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Florida squarely in cross-hairs of climate change, new report says (w/video)

The Third National Climate Assessment warns of heavier rainstorms and flooding in low-lying areas, such as the storm that collapsed part of Scenic Highway on April 30 in Pensacola.
Published May 7, 2014

In a federal report being called "the loudest and clearest alarm bell to date" regarding climate change, the Tampa Bay area is labeled as one of three areas in Florida particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, with the others being Miami and Apalachicola.

The report, the Third National Climate Assessment, also warns of increases in harmful algae blooms off Florida's coast, worsening seasonal allergies for people already made miserable by springtime pollen and heavier rainstorms and flooding in low-lying areas, such as the storm that clobbered the Panhandle last week.

Unveiled Tuesday, the report, a product of five years of work by a team of 60 scientists, spells out that climate change is not something awaiting in the future — it's affecting life now.

Based on weather records going back to the 1800s, the period from 2001-2012 was the warmest on record globally. Summers are lasting longer across the United States, and storms are dumping more rain than ever before.

Meanwhile sea levels already have risen by about 8 inches since reliable record keeping began in 1880 and are projected to rise another 1 to 4 feet by 2100. That's already worsening rain-related flooding in the streets of coastal cities such as Miami.

The report spends no time on the political debate about whether climate change is real: "Evidence for changes in Earth's climate can be found from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans. . . . This warming has triggered many other changes to the Earth's climate. Snow and ice cover have decreased in most areas. Atmospheric water vapor is increasing in the lower atmosphere because a warmer atmosphere can hold more water. Sea level is increasing because water expands as it warms and because melting ice on land adds water to the oceans."

The cause, it says flatly, is "human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels."

The report is "the loudest and clearest alarm bell to date" about the need to take action on climate change, John P. Holdren, who heads up the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in a Tuesday conference call with reporters. "It's already affecting every region of the country."

Unlike global reports from the United Nations' International Panel on Climate Change, this report focuses strictly on the impacts on the United States. It splits the country into eight regions and examines the impact on each, as well as discussing ways to adapt.

Southeastern states such as Florida, the report says, are "especially vulnerable to sea level rise, extreme heat events and decreased water availability." That means "large numbers of cities, roads, railways, ports, airports, oil and gas facilities and water supplies are at low elevations and potentially vulnerable."

During hurricanes and tropical storms, "homes and infrastructure in low areas are increasingly prone to flooding," the report notes. "As a result, insurance costs will increase and people will move away from vulnerable areas."

Given Florida's porous limestone geology, a rising sea spells bad news for the drinking supply. Salty water pushing inland will invade the aquifer, tainting it and forcing local and state officials to find other, more expensive sources, the report says. That affects not just homeowners but also businesses and farmers.

An upcoming follow-up report, expected within a few months, will spell out ways local and state governments can try to cope, such as raising highways and moving hospitals and power plants inland.

In state parks on the coast, the signs of a rising sea are easy for scientists to spot. At Waccasassa State Park in Levy County, palm trees have been toppling over dead as rising saltwater creeps up the beach. At Rookery Bay Preserve near Naples, salt­water mangroves have invaded what used to be freshwater marshes.

Tidal charts in Key West, which date back to before the Civil War, have documented a rise of 9 inches in the past century. Tidal flooding that used to be a rare occurrence in Key West now happens so frequently that some businesses on the city's famed Duval Street have stockpiled sandbags for quick deployment.

However, Gov. Rick Scott has said he does not believe climate change is real. As a result, the state Department of Environmental Protection has no specific programs aimed at dealing with climate change. Spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said the agency has "various programs . . . indirectly working on projects and collecting data that may be used for the purposes of studying climate change."

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @craigtimes.

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