Four years ago, federal officials published a report that labeled the Tampa Bay area as one area in Florida particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. The report, the Third National Climate Assessment, also warned of increases in harmful algae blooms off Florida’s coast, worsening seasonal allergies for people already made miserable by springtime pollen and heavier rainstorms and flooding in low-lying areas.
On Friday, federal officials released their followup, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which over the course of 1,000 pages looks at how climate change is already disrupting life in the United States — with more hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves and other disasters — and what communities are doing to deal with it.
The report — produced by 300 scientists, many from 13 federal departments and agencies, and overseen by the U.S. Global Change Research Program — warns that humans must take action now “to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.”
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“You’re going to be seeing heavier rainfall, an increase in hot days, a decrease in colder days and you’re going to have all the issues with sea level rise,” said David Easterling with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration, which oversaw the release of the report. Florida in particular has been seeing an increase in what he called “sunny day flooding,” with water washing across roads and sidewalks on days when there’s not a cloud in the sky.
Contrary to President Trump, who has repeatedly expressed skepticism about the existence of climate change, the report says that “the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising.”
The report notes, as evidence, that the U.S. is already 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was 100 years ago and that the seas that surround the country are on average 9 inches higher and climbing.
“The global average temperature is much higher and is rising more rapidly than anything modern civilization has experienced, and this warming trend can only be explained by human activities,” Easterling said during a conference call with reporters. Scientists on the call did not want to discuss the Trump administration’s decision to release the report on the day after Thanksgiving, which is generally considered a day for quietly releasing news that’s likely to make the government look bad.
Rising sea levels, particularly in Florida, mean greater damage from storm surges during hurricanes such as Hurricanes Michael and Irma. An insurance industry group has ranked the Tampa Bay region as the most vulnerable metropolitan area in the United States to storm surge, with $175 billion in potential losses.
Florida’s long history of building along the coastline puts much of its property at risk. While the report does not refer to Tampa Bay’s vulnerability, it does point out that “Florida alone is estimated to have a 1-in-20 chance of having more than $346 billion (in 2011 dollars) in property value ... below average sea level by 2100.”
Rising sea levels can damage roads, homes, sewers and the power grid. For instance, the report notes that under one sea-level-rise scenario, the number of major power plant substations in Florida that would be exposed to flooding from a Category 3 storm “could more than double by 2050 and triple by 2070.”
According to David Reidmiller, director of the National Climate Assessment, industries likely to see the biggest impacts from climate change are three that are crucial to Florida’s economy: agriculture, tourism and fishing.
Some of the impacts are less obvious. For instance, the report notes, higher temperatures mean “make conditions more suitable for transmission” of such diseases as Zika virus, West Nile virus, dengue fever and other insect-borne diseases “including year-round transmission in southern Florida.”
Reidmiller noted that since the last report came out four years ago, the nation has seen an increase in efforts by local governments to adapt to the changes wrought by climate change by raising highways above floodwaters and relocating important facilities away from the waterfront.
The report mentions the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which was formed in 2010 by Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties and now includes 35 local governments trying to find ways to cope with climate change. However, the newer Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition, which formed in October, did not get a shout out.
It also notes that Tampa Bay Water, the largest wholesale water utility in the Southeast, “is coordinating with groups including the Florida Water and Climate Alliance to study the impact of climate change on its ability to provide clean water in the future.” Meanwhile the Seminole Tribe “assessed flooding and sea level rise threats to their water infrastructure and developed potential adaptation measures.”
However, Reidmiller said, those local and state government efforts have yet to reach the scale needed to fully offset the changes likely to occur with the current pace of rising temperatures and sea levels.
A state law that took effect in 2015 requires coastal Florida governments to address sea level rise and future flood risks in new ways.
But Gov. Rick Scott has questioned whether climate change exists and, according to some former state employees, banned use of the term. Scott, who was just elected to the U.S. Senate, has denied the ban exists.
Governor-elect Ron DeSantis has said he does not view climate change as a problem for the state to take on, except in terms of trying to cope with the damage being done by rising seas.