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How businesses, stakeholders grapple with the threat of rising sea levels

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The Marco Island Center for the Arts sits precariously close to water on all sides. To the north and east are canals, and to the south is Caxambas Pass. The Gulf of Mexico looms to the west, flat and vast. If an especially high storm surge were to sweep across the island, saltwater would flood the center’s galleries and corridors. Like all of Southwest Florida, it trembles before the power of the tides.

In 2022, the Marco Island Center for the Arts will seal a time capsule that’s intended to remain unopened for the next 50 years. The capsule will contain present-day newspapers, menus from local restaurants, photographs, handmade pieces of art, even a replica of the Marco Cat. The center also has asked schoolchildren to contribute drawings for the capsule following the theme “What will the world look like in 50 years?” A surprising number of the pictures show people living beneath the sea.

Although the center’s executive director, Hyla Crane, is enthusiastic about the time capsule, she’s worried that the Center for the Arts won’t be around to unseal it. In fact, she’s not sure any part of Marco Island will still be here in 50 years. “When we think about the time capsule, we think about projecting the voices of the community into the future,” Crane says. “But none of it’s going to matter if all of this is underwater.”

Rising sea levels are a tangible threat to this area. Every industry is affected, from builders to insurance companies to nonprofits. Current projections estimate that seas are rising between 2.5 and 3.5 inches per year. And that rate is accelerating. According to models developed by Florida-based scientists, all of southwest Florida could be submerged in less than 100 years.

TAKING ACTION: THE SOUTHWEST FLORIDA REGIONAL RESILIENCY COMPACT

In April 2021, Collier County took an important step in preparing for sea level rise and climate change. It unanimously recommended to approve membership in the Southwest Florida Regional Resiliency Compact, a project spearheaded by Michael Savarese, professor of marine and earth sciences at the Water School at Florida GulfCoast University, and supported by Audubon Florida and its allied Southwest Florida chapters.

By signing the compact, Collier County joined 13 other jurisdictions across coastal Southwest Florida: Collier County, Lee County, Charlotte County, city of Punta Gorda, city of Sanibel, city of Fort Myers, city of Cape Coral, town of Fort Myers Beach, village of Estero, city of Bonita Springs, Captiva Erosion Prevention District, city of Naples, city of Everglades and city of Marco Island.

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Hurricane Irma saw striking Miami, Florida with 100+ mph winds and destructive storm surge.

“With the consequences of inaction becoming increasingly clear, this comes not a moment too soon,” says Halle Goldstein, who leads Audubon’swork on climate issues in Southwest Florida. Goldstein points to the shared interests of both local industries and environmentalists. “Agriculture, tourism, real estate, construction, the service industry, wildlife, birds—all of it is affected by sea level rise, storms and climate change. We share this common thread. It should be galvanizing to all of us to figure out how to respond.”

Goldstein and her Audubon colleagues hope the compact will launch an important discussion about climate change, one in which many area businesses are reluctant to engage. “This is not a partisan issue,” she says. “It’s a societal issue, especially in places like coastal Southwest Florida. We’re going to have to contend with this, whether people want to acknowledge it or not. We have to have this conversation.”

Importantly, the compact comes with a very practical upside. Earlier this year the state of Florida passed the Flooding and Sea Level Rise Resilience bill, which requires a statewide assessment of flood vulnerability and sea level rise. At the same time, the state also passed Senate Bill 2514, which created the Resilient Florida Trust Fund. The fund will pay for the assessments and provide infrastructure to combat the effects of sea level rise in vulnerable areas.

Both Audubon and FGCU’s Savarese believe local governments will have a greater ability to leverage that funding if they’re banded together. According to Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida Policy Associate for Audubon Florida and Audubon Western Everglades, that’s one reason the Resiliency Compact has received unanimous support. “Money is a great motivator,” Cornell says.

A PERFECT STORM

The threat to local businesses doesn’t just come from sea level rise; it’s sea level rise combined with increased hurricanes. Warming oceans create more intense storms. These storms build more rapidly, travel more slowly and pack more precipitation than storms of the past.

“By itself, sea level rise is a problem that has to be dealt with, but won’t wipe out a community overnight,” FGCU’s Savarese says. “But put an intense storm on top of higher sea levels, and it creates an immediate and devastating blow. These are the impacts that businesses need to pay close attention to.”

A frightening scenario: Take a sea level that’s a foot higher than it is today. Imagine a hurricane hits at high tide, which adds an additional 3 feet. Then put a 5-foot storm surge on top of that and 3 feet of waves. Suddenly, there’s a 12-foot-high wall of water bearing down.

“Your businesses on Fifth Avenue are about 3 feet above sea level,” Savarese says. “That’s a difficult proposition.”

WITH DANGER COMES INNOVATION: UNDERWATER TURBINES PROVIDE RENEWABLE ENERGY

While many see the waters that surround Florida as a threat, some look to the sea as a source of inspiration. On June 1 of last year, OceanBased Perpetual Energy announced a major breakthrough in the world of renewable energy. The Miami-based company, in conjunction with the Southeast National Marine Renewable Energy Center at Florida Atlantic University, made history with its prototypes of underwater turbines that can harness the power of the Gulf Stream.

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The iconic Cape Romano dome home in southern Collier County was built on land in 1980 but now is mostly submerged due to erosion.

The Gulf Stream is a roughly 50-foot-wide warm-water ocean current that flows from the Gulf of Mexico, around the tip of Florida, along the east coast of the United States and across the Atlantic to Great Britain and Iceland. Unlike other renewable energy sources such as wind and sun, which come and go, the Gulf Stream is relatively steady. It flows at a constant 3 to 5 miles an hour.

Last year, OceanBased Perpetual Energy performed a successful test of five prototypes for its undersea turbines. The turbines sat on the ocean floor off the east coast of Florida, 80 feet below the surface. The company’s founder anticipates that, if successful, OceanBased’s turbines will be able to generate enough energy to power millions of homes.

But as with all things related to our changing climate, there are no guarantees. A recent study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany warns that the Gulf Stream might be headed toward collapse. Using data on temperature and salinity from the last 150 years, researchers concluded in a report published in the journal Nature Climate Change that there has been “a gradual weakening during the last decades.” This decline might ultimately result in a much-diminished Gulf Stream.

Nevertheless, scientists at OceanBased are taking these factors into account and still pressing forward with their project. If the world is to change for the better, it will require bold innovators to take the first brave steps. Underwater turbines may be just what’s needed.

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