Louis Fernandez walks along a flooded Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, Fla. in 2015. (Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP)

'It's over': Miami Beach tries to outrace climate change's rising seas

In some ways, Miami Beach is lucky. With high real estate prices and millions in tax revenue from a robust tourist trade, the city has been able to cobble together funds to wage its war with the sea in a way that poorer ones must envy. Under Gelber, it recently appropriated another $140 million, bringing the total program budget to $650 million.

MIAMI BEACH — Harold Wanless sits on a bench in Maurice Gibb Memorial Park beside a new concrete sea wall, the sound of hammers and drills emanating from Belle Isle across a cloudy, turquoise inlet of Biscayne Bay. Knowing what he does about how fast the water surrounding these porous barrier islands is rising, Wanless, director of the University of Miami’s geological sciences department and a leading expert on sea level rise, marvels at the level of denial the latest building boom requires.

“Just using the U.S. government projections, we could be at 11 to over 13 feet [of sea level rise] by the end of century,” Wanless, 77, says. “There’s only 3 percent of Miami-Dade County that’s greater than 12 feet above sea level.”

Named after the Bee Gees bass player and keyboardist who lived the later years of his life in Miami Beach before his death there in 2003, the park is in Sunset Harbor, a neighborhood the city set about lifting 2 feet after regular flooding brought on by sea level rise made it increasingly uninhabitable. To Wanless, that amounted to little more than a short-term fix.

“With another 2 feet of sea level rise, I don’t think any of these barrier islands are inhabitable in the normal sense that we live on them today,” Wanless says.

Having spent nearly six decades studying the geologic impacts of rising seas on global coastlines since the last Ice Age, Wanless can foresee the disaster that will overtake his city as surely as critics predicted the death of the cocaine-fueled disco era 40 years ago.

Of late, what worries Wanless most are the “21 climate change feedback loops” that he says are now accelerating the melting of glaciers and the polar ice sheet. Those processes — such as the recent finding that more frequent rain in Greenland has doubled the rate the continent now contributes to sea level rise — have made Wanless increasingly pessimistic about South Florida’s future.

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