Heed some new ways to combat rising seas in Miami and Miami Beach

Miami Herald Editorial Board

This map shows what Florida will look like when the sea level rises.
This map shows what Florida will look like when the sea level rises. Courtesy SRTM Team NASA/JPL/NIMA

When it comes to sea-level rise, it has long been known that Miami Beach is Ground Zero for whatever dystopian scenario the inundating waters could bring. And that Miami is not far behind.

Leaders for both municipalities have made confronting this challenge a priority. And so have students at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities.

On Wednesday, a group of Harvard graduate students and their professor unveiled in a presentation to Miami Beach leaders both conventional — and unconventional — solutions to our rising waters.

The basis of their recommendations rests on these core questions: If Miami and Miami Beach are going to be living with water, what form will that take day to day and how will it look?

Professor Charles Waldheim and 50 students, speaking in front of Miami Beach commissioners, said they spent almost three years envisioning ways to prevent our most famous cities from being engulfed by water — pretty much bringing an end to life as we know it.

The Harvard group also revealed some inconvenient truths. Most troubling: The state-of-the-art pumps Miami Beach installed to drain flood waters and construction to raise the street level — to the tune of $500 million in taxpayer money — will become inadequate to hold back the water.

Given what the science says about sea-level rise, the students’ prognosis is clear-eyed and sobering — and cannot be ignored.

The Harvard group had some outside-the-box ideas Miami Beach and Miami could consider to adapt to rising seas:

▪ Large, concrete water-holding cisterns that can double as art strategically placed on roofs throughout the city and in public parks. The idea is for them to capture rainwater.

▪ Constructing buildings with “sacrificial floors” on top of a layer of limestone that would serve as a “sponge pad” to absorb excess water that seeps in.

▪ Deepening Collins Canal and using the excavated rock, muck and sand to elevate nearby properties.

The students suggested the city focus on using more trees, grasses and other nature-based solutions to drain floodwater and create pleasant public spaces.

The university project looking at how we’re dealing with sea-level rise and climate change comes at an important time for Miami, too.

Last week, Mayor Francis Suarez decided to expand the goals of the city’s Sea-Level Rise Committee, following a brouhaha at a meeting where the cause of sea-level rise, assumed to be climate change, was declared off limits by committee member Reinaldo Borges pushing back against a climate-change activist. The disagreement prompted Suarez to suggest that the committee expand its scope to include climate change — and to ask Borges to resign.

Miami is fortunate to have a mayor who has long been a voice of concern and wisdom as to the city’s vulnerability. However, we’re disappointed that Suarez sought to remove a dissenting voice, however rude and hostile that day, from the committee.

The mayor could follow U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s example. The lawmaker took the lead in assembling a bipartisan task force in Congress where members put aside their differences about the existence or sources of climate change to focus on the undeniable reality of rising seas.

If we’re going to keep our heads above water, we need to rise above this enduring disagreement and get to work.