Want to see the effects of sea-level rise? Don’t want to wait 50 years? Just walk to virtually any coastal area during the natural phenomenon called “King Tide.”
There are plenty of charts, graphs and artist renderings hinting at what South Florida will look like once sea-level rise gets a foothold. But experts say it’s probably Mother Nature who offers the most vivid preview of things to come.
King Tide occurs several times a year when the moon and sun enter into a special alignment with the Earth. Such tides last for several days and are anywhere between a few inches and several feet above normal.
Although the tides aren’t caused by climate change, scientists, urban planners and activists say they offer a snapshot of what rising sea levels could do to South Florida’s coastal areas in just a few decades.
“It does give us a glimpse of that one-foot scenario that we know we'll have in our future,” says Nancy Gassman, Broward County Natural Resource Administrator. “But it's the one-foot scenario overlaid on today's infrastructure, in today's community. And it gives us an idea of the areas we really need to start addressing."
During a recent King Tide in mid-October, many of South Florida's coastal communities were swamped. Miami Beach pedestrians were forced to wade through nearly knee-deep sea water in some sections. In Fort Lauderdale, water crept up to the very steps of the Stranahan House along the New River.
In the Delray Beach Marina Historic District along the Intracoastal Waterway, ocean water sloshing over the dock or gushing up through storm drains made some streets nearly impassable.
But a group of concerned citizens there decided to use King Tide and its attendant flooding as a perfect illustration of what lies in stores for their neighborhood.
“Visuals are everything,” says Charles Dortch, Vice President of the Historic District’s Homeowners Association. “The water will actually help us to tell our story."
The homeowners association organized a walking tour of the Historic District with the help of South Florida Climate Action Partners, a non-profit that educates the public about the threat of sea-level rise and municipal response to it. Residents stood in front of their quaint bungalows and stately colonial revivals and recounted for the tour group the havoc that periodic flooding is wreaking on their properties.
C.J. Johnson says flooding forced him and his wife to move virtually all of their first-floor furniture to the floor above.
“We’ve lost washers and dryers. I’ve had to clean out the gas hot-water heater every year because the water floods in,” he says. “We deal with it. We prepare for it twice a year -- April and this time of year.”
Delray Beach-based urban planning consultant Anna Puszkin-Chevlin says King Tide flooding serves as a wake-up call for coastal communities.
"We saw the waters come up and cover the streets and flood the lawns,” says Puszkin-Chevlin. “And this only happened for an hour or two during the high tide. But eventually, this will become a norm."
In recent years, state lawmakers have taken steps to help local governments plan and pay for the impacts of sea-level rise. In 2011, the Florida Legislature passed a law allowing counties to identify "adaptation action areas": vulnerable places that would get first priority for funding.
But for now, the homeowners in Delray's Marina Historic District are pretty much on their own when it comes to upgrading and adapting their properties to withstand the onslaught of rising waters. Charles Dortch says he hopes his neighbors can get some help with that.
"Mother Nature is not going to stop just because we say 'Stop, you cannot pass',”he says.