By Curtis Krueger and Craig Pittman, Times
March 28, 2008
warming is boosting the sea level along
At Waccasassa State Park in
On the western side of
have a hard time accepting that this is happening here," said
What is happening is not just a minor botanical alteration in a few isolated places. The scientists studying the phenomenon see it as a harbinger for major changes in the state's geography submerging islands and turning swamps into open bays. Those changes alone can create a serious economic impact on businesses such as fishing.
rising sea generally has crept up so slowly that it has been barely noticeable.
Now, the rate at which the sea level is rising appears to be picking up speed.
sea level's rise is often difficult to detect along urban coastlines because
seawalls and replenished beaches can obscure or blunt the impact, said Mike Savarese, a
But the changes wrought by higher seas are more obvious in wilderness areas such as state and national parks. In those natural areas, "we're seeing some real indications of a change out there," Savarese said.
global temperatures are melting mountaintop glaciers in
the story of Little Salt Spring, a picturesque natural pool in
study past sea level fluctuations, Savarese has been
pulling out core samples from around the Ten Thousand Islands area of
sea that receded from
"Prior to the 1800s, the rates are fairly constant," Savarese said. That rate varied from about 1 1/2 to 3 inches a century, he said.
now, thanks to the warming of the planet, Savarese
said, the sea level is increasing by a rate of 15 to nearly 20 inches per
century along that part of the
the sea rises, it changes the land. For instance, as the trees die and fall
over at Waccasassa preserve in
similar has been happening at
"You can see an ecological shift that's taking place," he said. "We're beginning to lose freshwater wetland habitat."
One of the more surprising discoveries is what Savarese found amid the maze of marshes and mangroves that form the Ten Thousand Islands: inland tidal pools that are "growing in size and increasing in number. They should eventually come together and form a new body of water. We're creating a new set of bays inland of our own."
Should this trend continue, Savarese said, it could lead to a scenario where "the Ten Thousand Islands drown and the coastline becomes much more open. It would create a very different kind of ecology."
If that continues, Lytton sees a clear downside for the state's economy.
How long will it take before sea level rise begins to cause major changes?
you ask Harold Wanless, chairman of the
Wanless believes the rate will continue increasing until it surpasses 3 feet by the end of this century, and could even reach 5 feet. That "basically takes all of our barrier islands and makes them close to unlivable," he said.
But Wanless' predictions surpass what scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey have found so far in their studies from around the nation's coastline.
If the seas rise twice as much in the next century as they did in the last, "I wouldn't classify that as a catastrophe, putting everyone underwater, but you will start seeing major changes on our coastline," said Abby Sallenger, an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey's center for Coastal and Watershed Studies.
The scientific uncertainty has left public officials unsure how to deal with the problem.
don't think that anybody's really pinned down numbers that make sense
yet," said Ed Chesney,
if sea levels continue rising, adapting to this new geography will require
major changes in
instance, Floridians should stop building houses, roads and other facilities in
areas that already are prone to flooding, since they are more likely to wind up
underwater, said Harvey Ruvin, the
Some problems are likely to prove thornier than others, he said.
"At some point it will pose a threat to our drinking water supply. Our subterranean aquifers will get some saltwater intrusion at some point," Ruvin said.
that point could be decades in the future, which leads to apathy now, says
Robert Brinkmann, a
"As a society," he said, "it's hard for us to get our hands around how we plan for sea level change when it's not on our doorstop right now."