Like many houses west of the Atlantic Ocean, but east of “the ditch,” Tom Larson’s home was built on top of soggy marshland blanketing a brackish tributary to the Intracoastal Waterway. Standing in his living room, Larson is pointing down at his feet.
“This spot where I’m standing is approximately six-and-a-half feet above sea level,” says Larson, who spent his working career in finance and corporate strategy for major transportation companies.
Outside, a fairly typical nor’easter is blowing, with heavy, 20-mile-an-hour winds relentlessly pushing the tops of the palm trees toward the southwest.
“By 2060 or earlier, the latest reports say, the water will rise by two or three meters,” Larson says. “It’s hard to believe, even for me, but the water will be above my feet.”
Larson, who calls himself a weather geek, has been interested in climate change and sea level rise for a long time. In the past, he’s been involved in several organizations concerned with the issue, including the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Larson currently serves as a chapter leader of the Sierra Club of Florida. He’s read stacks of studies on the global and local impacts of sea level rise and has assessed the consequences for Northeast Florida.
“We’ve got roads in San Marco and Ft. George Island that get inundated on a regular basis,” Larson says. “When those roads were laid down, they were put in places that never got wet.”
Larson believes rising sea levels are an imminent danger to Northeast Florida.
“Seriously, that’s the elephant in the room right now. Sea level rise is coming. What are we going to do about it?”
Historically, humans have always built cities near bodies of water. Lakes, river mouths, oceans — it’s Anthropology 101 that water allows a culture to thrive, providing food, irrigation, and transportation. By these standards, satellite images of Northeast Florida reveal a relatively fertile region.
There are risks, however.
A growing body of research suggests that sea level rise, caused by global warming — also known as climate change — threatens to upend civilization. On average, climate change is causing seas to rise globally by more than one inch every decade. That rate is increasing rapidly as rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap more heat, melting ice and expanding ocean waters. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded in 2013 that sea levels around the globe will undergo a rise of more than six-and-a-half feet by 2100.
A more recent study by University of Massachusetts Amherst and Pennsylvania State University climate scientists predicts sea level rise to be nearly twice as high than NOAA has forecast.
Regardless, the NOAA minimum prediction of three-and-a-half feet of sea level rise by 2100 is itself no small obstacle, as another study predicts that level of rise would displace more than 13 million people who live in coastal cities — and that’s without accounting for population growth over the next 84 years.
Down south, in Miami — which is perpetually flooded and has already spent nearly one hundred million dollars to cope with the issue of rising sea levels – Tom Elfrink of the Miami New Times says, “Living in Miami and harboring any doubts about sea level rise is roughly equivalent to being a volcano truther in Pompeii, circa 79 AD.”
Shit is goin’ down. It’s time to prepare.
A fictional story in Daily Kos imagines banks starting to withdraw investments in Florida in 2018. While many predict it will be the insurance companies, rather than the banks, that will initiate the major drop in property values, the story vividly imagines the financial consequences of sea level rise.
It imagines that the second-largest state bank in Florida announces it will stop writing 30-year mortgages for low-lying, coastal properties and will write only 15-year mortgages for real estate purchases in select inland areas of northern Florida. The CEO of the bank explains that the decision is “based on the undeniable fact that much of South Florida will be permanently flooded by rising seas,” by 2050 at the earliest and “writing mortgages with repayment terms beyond 2048 would put those loans at great risk of not being fully repaid.”
For anyone who was around in 2008, it’s not hard to imagine the reaction financial markets might have to such a drastic change in the issuance of mortgages. Such a scenario has the potential to set in motion a global financial panic.
The depiction is not so very far-fetched, especially when one looks at current events. Following the 2015 climate change talks in Paris, the World Bank — an institution that considers alleviating world poverty its main role — decided that, moving forward, it would spend 28 percent of its investments directly on climate change projects, and that all of its future spending would take into account of global warming.
According to University of North Florida professor Allen Tilley, it’s about time. “We have been like children spending the parental budget — the resources of the planet — with little regard for limitations,” he says.
Tilley writes a weekly newsletter for the university that updates readers on the newest research related to climate change. He says no matter what we do to curb greenhouse gas emissions, “a certain amount of sea level rise is already baked in.”
Tilley says the impacts in Northeast Florida will likely begin with the aquifers’ salinity increasing, which he says is already occurring. Local infrastructure — drainage, power and water supply, as well as transportation accommodations — will also be in serious danger.
“The rate of sea level rise is likely to be beyond the abilities of most coastal communities to deal with,” Tilley says. “We need to face the possibility of relocation. [Northeast Florida] will probably be involved in resettlement efforts.”
More and more, the doomsday scenarios linked to sea level rise sound like this century’s version of all-out nuclear war. And, just like the late 1950s, the prospect of mutually assured destruction may be the only thing frightening enough to inspire action.
Since publishing its regional action plan in 2013, the Northeast Florida Regional Council (NEFRC) has been working with local business leaders to begin planning for protecting the region’s infrastructure and coastal assets from the effects of rising sea levels.
“The committee that worked on the regional action plan made a conscious decision to start by getting business leaders on board,” says Margo Moehring, the council’s managing director of policy and planning. “In many ways, the business community was already working on things related to climate change. With alternative energy and electric vehicles, they were already adapting to a changing environment.”
Working with the conservative assumption of a sea level rise ranging from one to three feet by 2060 and three to six feet by 2110, the NEFRC mapped out the effects on community assets in nine jurisdictions across Northeast Florida. Maps created by the NEFRC indicating the impacts of the minimum predicted rise in sea levels on the city of Jacksonville show potential damage to several fire stations, hospitals, and JSO substations. The map of a one-foot sea level rise also shows the entirety of A1A — from Ponte Vedra to Fernandina Beach — under water.
The NEFRC created the Public/Private Regional Resiliency Committee (P2R2) to educate local businesses on Northeast Florida’s vulnerabilities. In July, the committee — which culls its members from banks like Wells Fargo and Regions, organizations such as the North Florida Business Alliance, and local civic leaders including the mayor of Palm Coast and the chief of emergency preparedness for the city of Jacksonville — launched monthly meetings, called Regional Resiliency Evening Exchanges. The goal of each meeting is to help the community better understand what steps need to be taken to protect the local environment, economy, and residents’ health and personal finances.
“I think we are moving in the right direction,” says Moehring. “We’ve started the conversation. Now the next step is to get local governments to take more of a leadership role.”
Though no region in the U.S. can be said to be doing everything in its power to mitigate the effects of climate change, some areas are taking it more seriously than others. In June, when California has its presidential primary, residents of San Francisco will also vote on Measure AA, which seeks to institute a tax that has the potential to raise $25 million a year to fund a number of projects that backers say will be necessary to protect the community from rising sea levels in the San Francisco Bay.
Closer to home, low-lying St. Augustine stands to be greatly impacted by the increase in sea levels. As such, the Ancient City has decided to brace for those impacts.
Recently the city spent $15,000 to commission a study from the University of Florida on sea-level rise. The study predicts that by 2030, roughly 25 percent of St. Augustine could be flooded due to a mere one-foot sea level rise.
The city of St. Augustine’s Public Works Director Martha Graham told the St. Augustine Record that they’ve already begun working with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity on a vulnerability assessment, and the city plans to design and implement adaptive strategies to deal with the rising waters.
In Clay County, after being informed by NEFRC that plans for Green Cove Springs’ new police department offices placed the building in an area vulnerable to sea level rise, the municipality decided it would be a better long-term investment to build in a different area.
In contrast, in February, the city of Jacksonville dropped out of an initiative sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, 100 Resilient Cities (“resilient” being the popular term for adaptation and protection from the impacts of climate change). As part of the initiative, the city would have received a $1 million grant to address extreme weather and sea level rise. Before dropping out, the city created a position, Chief Resiliency Officer, designed to connect the city with the initiative’s business partners and address the challenges associated with sea level rise. Mayor Curry’s Director of Community Affairs Charles Moreland was assigned the role.
As of press time, Moreland had not responded to voicemails and emails from Folio Weekly Magazine.
Back in the marshland of Jax Beach, Larson is marveling at the impact the strong nor’easter is having on the tides. “I can see the stormwater sitting just four inches below the grate!” he exclaims.
Larson and his wife have considered moving elsewhere. For now, though, they’re staying put.
“I’m not sure I want you to put that in your magazine because I don’t want to drive down the market price of my home.” [Laughs.]
“This is the biggest deal that has happened to the planet in, like, 600,000 years,” he says, suddenly very serious. “And we’ve got to do something about it.”