Florida has an algae problem, and it’s big. This year, an overgrowth in the waters off the state’s southwestern coast is killing wildlife and making some beaches noxious.
The toxic algal bloom, known as a red tide, is not unusual. They appear off the state’s coast almost every year. But this one, still going strong after roughly nine months, is the longest since 2006, when blooms that originated in 2004 finally abated after 17 months.
The blooms can poison marine animals like sea turtles and manatees, while waves and ocean spray can carry toxins into the air and cause respiratory problems in people.
They can also hit the local tourism industry hard.
“We’re all being really devastated,” said Rachel Wells, 24, who manages an ecotourism business in Englewood, Fla. that runs catamaran tours in the Gulf of Mexico. “Business is just being hurt because we can’t conscientiously suggest for our guests to come out.”
Her company has not done a tour in two weeks, she said, and has temporarily laid off six employees until business picks up again.As for the wildlife, almost 300 sea turtles have been found dead since January in four counties south of Tampa that have been affected by the bloom, far more than the usual number.
Although some of the turtles may have been tangled up in fishing lines, hit by boats or died from diseases unrelated to the algae blooms, Allen Foley, a wildlife biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said he believed that a majority of the turtle deaths were attributable to the red tide.
“It’s a very safe bet,” he said.
Beaches have been covered in dead fish, too, causing a foul smell on top of the respiratory problems that have hit some people, Ms. Wells said.
The blooms generally appear in late summer or early fall and tend to die off sometime before the following summer. In a normal year, factors like winds, currents and competition from other types of algae cause them to dissipate. This time, though, the bloom hasn’t gone away.
These blue-green algae, which appear in the lake almost every year, are promoted by stagnant water, high temperatures and nutrients from sources like fertilizers, said Christopher J. Gobler, professor of marine science at Stony Brook University.
“That lake is heavily impacted by citrus agriculture,” he said.
Climate change is expected to intensify the freshwater algal blooms, according to Timothy Davis, associate professor of biology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
“They really flourish in warm waters,” he said. Also, increased rainfall can bring more nutrients into lakes. “We’re expecting to see larger blooms that last longer and could potentially be more toxic.”
The extent to which climate change is affecting the blooms at sea is unclear. For the red tides off Southwest Florida, researchers “don’t have enough data to really answer the question,” said Richard P. Stumpf, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who studies harmful algae. “It’s a hard problem.”
A newly proposed carbon tax bill is creating a fissure in the Republican Party, with conservative groups coming out in fierce opposition Monday to legislation introduced by a House GOP lawmaker.
Several conservative groups bashed a measure introduced earlier in the day by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) that would impose a tax on carbon-emitting companies.
Americans For Tax Reform President Grover Norquist called the bill a political loser.
“Carbon doesn’t pay taxes — families pay taxes, people pay taxes, taxpayers pay taxes,” Norquist said at the National Press Club. “This is just the most recent effort by the left to find a way to get into your pockets.”
Conservatives took turns denouncing the legislation, which would impose a tax on companies that emit gases that contribute to climate change. Opponents highlighted the hundreds of dollars in energy price hikes it could bring to U.S. households.
They also characterized Curbelo as a Republican who is trying to appease Democrats. Curbelo is running for reelection in a congressional district that presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won handily in 2016.
“There is no appreciation to be gained by the real Democrats by pretending to be a Democrat,” Phil Kerpen, president of American Commitment, said of Curbelo. “There’s a Republican consensus against this bill. It’s a bad idea, and any Republican who is tempted to embrace it will see very little friends on both sides of the aisle.”
The event was held down the hall from where Curbelo introduced his legislation two hours earlier.
Curbelo’s bill would repeal federal taxes on gasoline, diesel and aviation fuels and replace those with a $24 per metric ton tax on carbon dioxide emissions that would increase annually.
The measure also breaks with the party’s long-standing opposition to policies that punish the fossil fuel industry for carbon pollution.
The carbon tax in Curbelo’s bill would apply to coal mines, fuel refineries, certain manufacturing facilities, natural gas processors and fossil fuel importers. It would likely increase the cost of products and services that use fossil fuels, and revenues from the tax would go toward infrastructure, low-income households and climate mitigation projects.
Many of the conservative speakers at Monday’s event disputed that a carbon tax would thwart rising temperatures and climate change.
“Science is a distraction, it’s a rhetorical gotcha,” said Marlo Lewis, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Of course I believe in manmade global warming, but it’s much better than they’ve told us.”
Norquist said it was unnecessary to look at the science to see that the proposal would not help the free market.
“You don’t have to get into the science,” Norquist said. “You can get into the question of, ‘have more free market solutions led to lower emissions as new technologies and fracking have evolved?’ And people who told us this couldn’t happen were wrong.”
The bill is adding fuel to an already fiery debate about whether fossil fuel companies should be held responsible for emitting greenhouse gases.
Last week, the House passed a mostly symbolic resolution introduced by Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) that spells out opposition to a potential carbon tax. While Republicans hailed the vote outcome as a victory, six GOP members opposed it; a similar measure introduced by Scalise in 2016 received unanimous Republican support.
Republicans at Monday’s press event warned that those six members would have to deal with voting against the party as they seek reelection.
“Such a foolish vote is only a mistake for the members who vote that way,” said Kerpen.
Norquist said the vote might become crucial for midterm election races.
“Every single congressman who voted against Scalise should be educated — all citizens should know where their congressman or senator or state legislator stands on making their energy affordable for them, and I think all center-right groups will work on highlighting that,” Norquist said.
Tucked into a corner of Southwest Florida about a half-hour from Fort Myers, Babcock Ranch is what developer Syd Kitson calls the most sustainable new community in America. It started when Kitson, a former NFL player, purchased the 91,000 acre ranch in 2006. He immediately struck a deal to sell 73,000 acres of the property to the state of Florida for a wildlife preserve. He then donated 440 acres to Florida Power & Light with the stipulation that it construct a solar power plant on the land. Today, that parcel is covered by 350,000 solar panels that feed electricity into the electrical grid.
Then Kitson went to work with local partners to design and build a new community on the remaining 17,000 acres. “We want to be the most sustainable new town in the United States,” Kitson tells CBS News. “We had the advantage of a green field, a blank sheet of paper. When you have a blank sheet of paper like this, you really can do it right from the beginning.”
The town gets most of its electricity from the nearby solar power plant during the day. Although the community has 10 small battery stations, Kitson says large-scale battery storage is still too expensive (Elon Musk would disagree), so at night or on cloudy days, the community draws power from the utility grid. “The people here pay the exact same amount that everybody else pays in the Florida Power and Light network,” he says. “Clearly, if you have a number of cloudy days in a row, it will impact the efficiency and the available electricity that comes from the solar field, but this is Florida, and if you don’t like the weather, just wait 10 minutes.” Last year, when Hurricane Irma swept across that part of the state, not one solar panel was damaged.
The first residents began moving in at the beginning of this year. 500 homes are expected to be completed by December. 19,500 dwelling units are planned over the next two decades. All of the structures in Babcock Ranch will feature the latest energy efficiency technology and offer 1 gigabit internet access. Alexa will handle all smart home functions. Outside, there are 50 miles of nature trails through the wildlife preserve next door. A farm-to-table organic gardening project is underway and a K-8 charter school is planned. Residents will be encouraged to leave their cars at home as they walk, bike, or take advantage of the electric autonomous shuttle bus fleet that will service the community.
“This community is a unique opportunity to really implement sustainable technology in a practical way,” Haris Alibašić, a professor at the University of West Florida, tells Good.com. “Cities around the world have started adopting 100% renewable energy targets, but it’s both intriguing and encouraging to see this happening from a developer.” He adds he would like to see more affordable housing included in the plans for the community. A three bedroom home in Babcock Ranch sells for $195,000 and a four bedroom town house lists for $795,000. “I think the ultimate key to long term sustainability is attracting people from diverse incomes and backgrounds,” he says.
Last January, Richard and Robin Kinley became the first family to move to Babcock Ranch. They chose a house near a lake, which has now been named Lake Kinley in their honor. “The air is nice and clean here and I think these types of communities are the future,” Robin says. “I felt very much like when I bought a Tesla back in 2013 and I said, this is definitely is going to make it,” Richard adds. “I felt the same way about Babcock Ranch.”
Their first neighbors were Donna and James Aveck, who moved in a few weeks later. “We love the innovation here,” Donna says. “We think it’s a very small planet and we want to do our part to conserve it.” Babcock Ranch has thought of every detail when it comes to sustainability. Jim says, “When I go to the gym, which is huge, and I get on the treadmill, the energy I generate by running actually feeds back into the electric grid.”
Communities that have already transitioned to 100% renewable energy include Aspen, Colorado; Burlington, Vermont; Greensburg, Kansas; Rockport, Missouri; and Kodiak Island, Alaska, according to the Sierra Club. But Babcock Ranch has designed sustainability into the entire fabric of the community from the beginning. Just as Tesla has driven change in the transportation industry, Babcock Ranch will encourage other cities and towns to make sustainability part of their community DNA.
If you live near a stretch of Interstate 95 under construction, you may be getting some quiet: Seven noise-blocking walls are planned from Boca Raton, south of Glades Road, to Deerfield Beach, south of Southwest 10th Street.
One of the sound walls, near the Fairfield Gardens community in Boca Raton, is already complete, rising 22 feet.
The I-95 noise had carried into parts of Fairfield Gardens, but the new wall resolved that, said David Abramson, with the homeowners association board. “I’ve been back there,” he said, “and it’s night and day now.”
The sound walls from Boca Raton to Deerfield Beach coincide with an I-95 plan to widen and convert carpool lanes into two toll express lanes in each direction.
The toll express lanes are expected to open by spring 2022, weather permitting, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.
It can take months to build any of the sound walls, which are made from precast concrete and rise anywhere from 8 feet to 22 feet. Panels in the middle get tropical designs, usually birds, with plain walls on either side.
The other communities receiving sound walls:
— Mizner Forest in Boca Raton will receive a 20-foot wall. Construction is expected to start Tuesday.
— Palm Beach Farms, Boca Square, Raintree and Palmetto Park West in Boca Raton will each get an 8-foot replacement wall.
— County Club Village in Boca Raton will receive either an 8-foot retaining wall or a 14-foot wall, depending on the location.
— Tivoli Park and Natura in Deerfield Beach each will have 22-foot walls.
Meantime, noise barriers already in southern Broward could be expanded or modified for an I-95 and I-595 express-lane project. One project, at Hollywood Boulevard and Sheridan Street, is the design phase. They still are being considered along I-95, between Hollywood and Hallandale boulevards and at the Broward Boulevard interchange.
Officers decide whether the walls are needed after they use devices to measure the noise. Officials consider building sound walls when the noise level meets a federal standard of at least 67 decibels. By contrast, a rock concert could reach as high as 100 or more decibels.
For those of us living along the lower east coast of Florida, the Everglades is a backyard wilderness, the source of our drinking water and an important hurricane buffer. It is also a flat, low-lying wetland with an imperceptible slope, making it quite vulnerable to sea-level rise.
Once a 50-mile-wide “River of Grass” extending from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay, the Everglades is now divided by canals and levees into units we know as Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and the Water Conservation Areas.
Now half its original size, the remaining Everglades ecosystem still encompasses more than 2.5 million acres and consists of a variety of habitats that are adapted to extremely low nutrient levels and a range of flooding conditions by either freshwater or saltwater. Scientists have been investigating what is likely to happen to the Everglades when those flooding patterns are altered by rapid rates of sea-level rise.
Many people assume that as sea level rises, mangroves will gradually migrate landward, replacing freshwater sawgrass near the coast. This landward migration of mangroves and other coastal habitats is well documented, and there is strong evidence that this process has been exacerbated further by water management activities, which reduce freshwater flow from the Everglades to the coast.
It doesn’t take a scientist to see the effects. Anyone who drives to Flamingo or Key Largo can observe how far the mangroves have advanced inland over the last few decades.
Given that mangroves provide valuable coastal wetland habitat, trading sawgrass for mangroves may not be such a bad thing, right? Unfortunately, it is not that simple.
The interaction of water, salinity and plants can dramatically affect the integrity and elevation of the soil that supports these habitats.
In freshwater sawgrass marshes and salty mangroves of the Everglades, organic soils (called peat soils) develop under persistent flooding. Peat soils are comprised of plant matter that accumulates faster than it decomposes, forming a blanket of sorts on top of South Florida’s porous limestone bedrock.
In the deepest freshwater marshes, peat soils average 2 to 3 feet in thickness. In Everglades mangroves, peat soil thickness can exceed 10 feet.
A more complicated and destructive outcome results when freshwater marshes, which are already receiving less freshwater, are increasingly exposed to saltwater before mangroves become established. An example is Cape Sable, the landmass at the southwestern-most tip of Florida.
In the 1920s, canals were dug into Cape Sable to drain the freshwater marshes but instead facilitated saltwater intrusion. By the time aerial photography became widely available in the 1930s and 40s, much of this freshwater marsh had disappeared, converting to open water rather than a mangrove forest.
Research by Dr. Hal Wanless of the University of Miami suggested that saltwater accelerated the breakdown and collapse of these freshwater marshes on Cape Sable. His work inspired scientists from Florida International University led by Dr. Tiffany Troxler, the Everglades Foundation, Everglades National Park, and the South Florida Water Management District to develop experiments focused on understanding how and why peat soil collapses.
This research, which is supported by Florida Sea Grant and the National Science Foundation, will improve how we assess wetland vulnerability to sea-level rise and perhaps identify better water or habitat management options.
Through this work and other science, we are learning that a “perfect storm” of sea-level rise, low freshwater flow (because of water management) and saltwater intrusion can cause peat soil to disappear faster than it can accumulate – transforming an affected area to open water, not to mangrove forest.
In the Everglades, collapsed areas appear as large puddles in the landscape surrounded by vegetation. Over time, collapsed areas of marsh coalesce into larger areas, releasing nutrients once sequestered in the peat soil into the environment where they wreak havoc in the Everglades and coastal waters such as Florida Bay or Biscayne Bay.
Peat soil is to the Everglades as sediments and coastal marshes are to the Louisiana Delta, and loss of peat soil can result in the loss of land.
When such drastic ecological changes occur so rapidly, it is difficult to predict what chain of events will follow. However, we know that we are accelerating peat collapse and shaping the future coastline of the Everglades under the current system of water management.
Until we restore the flow of freshwater to Everglades National Park, we are short-circuiting the natural transition to mangroves and possibly increasing South Florida’s future coastal vulnerability.
Dr. Steve Davis is the Senior Ecologist for The Everglades Foundation.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.
To anyone who has reeled in a prized redfish or plucked an oyster from the water and eaten it straight out of the shell, the value of a healthy Florida estuary needs little explanation. Created by an earlier period of rising seas, Florida’s estuaries are fragile zones where fresh water flowing from springs and rivers mingles with salt water in a balance that ebbs and flows in a rhythm set by weather and phases of the moon.
The estuaries provide a sheltered, nutrient-rich environment for abundant marine life and serve as nurseries for the surrounding oceans. They also generate billions of dollars of economic impact each year from commercial and recreational fishing, boating and bird-watching. And, for much of the state, they provide a buffer against tropical storms and hurricanes.
Now, scientists and advocates warn these estuaries could be redefined as they become Florida’s last stand against the encroaching sea.
Rising sea levels “will reshape the coastline of Florida in ways that are almost difficult for humans to wrap their arms around,” said Duane DeFreese, executive director of the Indian River Lagoon Council. “It’s hard for us to look 50 or 100 years ahead, but it’s going to change dramatically.”
Already, rising seas and warmer temperatures bring higher tides, greater erosion, higher salinity and increasing acidity along the bays, sounds and lagoons that surround Florida. Dying trees have been documented in coastal forests in the Big Bend region along the Gulf Coast south of Tallahassee as saltier water moves inland. Erosion is eating away at shell middens in Mosquito Lagoon, in the northern end of the Indian River Lagoon.
Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict sea levels could rise around three feet as early as 2070 in Florida, using mid-range scenarios. Their higher-end scenarios show a three-foot sea level rise could occur within about 30 years.
One study by The Nature Conservancy found a 3.2-foot rise in sea level would cause the loss of more than 170,000 acres of coastal forest and 63,000 acres of tidal flats in six estuary systems along Florida’s Gulf Coast between Pensacola Bay and Charlotte Harbor.
‘Nursery for the oceans’
Estuaries are often called cradles of the sea because of the tremendous variety of marine species that spend at least part of their life cycles there, such as green turtles, bull sharks, tarpon and other game fish. seagrass beds, marshes and the tangled roots of mangrove trees that grow in the fragile zones provide food and shelter for myriad species, from delicate seahorses to massive manatees.
“It’s crazy the number of marine organisms that spend some portion of their life cycle in an estuary,” said Edie Widder, chief executive officer and senior scientist at Ocean Research & Conservation Association Inc. in Fort Pierce. “They are a nursery for the oceans.” Given the small amount of real estate they cover, Widder said the estuaries have “an incredibly outsized impact on the oceans.”
Estuaries drive a lot of the economy of the United States, said DeFreese.
The reason estuaries are so valuable — and so fertile — is because they’re transition zones, where nutrients that run off the land help increase the productivity, said Jim Culter, senior scientist and program manager at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.
Changes in the balance of nutrients or in the balance of fresh and salt water can have a big impact. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey have found that salinity increases during droughts can cause blue crabs to move upstream, and decreases in fresh water can reduce oyster populations.
As sea levels rise, Culter said the ocean will move farther inland and areas that host the fragile balance of salt and fresh water will shrink. Many estuaries already suffer from issues unrelated to sea level, such as loads of pollution and severely altered watersheds that provide either too much or too little fresh water.
A Geological Survey study released in June examined 28 years of data collected in 10 Florida estuaries that support commercial shellfish harvesting. The study, by John Lisle and Leslie Robbins, published in the journal “Estuaries and Coasts,” found the water in estuaries is getting more acidic, which limits availability of the components of calcium carbonate — crucial for animals such as oysters to build their shells. The study also found that oxygen levels in the water are decreasing. Six of the 10 estuaries have increased salinity and three have increasing water temperatures.
The estuaries, the scientists concluded, are being affected by changes taking place worldwide, including increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, development along the coast and increased nutrients in the water. The estuaries studied included St. Joseph, Cedar Key, south Tampa Bay, the St. Johns River North and three sections of the Indian River Lagoon.
Additional pressure from a changing climate and rising sea levels will cause further damage, said coastal ecologists and estuary advocates. Some, such as Arnoldo Valle-Levinson, a professor in the University of Florida’s Civil and Coastal Engineering department, wonder if sea level rise is partly to blame for ongoing troubles in the Indian River Lagoon, which has been plagued in recent years by toxic algal blooms, vanishing seagrass and fish kills.
‘A game of inches’
To describe how sea level rise might change things, scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory say when seas rise two feet in Sarasota Bay, the very lowest tides will be where today’s highest tides are.
Nuisance high tides already occur across the state, said Randall Parkinson, a coastal geologist affiliated with Florida International University.
In June, a NOAA study reported the average annual frequency of high tide flooding in the continental U.S. hit an all-time record in the past year. In Florida, new records for number of days with high tide flooding were set in Naples and Cedar Key between May 2017 and April 2018, and all 17 tide stations had high tide flooding above frequencies seen nearly 20 years ago.
That trend is expected to continue, likely at an accelerated rate, the study’s authors concluded, exacerbated by a combination of high astronomical tides, winter storms and tropical storms.
Hurricane Irma’s impacts were felt across much of Florida in September 2017, but it was just one of several named and unnamed storms that caused trouble over a period of months during the fall and winter.
Incremental rises in sea level are increasingly making communities along estuaries more vulnerable, with the potential for adding thousands of dollars in flood damages, said DeFreese. “This is a game of inches.”
As rising seawater penetrates farther and farther inland into tidal and freshwater creeks, it will gradually change the function and form of wetlands and other ecosystems that surround the estuaries, said Parkinson, who is preparing a vulnerability assessment for the Indian River Lagoon.
Estuaries will become saltier, and areas of brackish water along the waterways will shrink. The areas of estuaries that fluctuate in salinity will be more compressed and move upstream in the creeks and rivers that feed freshwater to the estuaries.
Modeling the future
Scientists have been able to look at how rising sea levels will impact coastal wetlands and forests by using the “Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model,” developed in the 1980s to study the impacts of the changing climate. Scientists can put in decades of data, including water level measurements and elevations, and examine potential impacts across a system.
Laura Geselbracht, a senior marine scientist at the Florida Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, started by looking at Apalachicola Bay, eventually expanding the study with her colleagues across the northern Gulf Coast and as far south as Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. They looked at how sea level rise would impact coastal habitat and human communities along six estuaries.
“One thing we did notice is that with, say, as little as 0.6 meters of sea level rise — about a foot and a half — you see significant changes,” said Geselbracht. “And in some areas we’ve already seen significant changes.
“In places like the southern Big Bend, you can see sea level rise in action,” she added. “You can see where it’s been and what impact it has had.”
They concluded more than 170,000 acres of coastal forest could be lost with a 39-inch increase in sea level in the Gulf of Mexico, a rise that NOAA’s mid-range scenarios project could happen in some locations along the Gulf by 2070.
The study found 63,000 acres of tidal flats could be lost across the six estuaries, including 36,000 acres in Tampa Bay. When tide flats and dunes are lost, said Geselbracht, “urban areas become more vulnerable to coastal storms.”
They checked their model by putting in decades worth of data collected at Waccasassa Bay, near Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast, to see if it would accurately project the changes now occurring. It did, said Geselbracht.
Overall, coastal wetlands along the state’s Gulf Coast are likely to change substantially, she said, including inland river floodplains on the northern Gulf Coast. If you squeeze an area where a species occurs, she said, “you’d anticipate you’d greatly reduce the population of that species.”
The marine life affected by these shrinking estuaries are some of “the ones we care most about,” said Culter. “Oysters, blue crabs, clams, scallops, shellfish and things that are common that we fish for.”
That will in turn have an impact on commercial fisheries and their contribution to local economies. The filter feeders, such as clams and oysters, also are important for water quality.
Culter is working on shellfish restoration projects, including placing clams in Sarasota Bay and watching their growth.
Seagrass beds, which form the foundation of marine life in many estuaries, also are expected to feel the impact of rising seas. The grass beds are important because they provide places for marine life to shelter and forage and they absorb nutrients and carbon.
But the grass beds may be one example of an instance where sea level rise will cause changes that might not be considered good or bad, just different.
Deeper water levels are expected to make it more difficult for seagrass to thrive and grow in some locations because the grass can only grow in areas where sunlight can penetrate to the bottom. For example, said Culter, the average depth of seagrass in Sarasota Bay might be six feet. As sea level rises, those grass beds will start to lose their deep edges as the water becomes too deep for the sunlight to reach the grass.
But, depending on water quality, seagrass beds might move to new areas that go underwater. Geselbracht said grass beds might colonize some of the tidal flats as they become submerged.
Transitions among the ecosystems will depend in part on the amount of undeveloped land available for marshes and other estuary features to move to, and how much that migration is blocked by existing development.
As the ecosystems change, studies indicate some species could be “winners,” and others might be “losers.” For example, with salt marsh projected to expand in some areas, it’s possible some animals might benefit, such as the salt marsh vole, an endangered rodent found near Cedar Key. Bird species that use tidal flats, such as the reddish egret, for example, could suffer as the flats shrink.
But no one understands those impacts on species yet, said Jon Oetting, a conservation planner with the Florida Natural Areas Inventory. Much will depend on how rapidly the transitions occur and how much the habitats are separated from each other.
As the marshes expand or shrink, it could have profound impacts on the surrounding estuaries, said Geselbracht. “Some people might think ‘Oh that’s just a marsh,’ but that marsh is worth millions of dollars in recreational and commercial benefits.”
Appraising a marsh
It’s relatively easy to put a monetary value on things like homes, condominiums and infrastructure, said Jennifer Kassakian, a senior associate at Industrial Economics, a consulting firm that has studied the Indian River Lagoon. It’s harder to put a monetary value on ecological resources.
Kassakian has worked on projects that help people understand the value ecological communities provide, economically and otherwise. For example, an estuary has value as a nursery ground for marine species, including commercially important species such as crabs, clams and fish.
Using the same model The Nature Conservancy scientists used, she and a colleague, Jim Neumann, a principal at Industrial Economics, looked at the impacts of sea level rise on wetlands in the Indian River Lagoon.
The study showed there would be “substantial change” in the lagoon, including the loss of irregularly inundated marshes and swamps and substantial gains in acres of mangroves and open water, she said. The study, which looked at the amount of carbon dioxide that could be absorbed by the lagoon and surrounding plants, concluded the estuary would see an increase in carbon storage, but a decrease in productivity.
With a 47-inch rise in sea level, the study concluded the lagoon overall would see a loss of 24 percent of its wetlands.
Wetlands are important because they provide a buffer for storm surge and absorb the energy from waves. “If you don’t have that buffer,” said Kassakian, “if you allow that water to come straight up to people’s houses, that’s a pretty direct impact.”
Estuary groups across Florida are assessing “vulnerabilities” and pinpointing areas where intervention, such as limiting new development, might have the most impact. Several are working in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Ready Estuaries program.
“People like simple answers,” said Culter. “They want things to be fixed. That’s not going to happen. It’s going to take a lot of thought and discussion to deal with it.”
Correcting the many existing problems in the estuaries will help make them more resilient to change, said estuary officials on both coasts.
Rather than trying to “slap a Band-Aid” on things, it’s important to think long-term, looking at long-term strategies and large-scale, multiyear projects that can really get to some of the root problems, said Jennifer Hecker, executive director of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program.
Like many estuaries statewide, the watershed around Charlotte Harbor has been greatly altered. Many areas in Hecker’s region are either not receiving enough water or receiving too much water. Utilities in the region are learning to correctly manage the water, she said, “to build communities that will be better protected from the harmful effects of a changing climate.”
If the region can store water and protect its freshwater supplies, said Hecker, the hope is that they will be able to “push back on sea level rise and saltwater intrusion to the greatest degree possible.”
A similar strategy is needed for the Indian River Lagoon, said DeFreese. Every action that makes the lagoon system more resilient to sea level rise comes back to human impacts already identified, he said. “It’s wastewater, it’s stormwater, it’s living shoreline replacement, and it’s getting filter feeders back into the system.”
Parkinson, the consultant studying the vulnerabilities of the Indian River Lagoon, said preparing plans is one thing. Implementing the plans is “a much bigger challenge,” he said. “It requires people to make decisions that may not directly benefit them and it costs money.”
He sees three options for implementing the plans being developed across the state: 1) Protect and defend, 2) Adapt, or 3) Managed withdrawal from low-lying coastal areas.
Saving the shorelines
As groups around the state prepare to protect and defend, retaining or increasing the amount of natural, “living shoreline” is shaping up to be a key strategy. In areas where the shores are lined with marsh grasses, mangroves and oysters, the shorelines have the potential to help the land keep pace with rising sea levels, several scientists said. Safeguarding shorelines could help with the transition of coastal wetlands as seas rise.
Linda Walters, a biology professor at the University of Central Florida, is among those convinced living shorelines will be an important part of the solution. For more than a decade, she has worked with nonprofits, businesses and schools to collect oyster shells, grow mangroves, then place marsh grasses, mangroves and bags of oyster shells along shorelines all over the Indian River Lagoon system.
Once established, oysters provide habitat for birds and fish as well as a hard structure that can protect shorelines from erosion, and wind and wave energy, she said. On the shorelines Walters has developed, the oysters are the initial defenders, providing wave breaks that give the plants time to get established. Marsh grasses help protect mangrove trees, and once the mangroves are established, their intertwined roots begin trapping sediment moving in the water and gradually the surface of the soil rises.
These shorelines with oysters, marsh grass and mangroves can accumulate sediment faster than the sea level is rising in some estuaries, and may help coastal wetlands transition from one kind to another as sea levels rise.
If the water in an estuary is allowed to move naturally up a slope, the mangrove trees will follow that transitional zone, said Candy Feller, a senior scientist and mangrove expert at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland. “In a perfect world, they will keep pace with rising sea levels.”
The problem in Florida is that people like the land-sea margin, said Feller. “They’ve built their houses there and their seawalls and everything.”
Parkinson and others say seawalls aren’t the answer.
“You can’t just build a wall,” because Florida is built on limestone and sand, he said. “The water would just go under or behind the seawall.”
The other option Parkinson raised is withdrawal from the shoreline. It’s “the only plan that is viable in the long term,” he said. “The longer we delay making the right choices, the more difficult it is to implement a plan and the more expensive it’s going to be.”
As DeFreese travels along the Indian River Lagoon, he said he’s beginning to see evidence of change in attitudes toward preparing for long-term sea level rise.
Widder, however, said she still sees too much “head in the sand thinking.”
“This is just going to be catastrophic for us,” she said. “Florida is so vulnerable. For us not to be anticipating the kinds of problems that we’re going to be facing is shortsighted and damaging to all of us.”
Florida stands to lose more homes — and real estate value — to sea level rise damage than any other state in the nation this century, according to a new study.
By 2045, nearly 64,000 homes in Florida face flooding every other day. Half of those are in South Florida.
If you buy a house now, before your new mortgage is paid you might have to regularly do the rolled-up-pants, shoes-in-hand commute that has become an enduring image of sea rise.
These numbers, released in a report compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists, used housing information from Zillow and a flood model from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that predicts 6 1/2 feet of sea rise by the end of the century.
Former studies of Zillow data showed Florida has hundreds of thousands of homes worth billions of dollars with the risk of being permanently drenched with six feet of sea rise.
This report, said one of its authors, Rachel Cleetus, talks about “a looming threat flying completely under the radar” — regular flooding.
“Well before homes go under water we’ll start to see chronic inundation that affects home value,” she said.
By the end of the century, Florida’s number of at-risk homes jump from 64,000 to a million. In 2100, the report said, about 1 in 10 homes in Florida will face flooding every other day. That puts the Sunshine State at the top of the list nationwide for homes at risk.
The report underlines the domino effect these repetitive floods could have on a community if nothing is done.
As these floods grow more frequent and more intense, they’ll start chipping away at the value of coastal homes, something initial research shows is happening in Miami-Dade and beyond. As these waterlogged homes lose value, their owners may decide that it’s easier to abandon them to foreclosure rather than pay a mortgage worth more than the house.
The authors of the report note that this kind of housing crisis would be more severe than any the U.S. has faced before. Unlike housing market crashes, where property values usually bounce back, these homes will be unusable (and unsellable) forever.
Federally backed mortgage buyer Freddie Mac wrote in a 2016 report that the resulting social and economic impacts of climate change are likely to be “greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and Great Recession.”
The dark possibility hinted at in these numbers also underlines the potential unsteady future of one of the main sources of revenue for the kinds of projects that save communities from the worst effects of flooding — a city’s tax base.
That’s especially visible in Miami Beach, one of South Florida’s most vulnerable communities. By 2030, Miami Beach homes paying $17 million in property taxes face regular flooding. By 2100, that jumps to more than $760 million.
Keeping a city dry as seas rise isn’t cheap, but some Miami communities are investing in solutions. Miami Beach raised stormwater fees to fund $500 million in street raising and pump installation projects. Miami’s “Forever Bond” was highlighted in the report as a positive story of a community taxing itself to pay for these projects.
The report made clear that the kind of action South Florida cities are taking right now is important. If other communities don’t start soon, it will be even harder for them to react to the threat in the future, said Joyce Coffee, president of Climate Resilient Consulting.
“If you don’t have these two things — a tax base and existing momentum — you’re on the losing side of history,” she said.
The report did suggest one solution that radically changes the number of homes at risk. If the world keeps fossil fuel emissions low, like the standards decided upon in the Paris Agreement, and ice melt is kept to a minimum, most sea rise damage could be averted. The authors said that would save 93 percent of Florida’s at-risk homes by the end of the century.
The report — and that 93 percent number — was compiled just before a new study from 80 Antarctic scientists showed that arctic ice melting has tripled in a decade. The work suggests the world has an even smaller window of time to act to stall the worst effects of climate change.
“We have to radically cut carbon emissions,” said Cleetus, author of the real estate risk study. “We have to prepare for the worst case scenario.”
As Hurricane season begins this month, a team of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professors and graduate students have been charged with studying Hurricane Irma’s mass evacuation and provide recommendations for a smoother exodus in the future.
With a state of emergency declared and mandatory evacuations issued throughout the state as Hurricane Irma approached Florida last September, millions heeded the warnings. Highways, interstates and the Florida Turnpike quickly turned into parking lots as about 7 million people were ordered to evacuate before the powerful Category 4 storm made landfall. Vehicles and gas stations ran out of fuel causing gridlocks.
The Embry-Riddle study, which will continue through February 2019, will provide an analysis to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on Irma’s evacuation and fuel shortages that occurred. The team on Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach Campus will identify opportunities and vulnerabilities that currently exist; make policy recommendations for more efficient future evacuations; and suggest how to improve allocation of resources and better equip areas to avoid fuel shortages.
“If you know in advance which areas will be hardest hit, priority treatment can be given to refueling those gas stations,” said Sirish Namilae, Ph.D., assistant professor of Aerospace Engineering and principal investigator on the project along with co-principal investigator Dahai Liu, Ph.D., professor with the School of Graduate Studies, and their graduate students Sabique Islam and Dimitrios Garis.
The research is part of a sub-grant from the Center for Advanced Transportation Mobility, a consortium led by North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University through the DOT’s University Transportation Centers Program.
With use of Embry-Riddle’s Cray® CS™ cluster supercomputer, various scenarios and simulations will be conducted, including calculating factors such as fuel levels of individual cars, evacuation routes, number of lanes on various roads, gas station locations, and incidents of emergencies and traffic jams due to random accidents and gas shortages.
“By conducting simulation runs within specified parameters, we hope to get a better picture of what occurs when the masses are forced to move along a particular path and how it affects them,” said Garis, an Aeronautics master’s student working with professor Liu. “We hope this research will provide emergency evacuation planners with an idea of what can be done to help speed up traffic flow and ensure evacuees make it out of the danger areas faster.”
Namilae is adapting a particle dynamics mathematical model he and a previous team developed to study pedestrian movement and ways to reduce the spread of infectious diseases on commercial airlines and at airports. Algorithms will be derived that will help provide real-time data during future evacuations. The team will perform a detailed case study of evacuation out of Florida from Miami-Dade County on Interstate 95, Florida’s Turnpike and Interstate 75.
Public data from the Florida Department of Transportation is also being reviewed and data from tech company GasBuddy, whose app and website database of more than 140,000 gas station convenience stores, includes real-time fuel price information, station locations, offerings and reviews.
“This research uses a combination of theories and ideas borrowed from different avenues of science such as disease transmission modeling, sensor fusion algorithms from aerospace engineering and probability of random numbers from computational mathematics,” said Islam, a graduate teaching assistant studying Aerospace Engineering. “The outcome will help teach future researchers to employ different methods to their research and have an open mind when it comes to attacking scientific problems from different aspects.”
Government policies in place with respect to refueling will be studied along with processes for phased closing and opening of gas stations.
“We are looking at whether fuel restrictions placed on cars could help to get more cars out, since during a hurricane there are limited supplies for each gas station and gasoline cannot be delivered to gas stations promptly due to traffic constraints,” Liu said. “This type of situation is hard to investigate as it involves many factors that are complex and studies are extremely limited.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced this week that it is sending almost $23 million to public transit systems across the Sunshine State that were damaged by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is sending $22.8 million to 15 public transit systems based in Florida. This is part of $330 million that Congress approved for the FTA’s Emergency Relief Program back in February. The bulk of those funds–$223.5 million–are headed to Puerto Rico while Texas is getting $23.3 million and $6.7 million is for the U.S. Virgin Islands.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who advocated for those funds on Capitol Hill, applauded the news.
“This is welcome news for a number of transit systems in Florida,” said Nelson this week. “For months they’ve had to struggle to find ways to pay for damages caused by last year’s devastating hurricanes. Thankfully, they’re finally getting some relief.”
Most of the FTA money headed to the Sunshine State is penciled in for South Florida. The Miami-Dade Department of Transportation and Public Works is getting $11.4 million while the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority is getting $1.14 million. Broward County is getting $857,000, Collier County is penciled in for $226,000, the city of Key West claiming $209,000 and Lee County receiving $515,000.
Other systems across the state are also getting FTA money with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority getting $734,000, Lynx/Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority receiving $432,000, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority getting $80,000 while $111,000 is headed for Sarasota County, $153,000 to Brevard County, $57,000 to Charlotte County, another $110,000 to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, $70,000 to the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners and Tallahassee’s StarMetro getting $41,000.
Employees work on the assembly line of the electric bus at a BYD’s production base on January 23, 2018 in Xi’an, China. China’s largest electric carmaker BYD sold 113,669 new energy vehicles in 2017, up 13.4 percent year-on-year. (Photo by VCG/Getty Images)
Projections have suggested that the advent of electric vehicles will have a dramatic impact on oil demand and now its starting to show. With China adding the equivalent of London’s bus fleet every 5 weeks, that’s 279,000 barrels of oil a day removed from demand.
The latest report from Bloomberg New Energy shows that economics are driving the change, with the total cost of ownership of electric buses far outperforming the alternatives. The report says a 110kWh battery e-bus coupled with the most expensive wireless charging reaches parity with a diesel bus on total cost of ownership at around 60,000 km traveled per year (37,000 miles). This means that a bus with the smallest battery, even when coupled with the most expensive charging option, would be cheaper to run in a medium-sized city, where buses travel on average 170km/day (106 miles).
Today large cities with high annual bus mileages therefore choose from a number of electric options, all cheaper than diesel and CNG buses. The BNEF report says, ‘Even the most expensive electric bus at 80,000km per year has a TCO of $0.92/km, just at par with diesel buses. Compared to a CNG bus, it is around $0.11/km cheaper in terms of the TCO. This indicates that in a megacity, where buses travel at least 220km/day, using even the most expensive 350kWh e-bus instead of a CNG bus could bring around $130,000 in operational cost savings over the 15-year lifetime of a bus.
For every 1,000 battery-powered buses on the road, about 500 barrels a day of diesel fuel will be displaced from the market, according to BNEF calculations. In 2018, the volume of oil-based fuel demand that buses remove from the market may rise 37 % to 279,000 barrels a day, or approximately the equivalent of the oil consumption of Greece. By 2040, this number could rise as high as 8 million barrels per day (bpd).
This will make a significant dent in oil demand but overall the market appears confident that petrochemicals will make up the difference in demand. That question remains open however, as the plastics market particularly continues to evolve.
Stephen George, chief economist at KBC, agrees with the International Energy Agency predictions that petrochemicals will grow to replace transport fuel demand. His projections don’t show a peak in oil demand, rather a plateau around 2040 ranging between 110 and 110 million bpd, with no signs of a peak and drop by 2050.
He does accept that everybody uses different scenarios and that the strategies need to be resilient in facing market change and says, “I see the majors embracing renewables more than previously.” Oil demand however will continue to increase due predominantly to plastics growth.
Today the U.S. is the biggest per capita consumer of plastics at 150 kg per person per year. That includes bottles, packaging, durable goods (many cars now built out of plastic); 3-d printing and a myriad number of uses. Europe and Japan are not far behind and George predicts that demographics and the growth of the middle class will drive up the global average which is currently 45 kgs per person per year.
China alone has gone from 5kgs to the global average in 5 years and is expected to drag the global average up as it grows. India is bound to follow and while its consumption is roughly around 8-10kgs per capita this is likely to develop rapidly.
So it’s the downstream derivatives of oil that are going to drive demand with George saying, “150kgs per capita is the non combustible oil demand that replaces the transport fuel demand.”
The real question it seems is whether this will be new plastics, or recycled and reused. New methods are arising constantly, driven by new regulation and breakthroughs in technology. In April 2018, it was announced that scientists had accidently discovered an enzyme that eats plastic, which when scaled up could have a significant impact on the way in which plastic is treated within the economy.
At the moment it ends up predominantly as a waste product, clogging up pipes, water sources, beaches and in dumps. If we find a plastics breakthrough, from recycling, to bioplastics to new forms of processing, the future line of oil demand could look very different.
The intersection of innovation and global challenges such as climate change and sustainable development are driving change in the economy. A founder of The Net Imperative Ltd and New Energy Finance (later bought by Bloomberg), author of Conquering Carbon: Carbon Emissions, Carbon Markets and the Consumer and a journalist for many years, I teach on the MSc Global Energy and Climate Policy and Finance, Sustainability and Climate Change at School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.