For the past three decades, University of Miami geology professor Harold Wanless has tracked the tides as they crept higher, watched oysters head for drier ground and repeatedly warned that the ocean is swelling in ways that could one day put coastal cities like Miami under water.
His predictions — punctuated with dire conclusions like “this is going to test the very fibers of civilization” — often drew skepticism or, worse, silence.
But earlier this month, two new studies reported findings that, if they hold up, would confirm what he and other scientists have long suspected: Global warming has triggered an unstoppable melting of polar ice in Antarctica that could raise sea level by 10 feet or more over the next several centuries.
Coming on the heels of international and national assessments that this spring affirmed the effects of climate change, the 72-year-old professor is finding himself in new territory.
“People used to yell at you when you gave talks,” said Wanless, who is not prone to smiling. “They don’t do that anymore.”
The chair of UM’s geology department, he has a 43-page résumé listing dozens of publications and accomplishments, including being a lecturer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as an elementary school science fair judge. He now hopes the long debate over climate change can get to what he sees as the real point: not whether humans are warming the planet, but how fast it is warming.
Wanless was not alone when he sounded the alarm bell on rising seas over the years. But getting the public — and politicians — to pay attention was a struggle, particularly for scientists used to operating in the safety of their laboratories.
“You’re supposed to be sitting in a lab doing really good science, and what’s happening to the rest of the world is not of your concern,” said Orrin Pilkey, a Duke University earth and ocean sciences professor emeritus and expert in coastal erosion.
Then came findings that man-made greenhouse gases were changing the planet’s climate in dangerous ways. Around the world, from growing acidity in warmer oceans to rising water in South Florida, alarming signs began forcing scientists into the public debate, sometimes at their own risk. Michael Mann, a Pennsylvania State University climatologist and geophysicist whose work helped the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) win the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007, had his emails hacked and his records subpoenaed by Virginia’s attorney general and wound up in a bitter libel dispute with the National Review.
When it came to sea level rise, Wanless was often at the front of that effort in South Florida, Pilkey said.
“The good thing about Hal is he’s greatly respected by the scientific community,” he said. “I think we’re lucky to have him on patrol.”
But his predictions that put sea level rises in South Florida higher than consensus assessments sometimes triggered skepticism. In its April report, the IPCC predicted a one-to-three-foot rise over the next century. The Miami-Dade County Climate Change Task Force that Wanless co-chairs predicted a three-to-five-foot rise. But Wanless believes the starting point for projections should be four feet.
“It doesn’t mean we are saying different things about the science,” said Leonard Berry, director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University and an author of the National Climate Assessment’s Southeast chapter, published in April. “It means we are making different judgments about the timing of those events. In defense of Hal’s position, every step of the way in the last 10 or 15 years, our projections have moved upwards. So some of the rest of us are where he was 10 years ago.”
Still, Benjamin Kirtman, a UM meteorology and oceanography professor who helped author the April IPCC report, said more studies need to be done to confirm the higher projections for sea rise triggered by melting ice.
Wanless has not ducked the contentious politics of the issue and does not hesitate to call out skeptics of manmade climate change, particularly politicians. He said he twice offered to convene scientists to talk to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, but the Miami Republican never took him up on the offers. So when Rubio recently said on ABC News that he was not convinced humans were driving climate change, Wanless called it “horrible.”
Though Rubio later said in an interview with the Miami Herald that he is not denying that climate change is occurring, he also would not answer yes or no when asked whether humans were driving the change.
“I understand, politically, the issue is easier to write as ‘He either supports it or he doesn’t. He either believes it or he doesn’t.’ But these are complex issues. Even the science on this has evolved over the past 20 years,” Rubio said.
Wanless, however, is unequivocal in his response.
“Any elected official who doesn’t understand climate change, who isn’t fully trying to plan for what people and communities are going to have to face,” he said, “shouldn’t be in elected office.”
For Wanless, taking up climate change was a matter of joining the family business. His father, Harold Wanless Sr., was a geologist at the University of Illinois who helped crack the riddle of advancing and retreating glaciers as early as 1936. His posthumously published book, Our Changing Shorelines, became a definitive study of the evolution of shorelines, said Pilkey, who keeps a copy in his office.
After graduating from Princeton, completing graduate work at the University of Miami and earning a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University, the younger Wanless picked up where his father left off, examining ancient formations from the Grand Canyon to the mud banks in Florida Bay. His work took him from the tangled mangroves of Florida Bay to the frigid base of a glacier.
“He’s one of the unusual scientists that has worked both ends of the problem,” Berry said. “He’s worked in the Arctic and really has as good a sense as anybody on the dynamics of the Arctic, but he also lives and works in Florida, where you have the impacts of the Arctic.”
Wanless sees his work as connecting the dots, recorded in carbon dating, that show how the seas rose in bursts as ice sheets disintegrated.
“That turns out to be the only thing we know about how fast ice can respond to climate change,” he said.
One day last week, sitting in his office at the end of a maze of hallways on the bottom floor of UM’s Cox Science Building, Wanless traced his conclusions on climate change to three turning points in the past three decades.
First came a 1980s workshop where a scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution presented a paper on rising sea level and tidal gauges. Wanless said he came home, recruited a grad student and starting reviewing decades of recordings from tidal gauges. He even found indications of sea rise in his own neighborhood: Oysters attached to pilings on the Le Jeune Road bridge over the Gables Waterway had moved six inches higher since the 1940s.
Then in the 1990s, Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning climatologist. completed climate modeling that he said showed greenhouse gases were driving global warming. The final piece of the puzzle came when scientists found the warming was expanding the planet’s oceans, making low-lying Florida, the porous ridge of a larger limestone plateau fingering into the Caribbean, particularly vulnerable.
“Then my talks on sea level rise could suddenly say global warming is real and the warming of our oceans was a good part of sea level rise,” Wanless said.
Though some skeptics have argued that the planet has stopped warming because temperatures have stopped rising during the past 15 years, he says that’s “hooey.”
Greenhouse gases trap heat from the sun. That “back radiation” then gets absorbed by the oceans, which cover about 70 percent of the planet.
“That’s the way it’s always worked. Water has the great capacity to hold heat. It always has. It’s wonderful,” he said.
In the summers of 2012 and 2013, Wanless headed to western Greenland to see for himself what was happening with the planet’s massive ice sheets. He camped at the bottom of the Jacobshavn glacier, which scientists have been closely watching for signs of collapse. When he flew over in 2012, he said, 97 percent of the ice sheet was glistening as it melted. It is also releasing huge amounts of methane from organic material trapped in the ice, one of the chemicals in the greenhouse gas cocktail that could cause even greater warming.
“In 2002, [scientists] thought the Arctic might be ice-free by 2070,” he said. “Now they realize it will be ice-free this decade.”
In its report last week, the NASA-funded University of California at Irvine study found warmer ocean water was flowing under the edges of the vast West Antarctic ice sheet, destabilizing it. On his visits to Greenland, which began losing ice mass in the 1970s, Wanless said he could see fractures not just around the sheet’s edges, but miles inland.
It looked, he said, like “a meandering river valley for 50 miles because the warm water had gotten in.”
The title of Wanless’ first editorial about sea rise in the 1980s started as a joke — “Sea Level Rise. So What?” — but over the years, it became a call to action.
“Hal has really taken his science directly to the people,” said UM’s Kirtman. “The science is driving him to this social consciousness.”
Wanless’s higher projections for sea rise included a longer timeframe than what policy makers felt comfortable managing, said James F. Murley, the South Florida Regional Planning Council’s executive director, who helped author the National Climate Assessment. Policymakers deal in decades, not centuries, he said.
“They have different views or disciplines that they use to reach their conclusions,” he said. “Hal is really focused on [long-range projections] and that’s harder for people to grasp, the idea that the water is going to rise at whatever level of time and rise and rise and not recede.”
And for solutions to be realistic, Kirtman said, projections have to be manageable. “Hal’s arguing what’s going to happen in the next 100 years and what I like to argue about is the next 10 years,” he said.
But Wanless contends that softening predictions is irresponsible. In typical fashion, his warning comes in stark terms.
“The truth is out now. Our tenure on low-lying parts of South Florida is coming to an end. You buy down here at your own peril,” he said. “If communities and governments aren’t fairly warning people, they are at massive risks for lawsuits because the reality is here.”