June 1 is the official opening of hurricane season for the Atlantic coast of the United States. But for the millions of families that call southeastern Florida home, they don’t need a date on a calendar to remind them of the threats. Miami frequently tops the list as one of the world’s most vulnerable metropolitan areas with the most to lose from hurricanes, sea-level rise and flooding.
With a population of almost 2.7 million in Miami-Dade County and rapidly growing urbanization, increased human exposure to changing and less-predictable hazards is inevitable.
The economic toll from a changing climate is rising at astonishing rates worldwide. Miami is no exception. Coastal flooding and erosion are a regular consequence of today’s highest tides, causing billions of dollars in loss of property value as land is rapidly swept away or being slowly eroded by sea-level rise.
The costs of climate change can also be measured by the effects on critical infrastructure at risk, such as hospitals, schools and businesses that are already at or near sea level and vulnerable to flooding and erosion from waves and storm surges. According to The World Economic Forum’s World Risk Report, the No. 1 global risk is failure to mitigate and adapt to climate changes.
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As the population of Miami and surrounding communities continues to grow with more people looking to enjoy all that the region has to offer, so, too, will the urgency of preparation and the chorus of voices calling for solutions. It is time to act now, before another disaster strikes and as other less visible effects of climate changes are gradually having impact.
Worldwide, there are examples of simple, cost-effective, natural solutions to climate change that offer sustainable protection for communities and protect residents’ ability to make a living. Cultivating mangrove growth is one solution that has proven to be tremendously successful in warding off coastal erosion, drastically reducing storm surges and protecting biodiversity needed to sustain the fishing industry.
The global Red Cross and Red Crescent network promotes these kinds of interventions — easily replicated and able to protect people and places with relatively modest costs.
Seawalls and breakwaters often come to mind as disaster-preparedness tools, but these are not the only options. Coral reefs, mangroves, wetlands, and sand dunes are the first lines of defense and increasingly recognized for their ability to slow waves, reduce flooding and protect infrastructure. A healthy coral reef can reduce 97 percent of a wave’s energy before it hits the shore — and 100 meters of mangrove trees can reduce wave height by 66 percent. All these nature-based solutions are cost-effective, self-maintaining and adaptable to sea-level rise.
Miami recently was named as one of 100 Resilient Cities, a network created by the Rockefeller Foundation to support cities working to become more resilient to physical, social and economic challenges. But the fact is, Miami-Dade has already invested millions of dollars in natural areas, coastal protection and parks, and the benefits to people and infrastructure are clear and measurable.
The partners of the Miami Beach Dune Restoration and Enhancement project have restored native vegetation to sand dunes on North, Middle and South Beach. The healthier dunes reduce erosion, provide habitat for native plants and animals and are more structurally sound, improving the dunes’ ability to protect people and property from storm surge.
Virginia Key is a 1,000-acre island in Biscayne Bay northeast of the Miami-Dade County Central District Wastewater Treatment Plant. The barrier island provides a natural buffer to storms that might otherwise affect the facility. A restoration project under way replanting mangroves will help provide the first line of defense against erosion and other impacts of storms.
Nature offers an investment opportunity for different sectors — government, industry and development organizations — as the urgency of adapting to climate change continues.
Kathy Baughman McLeod is managing director of Coastal Risk and Resilience, The Nature Conservancy. Rebecca Scheurer is director of the, Red Cross Global Disaster Preparedness Center.