The highest high tides of the year — known as King Tides — have made headlines in South Florida over the years as floodwater swamped roads, paralyzed cars and turned parks into lakes.
But this year, at the height of the season’s annual tides, they barely caused a ripple.
The combination of a reprieve from nature, with almost a foot less water washing ashore in low-lying parts of Miami-Dade, and proactive engineering work from South Florida cities allowed the region to scrape by with minimal disruption from flooding.
However, despite the temporary respite, a new global climate change report reiterated that the world must take drastic action to protect places like South Florida.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released on Monday, citing thousands of studies and put together by hundreds of scientists from 40 countries, said the planet has 12 years to slash emissions or face massive droughts, food shortages and floods by 2040.
Those emissions have to be at net-zero by 2050, or the world will be unable to avoid warming 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
The world has already warmed one degree since the industrial revolution, with more than half that degree in the last 30 years, according to an Associated Press analysis of NOAA data. Since 1988, South Florida has warmed almost a full degree Fahrenheit.
That leaves the planet with eighty years to keep warming from going up another half degree, which would take rapid, drastic action across the planet.
“It’s geophysically possible, in the sense that if you zeroed out all emissions today we could stay below 1.5 degrees,” said Ben Kirtman, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.
Even two degrees of warming — the goal set by the global Paris Accords — would “be truly catastrophic” for the neighboring Caribbean island, he said.
“This report is really stark about what is required. It’s jolting in terms of what’s required to even get close to that 1.5 degrees,” said Kirtman, who worked on the previous IPCC report in 2014.
In a “worst case” scenario that imagines 3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, the authors write that “a hurricane with intense rainfall associated with high storm surges destroys a large part of Miami.”
The world would reach that warming under “business as usual” scenarios, Kirtman said. That scenario would see Miami inundated with almost three feet of water by 2100.
For now, South Florida appears to have won this year’s battle with tides strengthened by rising seas, thanks to a combined effort of man and mother nature.
Miami Beach reported no flood-related road closures, flooding complaints or temporary pumps deployed in the city.
Tony Gallo, owner of Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante in Sunset Harbour, said he had “no issues.” His restaurant made headlines when it was initially denied a flood claim after Miami Beach raised the adjacent road to protect the area from flooding, leaving his space at “basement” level.
In Miami, there were no flooding-related calls to the city’s 311 number during the worst of the tides, and the city used three temporary pumps — in Shorecrest, Belle Meade and Fairview.
A longtime Shorecrest resident, Eric Bason, said he saw an “80 percent improvement” in flooding over last year, when King Tide soaked his whole street in ankle deep water. This year the puddle only covered a few square feet.
“It is definitely an improvement all things considered,” he said.
Miami spent the last few weeks installing valves and temporary plugs that block seawater from creeping in. Alan Dodd, director of the city’s Department of Resilience and Public Works, said the new temporary tidal dams stationed throughout the city never had to be used.
“In general I think it was a huge success in terms of identifying weak spots,” Dodd said. “We’ve still got a couple things to do to make it dry.”
At the notoriously flood-prone Jose Marti Park in Miami, which has a sea rise-resistant redesign in the works, water from the Miami River wasn’t even over the edge of the park’s sea wall at high tide. The city’s temporary tidal dams and sandbags sat unused. Last year, water spilled onto the sidewalk.
“Not so much today,” said Miami Commissioner Ken Russell. He said the city is almost ready to start spending the $200 million set aside for sea rise action in the city’s Miami Forever Bond. That cash will fund projects like raising sea walls and installing more one-valves in coastal neighborhoods like Shorecrest.
State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, a Democrat whose district covers parts of coastal Miami-Dade, showed up at media event at the park wearing his signature rubber boots with #ActOnClimateFL written on them. He credited those infrastructure improvements for lessening this year’s impact and said the state needs to fund more of it.
“There is no state wide planning on the effects of climate change,” he said. “We need to make this front and center if we’re going to shore up confidence in our future.”
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins, whose district includes Little Havanna, said the region is just as vulnerable as Miami Beach, but it’s a lower income neighborhood and gets less attention.
“Sometimes they don’t have the loudest voice. It’s very worrisome,” she said. “We need a resiliency plan for every stitch along the river.”
The highest tides this year were predicted to be around a foot above sea level, according to NOAA calculations at the Virginia Key station, and they were recorded at 1.5 feet. Last year, NOAA predicted tides around .8 feet above sea level and measured the highest tide at 2.3 feet.
So why was this year’s tide so much lighter?
For one, last year’s high tides were coupled with rain, which had no place to drain in the already soggy ground.
Michael Sukop, a professor with Florida International University’s Department of Earth and Environment department, also noted the Florida current, the stream that carries Atlantic Ocean water north past the east coast of Florida, was moving much more slowly this time last year. A slower current has less of a gravitational pull on the water within it, allowing more to slosh onto shore.
Hurricane Michael, which is swirling toward Florida’s Big Bend area, didn’t have an impact.
“It doesn’t appear Michael has played a big role in increasing our tidal level above what’s been predicted,” said Robert Molleda, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Miami.
He noted that the region is due for another high-ish round of King Tides in November, and if a tropical storm or hurricane is heading toward the east coast at that time it could “make up the difference” and lead to more flooding.
“It’s not the end of King Tide season yet,” he said.