In an enclave of a city known as the Venice of America, where dream-big houses look out over a maze of picturesque canals, the comparison to the Venice of Italy no longer seems so appealing.
What would the woolly mammoth tell us, if it could speak, about what it’s like to go extinct? Probably it would point out that those Hollywood movies about large-scale environmental disasters are bullshit. That extinction isn’t something that happens dramatically and all at once, but slowly. That it just creeps up, like the ocean after a long, lazy day at the beach.
Dan Kipnis, a retired fishing boat captain who answers to “Captain Dan,” drives along Indian Creek Road, counting off the mansions that he expects one day will vanish under rising seas. This is the road that floods when the tides are high and the waters of the adjoining canal wash over the sea walls, carrying fish, lapping at the gates of travertine palaces, destroying Ferraris, Maseratis and lesser cars. It’s the road that will in a few months carry Kipnis out of town to higher ground.
In the summer of 2013, one of the leading candidates in Miami Beach’s mayoral race, a businessman named Philip Levine, released a TV commercial that showed him kayaking his way home through traffic in a Paddington hat and a plastic poncho, accompanied by his boxer, Earl, who was kitted out in a life jacket. “In some parts of the world,” Levine said in the spot, “going around the city by boat is pretty cool. Like Venice. But in Miami Beach, when it rains, it floods. That’s got to stop. Because I’m just not sure how much more of this Earl and I can take.”
Even from thousands of feet in the air, it’s obvious that Miami is disturbingly low-lying. Luxury sky-high buildings, bridges, and cranes tower over swampy marshlands and the slowly rising sea. The latest development has resulted in a sprawling metropolis on sinking land. Rising seas combine with porous limestone—which is like Swiss cheese—to allow saltwater to infiltrate under the land during floods, and makes the greater Miami area the most climate-vulnerable place in the United States.
The city of Miami Beach floods on such a predictable basis that if, out of curiosity or sheer perversity, a person wants to she can plan a visit to coincide with an inundation. Knowing the tides would be high around the time of the “super blood moon,” in late September, I arranged to meet up with Hal Wanless, the chairman of the University of Miami’s geological-sciences department. Wanless, who is seventy-three, has spent nearly half a century studying how South Florida came into being. From this, he’s concluded that much of the region may have less than half a century more to go.
“When I started this job, people kept asking me, ‘Why do we have so much flooding now?’ and I said, ‘Well, there’s just one problem: The whole city’s four feet too low—that’s all!’” But as Miami Beach city engineer Bruce Mowry, the person responsible for maintaining and improving the island’s public infrastructure, steered his car through the Flamingo Park neighborhood this past January, his typically cheery mood dimmed. “You know, I drive around a lot, looking at all these streets and trees and homes and thinking about what’s coming,” Mowry said. “If we get the four feet of rise that’s predicted, all of this area will be two-and-a-half feet underwater.”
Argentine developer Alan Faena recently listed the most expensive condo in this city’s history at $55 million. The Mid Beach penthouse features a private elevator, an infinity pool, an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic. The catch: The tower stands on what scientists call one of America’s most vulnerable floodplains.
More than 1,700 American cities and towns – including Boston, New York, and Miami – are at greater risk from rising sea levels than previously feared, a new study has found. By 2100, the future of at least part of these 1,700 locations will be “locked in” by greenhouse gas emissions built up in the atmosphere, the analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday found.
When the water receded after Hurricane Milo of 2030, there was a foot of sand covering the famous bow-tie floor in the lobby of the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach. A dead manatee floated in the pool where Elvis had once swum. Most of the damage occurred not from the hurricane’s 175-mph winds, but from the 24-foot storm surge that overwhelmed the low-lying city. In South Beach, the old art-deco buildings were swept off their foundations. Mansions on Star Island were flooded up to their cut-glass doorknobs. A 17-mile stretch of Highway A1A that ran along the famous beaches up to Fort Lauderdale disappeared into the Atlantic. The storm knocked out the wastewater-treatment plant on Virginia Key, forcing the city to dump hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay. Tampons and condoms littered the beaches, and the stench of human excrement stoked fears of cholera. More than 800 people died, many of them swept away by the surging waters that submerged much of Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale; 13 people were killed in traffic accidents as they scrambled to escape the city after the news spread – falsely, it turned out – that one of the nuclear reactors at Turkey Point, an aging power plant 24 miles south of Miami, had been destroyed by the surge and sent a radioactive cloud over the city.