Rising Sea Levels are Impacting St. Augustine

Posted on December 7, 2012 by in Environment

“A 3 foot rise will happen. It’s just a matter of when. We’re starting to see evidence of the acceleration and we will gain more evidence and certainty in about 5 years”.

Those alarming words, delivered matter-of-factly by the University of Florida’s Dr. Kathryn Frank, were a wake-up call during a 3 hour climate workshop Thursday in St. Augustine, involving about 30 St. Augustine residents whose awareness of rising sea levels and tolerance for adaptive strategies were keenly sought by Frank and other environmental researchers from Florida’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM NERR), the University of Florida’s College of Design, Construction and Planning, and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System Science Collaborative. Their three year study is funded by a $600 thousand grant from the University of New Hampshire.

The participants were already eco-sensitive types, those most likely to be aware of the latest climate change news. No audible gasps were heard when Frank added her footnote that, “A 3 foot rise is a conservative estimate”.

Until one man, unprepared for the seeming inevitable, voiced what many were thinking.

“Is that it? Adapt only? There’s no turn-around?”, he asked incredulously.

Another researcher in the project, the University of Oklahoma’s Dawn Jourdan, conceded that reducing the world’s carbon footprint remains possible. But she might have also added that in our current political environment it’s unlikely. Instead, she laid on more reasons to be discouraged. Any corrective environmental changes we undertake today, she said, good as they might be, won’t have any meaningful impact on climate change for 100 years or more. In other words, climate change and rising sea levels are now a fact of life.

The Matanzas Special Basin is already feeling the effects over a swath of coastal land stretching from St. Augustine to Palm Coast and Flagler Beach, according to the researchers.

“Farmers are experiencing salt water in wells and ground water. There is increased flooding, coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion, storm surges and habitat migration. We can’t wait 50 years. We have to do proactive planning”, Jourdan warned.

The worst case scenario?

Dr. Frank and her colleagues looked at all the possibilities and decided to choose the most conservative one: a minimum 3 ft rise in sea levels peaking as early as 2075, or in 63 years. If we’re lucky, the peak may not arrive until 2100. That’s the best scenario on the best available evidence. But it’s underway, and the actual rise could be much greater than 3 feet.

And the impact?

According to Frank, Marineland, south of St. Augustine, will become an island, disconnected from the mainland. Beach and intracoastal areas of St. Augustine will submerge, threatening homes and businesses.  In St. Augustine, 990 acres of developed land turn into salt marsh, and 504 acres of undeveloped dry land turn into salt marsh. On Anastasia Island, 565 acres of developed land turn into salt marsh, and 686 acres of undeveloped dry land will turn into salt marsh. The Guana Tolomato Reserve would lose 1710 acres of salt marsh, and 321 acres of tidal flats.

The researchers spoke of “climate refugees” fleeing the loss of their homes and businesses. Where do they go? Does government buy their doomed properties and relocate them?  Or is it their personal burden to bear alone?

What about the wildlife? What’s their evacuation route and where is their new habitat?

In other words, the character of the St. Augustine region will be transformed by this impending climatic upheaval.

The solution?

None, really.  Right now, with no reversal in sight, the researchers say we’re left to simply mitigate the problem and to adapt. Top of the to-do list is to harden the infrastructure, a catch-all phrase for a grab bag of possibilities: sea walls, dikes, structural elevation. From there is runs the gamut to water storage, eco-system conservation, habitat migration corridors, beach nourishment, restoring wetlands.

The hypothetical stakeholder game the locals were asked to play at the end of the session showed how far apart we are on consensus. Some felt our communities should be prepared to stay and “harden” up. Others chose relocation, ready to cut and run to higher ground. And the rest were just bewildered by the scope of a mammoth threat about to literally wash over our region, about which few, governments included, have given much thought.


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One Response to “Rising Sea Levels are Impacting St. Augustine”

  1. Terry Buckenmeyer 9 December 2012 at 8:16 am #

    Very sobering. Just read an article about the increased rate of melting of glaciers, artic ice and summer snows and how the process speeds it self up. And as we continue to draw more and more fresh water from the St. Johns River, salt water will move further south. It’s also very scary when we look at the “leaders” who should be finding real ways to mitigate the effects. Instead they spend time and resources denying the problem exists.

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