A Coastal Star Special Report:
Rising Water: New signs of rising sea levels cause concern
Sea Level Rise: A lexicon
By Paula Detwiller
South Floridians are accustomed to sudden change wrought by nature: hurricane damage, flooded streets — danger and destruction in intermittent doses.
What’s harder to wrap our minds around is the slow, gradual change that sea-level rise may bring. It’s not something we can see happening, like a multicolored blob on the weather map heading toward us. The prospect of seawater eventually covering the places we call home, the roads we navigate and the businesses we rely on simply changes everything.
For instance: That Intracoastal estate you plan to leave to your children? It may be uninhabitable in their lifetimes. That flood insurance you buy for peace of mind? It will become wildly expensive, and eventually unobtainable, say the experts. With rising seas, coastal real estate could become a liability, not an asset — and there goes your retirement nest egg.
When the consequences of sea-level rise sink in (pun intended), it’s a mind-bender, to say the least. Which is why scientists, educators and policy makers are holding sea level rise summits like the one hosted in mid-October by FAU’s Center for Environmental Studies. The title: “Resilience in the Face of Change.”
One of the speakers at the summit was Nancy Gassman, administrator of Broward County’s Natural Resources Planning and Management Division.
She’s a point person for the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a collaborative effort between Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties to “coordinate mitigation and adaptation activities across county lines.”
One of those adaptation activities for coastal homeowners and investors will be to adjust their mindsets, Gassman says.
“People will need to think differently about real estate. You’ll need to think about buying a home the way you think about buying a car. You purchase it, use it for a while, and as time goes on, it stops being an asset. The idea of legacy and the idea of investment — those won’t apply here anymore.”
Accepting the new realities will be difficult for many people, says Delray Beach psychologist Cynthia Reynolds, who helps clients adapt to major life changes such as divorce, death of a loved one or financial loss.
“A sense of denial and shock is pretty universal, and there’s also the wish to pretend it’s not true: ‘Oh, the politicians got it wrong,’ or ‘Gee, who’s getting rich off this?’ ” Reynolds says.
That’s why she says it’s important from a mental health standpoint that government involve citizens now in sea-level rise planning, before water laps at their doorsteps.
“Information is an antidote for anxiety,” Reynolds says. “It helps reduce fear of the unknown. Letting people have a role in gathering and discussing information that’s going to impact them will help them accept some of the difficult things coming their way.”
To that end, the Regional Climate Change Compact has drawn up an action plan that calls for (among other things) a coordinated multidisciplinary outreach and education program.
“This type of education can happen one-on-one, at the school or university level, through the news media, and through tweets and Facebook,” says Gassman.
At FAU, a new online course developed with data and funding from NASA is helping to create “climate literacy,” according to Camille Coley, the university’s assistant vice president for research. She says the course, called Climate Science Investigations, will educate both students and teachers and help combat some of the denial that exists about the inevitability of widespread seawater intrusion.
“Being a climate specialist, I can tell you this: It’s a continuous dialogue. We’re going to have to keep this thing moving,” Coley says.