coming Storm,” in the Washington Post. As Fears points out, the sea level may rise “between six inches and more than two feet by the middle of the century, and up to seven feet when it ends. On top of that, natural settling is causing the land to slowly sink.”

Kolin Pope’s wonderful illustrations are stark, and have moving elements that make them look more like a video. There is also a brief video (with a 15 second advertisement at the start), which places what would happen if a hurricane hit Tampa in context. The images of the water level even during a category three hurricane are chilling. The video also makes clear that there are public policy steps that might make the Tampa Bay area more resilient. Still, Florida cannot overcome the larger challenge of sea level rise on its own. There also needs to be a profound change in awareness. Like many people who’ve spent time in Florida, I’ve known a home that I’ve loved on the water to be torn down to be replaced by a huge mansion. As a society, we should be planning a retreat from sea front property, but property values only seem to increase. The first step towards change is acknowledging reality, but that’s hard to do when so much property and money is at risk. This storyboard may be one step in a long journey that will help Florida to make the necessary choices about its future.

Of course, many other regions have to worry about this issue, including southern British Columbia. Crawford Killian has a provocative article on this topic in the Tyee: “Are We Ready for a ‘Managed Retreat’ from the Coasts — and from the Forests?”  

Killian paints a bleak picture for the south mainland around Vancouver, which he describes in the following quote.

“In Vancouver, we’re especially at risk along the shores of the North Arm of the Fraser, False Creek, and the harbour itself. No one wants to write off the billions invested in those neighbourhoods. Then again, the hobby farms of Southlands and the condos of False Creek may be uninsurable by, say, 2040. About that time, YVR will be a tidal marsh, and maybe the world’s biggest clam garden.”

What this quote suggests is the difficulty of these conversations, because often the land most at risk is also the most cherished. While Canada does not have hurricanes, it does have wildfires, which can devastate entire cities as happened last year in Fort McMurray, Alberta. How do we balance peoples’ desire to live in forested areas, with the risks to entire communities? How will people remember the communities that are abandoned to nature?

Shawn Smallman, 2017

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