Editorials

Why do we believe hurricane science, but ignore the facts about rising seas?

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Here’s one sure bet about the hundreds gathering for the annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference, which runs this week in West Palm Beach: They’ll all want to hear forecasters’ predictions on how active the 2018 hurricane season is going to be.

And whenever a tropical storm forms in the Atlantic Ocean, they’ll keep a nervous eye on the computers’ predicted hurricane paths. They’ll become fluent on wind speeds and shear, drops in barometric pressure, cones of uncertainty.

They’ll be talking, in other words, about science.

And they’ll be heeding scientists. When the experts say a hurricane is about to make landfall, the governor and other leaders will urge Floridians to take appropriate action: Stay put or evacuate, open shelters, stock up on bottled water, kennel the pets.

But if science is to be trusted when it comes to hurricanes, why is it so hard for state officials in Florida and federal officials in the Trump administration to respect science when it comes to climate change and sea-level rise?

How is it that everyone will accept science whenever it shows that Florida is in danger of getting slammed by a storm, but that many stubbornly refuse to believe in science when it shows that the southern end of the peninsula is on a decades-long course to disappear under water?

This is not just a theoretical question. This is no parlor game. The scientists who have measured the global temperatures, the melting of the world’s great ice sheets and the rising of the oceans are no less worthy of our trust than are the weather experts who will alert us to the next tropical storm.

They’re in the exact same business: reading the data and warning us of imminent danger. The only difference is that the creeping rise of the sea level is far less visible than the ominous spiral of a hurricane.

In fact, the warnings are interrelated. One of the greatest dangers of global warming and rising seas to us will be the increasing intensity of hurricanes as they feed on warmer ocean water. As the sea level gets higher, storm surges will be stronger, more destructive and deadlier.

Climate expert Harold Wanless, chairman of the University of Miami Department of Geological Sciences, says that if Hurricane Irma had remained a Category 5 and hit the east coast of Florida — instead of veering west — our region would have suffered a devastating, transforming blow from a 20-foot surge that would have pounded us for hours.

The destruction would have been “much worse” than Katrina’s hit on New Orleans. South Beach’s famous row of Art Deco hotels, to take one example, would be gone.

As Wanless explains, half the heat generated by greenhouse gases since 1997 has been stored in the ocean. This means that even if we could halt CO2 pollution immediately, the climate would keep heating up for a long time. Since 1995, the sea level has risen 3 inches in Key West. By 2060, it’s predicted to rise another 2 feet — and to shoot even higher, more quickly, after that.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists said last year: “In the future, there may not necessarily be more hurricanes, but there will likely be more intense hurricanes that carry higher wind speeds and more precipitation as a result of global warming. The effects of this trend are likely to be exacerbated by sea-level rise and a growing population along coastlines.”

An overwhelming 97 percent of climate scientists agree that humans are the primary cause of climate change. But conservative interests have done such a good job of creating a false narrative about divisions in the scientific community that only 42 percent of Republicans “say most scientists believe global warming is occurring,” according to a recent Gallup poll. In contrast, 65 percent of Independents and 86 percent of Democrats understand that the scientific consensus is definitive.

And here we have this conference, 1,600 people gathering for a week of speeches, workshops and conversations on almost every conceivable aspect of hurricane preparation and response — everything but the one factor that threatens the region’s ongoing viability more than any other. There’s not one word in the program about climate change or sea-level rise.

Not one word about how to mitigate the destructiveness of hurricanes, while we may still have time. Actions like building up shoreline with dunes or mangroves to soften the impact of storm surges. Or constructing more resilient buildings to cope with huge waves. Or updating and improving the region’s aging flood-control system.

This is all too predictable when the governor who is the host of this 32nd Annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference is Rick Scott, famous for allegedly banning the words “global warming” and “climate change” from all state correspondence.

But this head-in-the-sand attitude must end. If this annual get-together on preparations for hurricane season shows anything, it is that state, federal, county and municipal officials can work together to address a common threat.

We need the same attitude to cope with the certain threat of sea-level rise. The sea isn’t going to wait for us to get our act together. It’s time to start now.

“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of the editorial boards of the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel and Palm Beach Post, with reporting and community engagement assistance from WLRN Public Media. For more information, go to theinvadingsea.com

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