Local Obituaries

Sea level rise geologist Peter Harlem dies, leaving detailed impact on Florida

Peter Harlem, a geoscientist and coordinator of Florida International University’s Georgraphic Information Services Center, created high resolution maps to warn of the dangers of sea level rise.
Peter Harlem, a geoscientist and coordinator of Florida International University’s Georgraphic Information Services Center, created high resolution maps to warn of the dangers of sea level rise.

South Florida will be nearly completely underwater, save 3 percent of its land surface, by 2159, warned geologist Peter Harlem in his trailblazing imagery.

Harlem, who died March 15 at age 67, of melanoma, had already made waves in the scientific community with his 1979 University of Miami thesis paper on changes in Biscayne Bay. In 2008, Harlem, by then a leading geoscientist at Florida International University, used Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) imagery, a remote sensing method incorporating a pulsed laser used to examine the surface of the Earth, for his series of maps on sea-level rise. He earned international renown.

Click here to read a Miami Herald story on sea level rise and its impact on South Florida

“His maps were pivotal in showing that Turkey Point would be underwater and what Miami-Dade really faced from sea level rise,” said Jonathan Ullman, South Florida/Everglades senior field organizer for the Sierra Club, an environmental group. Harlem’s findings landed in the pages of Rolling Stone, The New York Times and the Miami Herald.

Miami Finds Itself Ankle-Deep in Climate Change Debate, screamed the New York Times.

Millennials Are Flocking To Miami, Where They Might All Drown Soon, cried Fast Company.

Goodbye, Miami, Rolling Stone simply said in a 2013 report.

“Peter had such an even keel of a personality he could deal with different questions and provide a straightforward, simple explanation of why the world works and why it works in terms of sea level rise,” said Ben Kirtman, director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies at the University of Miami, Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science.

“The work he did using LiDAR was profound stuff when he first started doing that in terms of tipping public opinion on the real threat of sea level rise. That was a profound contribution to society,” Kirtman said.

The man who helped explain science in a way lay people could understand got his start at the University of Miami in 1968.

His former colleague, Jack Meeder, a retired research scientist from FIU who hired Harlem in 1999 for the school’s Division of Research and Economic Development, jokes that Harlem’s early run as a student at UM wasn’t as auspicious as his later scientific endeavors.

“He flunked out,” Meeder said. “He liked scuba diving too much and ended up going into the Army.”

But he had a keen eye, even at 20. Harlem served in Vietnam and became a leading expert on Vietnam history, collecting thousands of Vietnam war photographs, documentations and war journals. He recently donated his Vietnam photography collection to FIU’s library for digitization, an ongoing process.

“He was very proud of his military service during Vietnam,” his nephew Robert Harlem said.

He returned to UM and earned his master’s in marine geology in 1979. “He did a master’s thesis with us … and he used the oldest pair of photos available from the 1920s and compared them with the most recent air photos at the time, 1976 or so, to look at the way in which humans modified our coastline and Biscayne Bay and dredging and filling, because that wasn’t a documented thing,” said Harold Wanless, UM’s department chairman of the geology department.

“He has forever been contributing to our community and to its health and welfare.”

Harlem, coordinator of FIU’s Geographic Information Services Center (GIS), was born Nov. 15, 1948, in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, on an Army post. His father was a retired colonel.

“That led to some of Pete’s character,” surmised Meeder. “He moved around a lot, lived in Japan and Panama at one time or another, and had a lot of experiences getting to know people quick. He was a multifaceted individual.”

FIU, in a statement, said of Harlem: “Pete was a beloved mentor to thousands of students, faculty, and staff who came through the GIS Center. He was patient, kind, and generously resourceful. A trained geologist with expertise on sea level rise, coastal geomorphology, historical ecology, and everything in between, Pete was a source of knowledge unlike any other at FIU.”

Of course, in a politicized environment, Harlem’s warnings of sea rise were dismissed by some.

“While they are playing politics the water’s still coming up,” Harlem said in the St. Petersburg Times in 2011, when he expressed concern about Florida Power & Light’s nuclear plant at Turkey Point’s exposure to rising waters. Gov. Rick Scott disputed Harlem’s viewpoint. “I’ve not been convinced that there’s any man-made climate change,” he said at the time.

Harlem and Wanless, the UM geology chair, were part of a climate change advisory task force before the Miami-Dade County Commission in 2008. The group urged elected officials to make use of Harlem’s high resolution LiDAR maps by placing the county’s infrastructure on them to get a visual of future sea level rise and to make the necessary upgrades to protect the county.

“For 2-1/2 years the Commission made it so the maps never appeared. Peter was able to make them available,” Wanless said. “They are still one of the most used things to look at the future of South Florida. He made those available when parts of the Commission were being obstructionist. That was a huge thing. He was starting to make the people concerned and now government entities, people like [Coral Gables Mayor] Jim Cason, are going head over heels looking at maps and infrastructures. Others still have their heads in their hands.”

Click here to read a Miami Herald story on the Rutgers report on sea level rise

Harlem is survived by his brother Dana Harlem. Donation’s in Harlem’s name can be made to the SERC-GIS Annual Climate Change Lecture Series or the Peter Harlem Vietnam Photograph Collection at FIU. Call 305-348-4349. A wake is in the planning stages in a month or two, said Meeder.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen