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Will climate change turn Miami into a ‘future Atlantis’?

Florida research professors studying climate change have serious warnings for the Magic City. They say that Miami’s buildings have come a long way in becoming more resistant to sustained, heavy winds. However, the city’s infrastructure may not be prepared to protect it from a huge hurricane storm surge. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The floodwaters are still receiving from Hurricane Florence. And the damage, which could total well over $20 billion, is still being assessed.

    The flooding was far worse than the winds from this storm. And it has prompted a larger conversation once again about what could happen to other coastal cities.

    That is the focus of Miles O'Brien's report tonight for our weekly segment on the Leading Edge of science, technology and health.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In Miami, it's not a matter of if, but rather when the big one will hit.

    So, at Florida International University, they have built a wall of wind to buttress their defenses.

  • Ioannis Zisis:

    So here's the intake.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Wow.

  • Ioannis Zisis:

    We have…

  • Miles O’Brien:

    That's something.

  • Ioannis Zisis:

    … 12 fans, six feet each diameter, 700 horsepower each. And we can go up to Category 5 level winds.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Ioannis Zisis is an associate professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. Here, they build scale models and subject them to hurricane-force winds.

    It has shown them how buildings fail and how they can be built to endure a sustained barrage.

  • Ioannis Zisis:

    We need to understand how these structures are going to respond to an extreme event. Everything that goes into the building codes and the wind standards is a result of research.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Hurricane Andrew was a pivotal moment. The Category 5 storm made landfall south of Miami in Homestead on August 24, 1992. The damage was widespread and made worse by inadequate building codes.

    But that was then.

  • Ioannis Zisis:

    We're at a much better place compared to 1992 or even the '90s. So, the building codes that are enforced today are much more strict.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But today in South Florida, engineers and emergency planners are increasingly worried about the threat from water.

    Susy Torriente is the chief resilience officer for the city of Miami Beach.

  • Susanne Torriente:

    The lessons learned from after Andrew created the South Florida building code, really for wind. And that was adopted to the Florida building code.

    How do we actually start looking at flooding and sea level rise and look at our building code and start to add more measures in there for adaptation for that? So I think that's something that we can learn from the past and bring it into the present.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Miami Beach is a seven-square-mile barrier island that sits low between Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

  • Susanne Torriente:

    That makes us beautiful, but vulnerable. And so we're vulnerable to flooding. We're obviously vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise. And, nowadays, the typical rainstorms that we would get in South Florida in the afternoons seem to be getting more pronounced and stronger.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And in the spring and fall, when the pull of the moon is strongest, creating the highest tides of the year, the city must also contend with serious flooding beneath blue skies and sunshine.

    So they are in the midst of 80 storm-water pump stations to keep their feet dry. The pumps, along with roads that are raised above grade, are doing the job for now, even though those so called king tides grow steadily higher as sea level rises.

    They are not designed to protect Miami Beach from a huge hurricane storm surge, though they can help dry the city out after the worst is over. But scientists are reminded there is no free lunch here. Some say the pumps are dangerously concentrating runoff pollution.

    Henry Briceno is a research professor at FIU.

  • Henry Briceno:

    We do monitoring in the Biscayne Bay, mostly to see what's in the water. That's what we do.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He and his team use sophisticated instrumentation to gather data on the turbidity, salinity and temperature, as well as the levels of oxygen and chlorophyll, important indicators of the human impact on water quality.

    In Miami Beach, we saw water pouring from this pipe, not from a pump. It's just the outgoing tide mixed with contaminated groundwater. And yet no instrumentation was required to determine the water was fowl. All they needed was a human nose.

  • Henry Briceno:

    That smell is like a rotten egg. It's very strong. That's hydrogen sulfide. And that comes from bacteria.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Be glad you can't smell it. And the outflows from the pumps are even worse.

    For Briceno, the pollution problem is intertwined with the larger threat Miami faces as it grows rapidly, despite the existential threat it faces from climate change.

  • Henry Briceno:

    I wonder they are aware that what they are doing is building in the future Atlantis, and that the whole thing is going to get flooded?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The idea that this city is inexorably on its way to becoming a real-life version of the mythical underwater city is not a new one.

    In 1958, "The Bell Science Hour" broadcast a film called "The Unchained Goddess" directed by no less than Frank Capra.

  • Actor:

    Our atmosphere seems to be getting warmer.

  • Actor:

    This is bad.

  • Actor:

    Well, it's been calculated a few degrees rise in the Earth's temperature would melt the polar icecaps.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It explained the science of global warming, its consequences, including sea level rise, and offered this depiction of the future:

  • Narrator:

    Tourists in glass bottom boats will be viewing the ground towers of Miami through 150 feet of tropical water.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Today, that cartoon is showing signs of coming true.

    Harold Wanless is a professor in the Department of Geography and Regional Studies at the University of Miami. He walks past a series of maps where current sea level rise projections are laid over the Florida Peninsula.

  • Harold Wanless:

    You can see, by six feet, Miami and Broward County and Fort Lauderdale are now a little ridge with channels between them, and the Everglades is an estuary.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And South Florida must contend with a vulnerability unique to an area with this population density.

  • Harold Wanless:

    Miami limestone is one of the most porous limestones anywhere, and water just pours through it very, very, very rapidly.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    At an excavation pit on the campus of the university, Wanless showed us what the entire region is built on, a geologic sieve of limestone.

  • Harold Wanless:

    As sea level continues to rise, in the same way that rainwater disappears, the seawater will just come up.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    So, the hard seawalls and structures pioneered by the Dutch and adopted in New Orleans to keep rising floodwaters and storm surges at bay would be utterly ineffective here.

    Henry Briceno hopes a sobering reality will sink in.

  • Henry Briceno:

    I'm sorry to tell this to people in Miami. We're doomed. And what we got to do is just protect as much as we can while we are living here, but get prepared to move away.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And yet, as Briceno plies the waters of Biscayne Bay, it is evident people are moving in the opposite direction.

  • Clay Tootle:

    We're here on Key Biscayne. This is one of the houses that we're building.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Nice.

    How many square feet here? You know?

  • Clay Tootle:

    It's about 8,000 square feet.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Cozy.

    That's developer Clay Tootle showing me an eight-figure climate change castle. It sits nine feet above sea level, with concrete slab floors, walls and roof, where all the systems, including a backup generator, will sit. It will be fitted out with stout double-glazed windows. He says features like this are now common for his wealthy clients.

    You guys really have thought of everything.

  • Clay Tootle:

    There's always something else to do. But we try to get as much of it done as possible.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    How long is this house going to be a safe house to live, do you think?

  • Clay Tootle:

    This will be a safe house for 30 years.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    After that, it is all but certain to be a fancy fortress with a moat, real estate that is underwater, not financially, but literally.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Miami.

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