Broward County

U.N. climate scientists gather in Miami

Before Miami Beach installed pumps last year, parts of Alton Road routinely flooded during seasonal high tides.
Before Miami Beach installed pumps last year, parts of Alton Road routinely flooded during seasonal high tides. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The next big challenge facing climate scientists will be connecting a global problem to local wallets, the head of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told scientists and policy makers gathered Friday at the University of Miami.

“We know too well that climate change is a direct impact to families and organizations and not just a subject of research,” said Hoesung Lee, a South Korean economist elected chair of the influential body last month.

Later this month, Lee will lead the 21st annual climate talks in Paris, where countries will try to hammer out an international agreement to slow climate change. Talks are expected to be tense as leaders try to put limits on carbon emissions.

In South Florida, Lee and other scientists said they need to do a better job of working with government and business to explain potential damages and close the gap between global projections and local impacts.

“Details matter. People in Miami Beach want to know street by street what the sea level rise is going to be,” said UM climate scientist Ben Kirtman, who helped author the IPCC’s 2014 assessment that concluded that human activity is driving climate change.

Across vulnerable islands in the Caribbean, the message is even harder to communicate with long-range projections and global maps that often don’t even show islands, said John Agard, a tropical ecologist at the University of the West Indies.

“When you get mixed in with the rest of the globe, you kind of vanish,” he said. “The reality is people and money.”

While work still needs to be done to model local conditions, scientists got an early hint by looking at some old data: 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. Using the National Hurricane Center’s storm surge models, they projected what would happen if Andrew’s 14 to 15-foot storm surge — which came ashore in Palmetto Bay and stayed east of the region’s coastal ridge — came atop an additional two feet of sea rise.

“Now it over-tops the ridge and once you get over that ridge, it’s basically downhill all the way to Naples,” said UM atmospheric scientist Brian Soden. “Instead of a small region affected by storm surge, you have basically the southern half of Dade county.”

To better communicate those kinds of specifics, Kirtman said he is trying to focus on near-term projections rather than long range.

“For politicians and governments to be able to make decisions, scientists need to start acting with them,” he said. “We need to take the IPCC process to the next step. That interaction is not happening robustly enough now.”

Jenny Staletovich: 305-376-2109, @jenstaletovich