This article is part of a series form Future Tense and New America’s Future of Land and Housing Program on reimagining how America will adapt to climate change and sea level rise.
The idea that the Atlantic Ocean will one day swallow Miami due to climate change is nothing new. In fact, it’s at least six decades old. Frank Capra’s far-seeing 1958 film, The Unchained Goddess, envisioned a climate-wrecked and flooded city, with disaster tourists in glass-bottom boats peering through 150 feet of seawater at drowned bungalows and art deco towers.
We’re unlikely to see the 20-story swells that Capra described, as most scientists today predict 5 to 6 feet of sea-level rise in South Florida by 2100. Yet climate change very much remains an existential threat to Miami, with its effects increasingly apparent today. The city’s surrounding waters rose 6 inches within the past 25 years—some of the fastest rates globally—and “sunny day flooding” (which is exactly what it sounds like) is up 400 percent since 2006.
Absent large-scale adaptation, things will become increasingly catastrophic for Miami. Worst-case projections for 2100 from the research group Climate Central show South Beach completely inundated and generally uninhabitable, while downtown Miami and nearby residential neighborhoods could experience near-constant street and first-floor flooding. Under this scenario, nationally-critical infrastructure, including Miami International Airport’s runways and the Port of Miami’s cargo docks, will disappear. Additional saltwater intrusion in the Biscayne Aquifer, which is already happening, could deprive South Florida of its primary source for drinking water. And tides could eventually encroach Miami from both the Atlantic and the Everglades.
If these dreary, calamitous predictions come to fruition, they mean billions of dollars in damages and property loss, climate gentrification and increased inequality in higher-elevation neighborhoods such as Little Haiti, and untold political and social instability as nearly 1 million people become displaced. Eventually, a direct hit by a mega-hurricane could simply wipe an increasingly dilapidated Miami off the map.
But a bleak future as the “American Atlantis” isn’t inevitable, as long as the region’s leaders and residents take action to survive into the 22nd century. Many of the efforts proposed or underway right now are wholly inadequate to deal with climate change in South Florida. Instead, Miami must rip up its current plans, drastically reimagine how it can live with rising waters, and devote unprecedented resources to transform itself into a new-age Amsterdam (dare we say: Miamsterdam?) or Venice.
In March, John Morales, a meteorologist from Miami, succinctly captured the limited scale of the city’s present strategy in a Washington Post opinion piece: “Miami’s master plan, if implemented, would protect the city from five-year storms. The Netherlands’ Rotterdam, by contrast, is protected against 10,000-year storms.” Current projects across the region–such as installing more pumps to drain water back into the ocean, raising roads and buildings by a foot or two, or constructing more sea walls–are simply stopgaps for the coming crisis. As one example, Miami is geologically built on a foundation of porous limestone, so a 20-foot sea wall downtown, along Biscayne Bay, will do very little to keep water from rising up out of the ground.
Moving beyond the usual doom and gloom of climate change, it’s easy (and a little tempting) to imagine the future city as a series of interconnected, artificial islands. Or, similar to climate fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, maybe Miami could reinvent itself as a half-flooded yet innovative utopia with sky bridges between high-rises, rooftop farms and aquaculture pens, and way too many water taxis to count.
These futuristic reimaginings can help us move beyond feelings of helplessness and apathy in regard to climate change. Leaving sci-fi behind, however, there are actually a wide range of more realistic and well-established adaptation policies that Miami can adopt in the next several decades to better live with sea-level rise and hotter temperatures.
Looking at the experience of the Dutch—who reclaimed nearly 20 percent of their land from the North Sea or lakes during previous centuries with much less developed technology—brings insights to the seemingly insurmountable problems facing South Florida. While it’s true that Miami’s challenge is unique, as the city sits on a leaky, porous foundation, it can still learn a great deal from the Netherlands’ holistic engineering approach to water management. City leaders should shamelessly copy Dutch techniques in waterways and low-lying areas, including massive dike construction, canals, colossal storm surge barriers such as the Maeslantkering, back-up systems, and deployment of complex pumping networks. More recent innovations to fight flood waters—such as parking garages that double as emergency reservoirs and basketball courts that also act as retention ponds—don’t just protect infrastructure; they serve economic and social needs, as well.
During a 2017 interview Henk Ovink, the Netherlands’ special envoy for water affairs, said that what Miami needs is an approach that is comprehensive, systematic, digestible, and actionable politically and socially (in other words, a massively ambitious plan that nonetheless says: “Here’s the roadmap for the next 50 years, and here’s what we do in the first five”). Developing such a strategy for Miami will certainly require massive funding, strong government leadership, and vigorous public activism—but it’s necessary to save the city.
Beyond water management strategies, Miami must also develop considerably new or reinforced zoning and building codes. Homes, commercial buildings, and urban infrastructure will bear the brunt of climate effects, and there’s a host of potential solutions: banning construction in low-lying flood zones; elevating buildings, their critical equipment (such as mechanical systems and electrical infrastructure), and roads five or six feet above projected sea-level rise; extending waterfront setbacks, removing septic tanks from the ground, and reinforcing building foundations to resist water pressure.
Aside from rising tides and storm surges, research suggests Miami residents will sweat through 100 to 200 days of deadly heat by 2100. Already, there are several construction techniques that can reduce the impact of scorching temperatures citywide. These include extensive use of “green infrastructure” such as green walls, green roofs, and vegetated surfaces to provide thermal insulation and shade. Reducing impervious surfaces and using reflective roofs are also measures that can counteract the sun’s rays.
All of these measures will require extensive buy-in from the real estate market and tourism sector. Contractors, developers, and others in the construction industry note that enforcing such standards drives up construction costs (if ever so slightly) in an already unaffordable market. But that doesn’t mean these changes are impossible. Making them happen will require a twofold approach. First, community engagement in developing Miami’s building codes is critical, to ensure that residents’ interests are well-represented. Second, public pressure on local authorities should emphasize the need to develop incentives for innovative financial models to help offset any increased construction costs.
Then there’s nature-based solutions, many of which would enhance the effectiveness of manmade interventions. For instance, building sea walls and planting mangroves or other wetland species—through what is known as a hybrid approach—can reduce the threat of inundation while also providing a habitat for marine life and improving water quality. As noted in Miami-Dade’s latest Coastal Risk Management Feasibility Study, mangroves can attenuate storm surges by one-half to one foot along the vulnerable shorelines of Biscayne Bay. These trees can also provide protection during hurricane season, although local officials will need to think a bit bigger: Planting forests that beat back larger waves will involve institutional planning at a massive scale.
Finally, it’s crucial to continue reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Miami and beyond. We know that resiliency plans can’t succeed unless humanity reduces the impact of activities that produce heat-trapping gas. That’s why ideas and strategies for reducing communities’ energy consumption and minimizing their carbon footprint, whether well-established or cutting edge, must remain at the center of public debate, official policies, and scientific study. Climate plans aren’t an excuse to continue large-scale fossil fuel burning, negligent land use, and deforestation.
If Miami continues on its current course, the socioeconomic effects of climate change in the coming decades will be severe, likely including widespread destruction of property, depletion of freshwater sources, damaged ecosystems, and significant loss of life. Although these challenges are immense, the major barrier in addressing them is not the lack of knowledge, technical capability, or models for effective strategizing.
Rather, the challenge in South Florida and elsewhere is a lack of sustained political will, effective governance, and the institutional infrastructure that can plan, develop, and implement a comprehensive and long-term climate plan starting right now. Miami has the tools to save itself from the encroaching ocean—it’s up to its residents and their politicians to keep the city above the waves and thriving well into the next century.