In an upscale section of east Fort Lauderdale near the Intracoastal Waterway, John Englander kneels down and examines a storm drain.
“This is where we’re going to see the first evidence of sea-level rise,” says Englander, who points out the water in the drain has risen several inches within only 20 minutes.
“This storm drain, which was designed to take water into the canal, is bringing water from the canal back onto the street,” he says. “And this phenomenon has been happening in Key West, Briny Breezes, Lighthouse Point and Harbor Beach and many communities in South Florida for years, and in some cases, decades.”
Boca Raton-based Englander, an oceanographer with degrees in geology and economics, is the author of “High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis.”
He says there’s a common misperception that sea-level rise will initially show its face at the beach. But the porous limestone that lies beneath most of Florida – what Englander calls a geological Achilles' heel – causes sea-level rise to percolate up through the ground. Inland communities who think they’re immune from the effects of rising sea levels are sorely wrong.
For one thing, the first three to six inches of sea-level rise won’t necessarily make streets impassable, Englander says, but make tap water undrinkable by creeping into South Florida’s freshwater table.
“It’s believed that within 20 to 30 years – and certainly within 50 years at the current rate – that the first impact of sea-level rise is that we’re going to have a real problem with our freshwater supply,” he says.
Englander acknowledges that most people have difficulty acknowledging slow, creeping change. But he also suggests that the gradual nature of sea-level rise gives us an edge. Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis or other natural disasters – which leave little or no time for preparation – rising sea levels give communities decades, even a century to try to prepare.
“We have to wake up and realize the world has changed,” says Englander. “The costs are going to be there and we need to adapt.”