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More than 1,000 sites of critical infrastructure along the U.S. coastline are at risk, according to new study

This aerial view taken from video shows multiple cars stranded on a road in Northeast Miami-Dade County, Fla., on Thursday, June 13, 2024. A tropical disturbance brought a rare flash flood emergency to much of southern Florida the day before. Floridians prepared to weather more heavy rainfall on Thursday and Friday. (AP Photo/Daniel Kozin)
Daniel Kozin/AP
This aerial view taken from video shows multiple cars stranded on a road in Northeast Miami-Dade County, Fla., on Thursday, June 13, 2024. A tropical disturbance brought a rare flash flood emergency to much of southern Florida the day before. Floridians prepared to weather more heavy rainfall on Thursday and Friday. (AP Photo/Daniel Kozin)

According to a new analysis by the nonprofit, Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), nearly 1,100 basic facilities and infrastructure along the U.S. coastline would flood 12 times a year on average, or the equivalent of once a month, by 2050, assuming a medium rate of sea level rise. Dr. Kristina Dahl, the lead report author and a principal climate scientist at UCS, explains the risk to critical infrastructure.

Christina Andrews: We've been hearing about the effects of climate change for many years, what does this new analysis tell us?

 Dr. Kristina Dahl: Well, we've known about climate change for years, and been told that it's going to be causing a lot of effects in our communities. This new analysis takes that abstract concept of climate change and says, this is exactly how it is going to affect the infrastructure in your community. And by infrastructure, I mean the sorts of things that we all depend on day in, day out. Things like wastewater treatment plants, schools, hospitals. So what we've done here is mapped out areas that will experience more frequent flooding due to sea level rise, and then mapped those out with respect to the infrastructure that's along our coasts, we are able to pinpoint when and where that infrastructure will be affected by more frequent flooding.

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Andrews: Have you identified some of the most at-risk areas in Florida?

Dr. Dahl: There's risk all over the coast of Florida, but there are a few areas that are particularly hard hit. One is the Punta Gorda area, another is the Jacksonville area, and Miami Beach would be another, but it's important to recognize that even though those places might have more pieces of infrastructure, more assets at risk, this really is a shared, responsibility and a shared issue across the state and across the nation.

We've identified those as being most at risk because they have the highest numbers of assets that are at risk. One thing that doesn't take into account, though, is the population. Some of those assets include wastewater treatment plants. There are two elementary schools that are at risk of experiencing that flooding. There are also a few fire stations, public housing facilities, and several industrial contamination sites. So these are sites that have been designated by the EPA as having historically had a lot of industrial pollution or contamination. And so while we don't think of these as critical to the functioning of a community, the isolation of them is critical to a community. So if they were to flood, some of that contamination could be spreading out into the community and into neighborhoods in the surrounding area.

Graph from the Union of Concerned Scientists report
Graph from the Union of Concerned Scientists report

Andrews: What impact do you hope this analysis will have?

Dr. Dahl: We hope that this will spark people to demand that the leaders of their communities start to address the risks associated with sea level rise and climate change more broadly. A lot of these types of infrastructure kind of act invisibly in our lives, in our communities. We don't, on a daily basis, think about how important it is to have sites that have been contaminated by industrial pollution isolated from our neighborhoods. But the prospect of having that contamination not isolated and spreading out into our neighborhoods, we hope, alerts people to the real dangers that sea level rise presents. And we also know from this analysis that there is time to plan for this. We can see this coming. And so if individual people see this and say, ‘Hey, this is an issue I care about, and that we as a community need to be dealing with,’ the hope is that by alerting people now, communities will have some of the time they need to build resilience and to ensure the safety of their communities in that mid-century time frame and beyond.

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Andrews: What can people do once they have read this? Where does the work to resiliency start? Regionally? Locally? At a federal level?

Dr. Dahl: People [can get] involved in infrastructure and community planning decisions at a lot of different levels. Some of this happens with your local officials. So your, local or county level planning department, for example, often those kind, of local agencies are where sea level rise and climate change adaptation plans are sparked.

Andrews: We're in the beginning of hurricane season, and tensions about weather disasters may be high. Is there any good news? Any words of hope?

Dr. Dahl: Unfortunately, the projections and the predictions are indicating that this hurricane season will be above average in the number of storms and potentially in the strength of those storms as well. And that reflects the fact that we're transitioning globally from an El Nino event to a La Nina event this summer. And those La Nina events tend to be periods with enhanced hurricane activity in the Atlantic. But we also have very high ocean temperatures right now. Ocean temperatures have been record-high for about the past year, and that, warm water really serves as fuel for hurricanes. In terms of what folks in Florida can expect over the next few months, we never know exactly where a hurricane is going to make landfall, but if you're living in a coastal area, knowing that there is the possibility this summer of experiencing a hurricane is important. I would say that one piece of good news is that Florida has really learned from some of its major hurricane strikes in the past. Its building codes are strong. So if buildings have been updated to withstand, you know, what the science says they need to withstand, then they will be in much better shape. A lot of those measures were put into place back in the nineties after Hurricane Andrew.

Andrews: If the number of critical infrastructure assets at risk are expected to double by 2050, when is the time to prepare?

Dr. Dahl: One of the reasons that we wanted to look at critical infrastructure is that it's very long-lived and it takes a long time to plan and to build or to renovate. If you think about the schools in your community or the hospitals in your community, many of those facilities are decades old. And that means that the decisions that we make about those buildings and facilities today will carry out into the future for decades to come. The time to be taking a look at what's, at risk in your community is now so that those very long planning and building and renovating processes can start now to prepare us for what's coming down the pike.

Christina’s career as a broadcaster spans over two decades and stretches across Alabama, California, Mississippi and Florida. Having earned a Master’s Degree in English while rising at 3 am to host a morning radio show, she now happily calls Pensacola and WUWF home. She’s an active member of St. Michael’s Basilica on North Palafox Street and visits the beach as often as possible. She’s also an associate producer in her husband, Jimmy’s, film production companies, Vanilla Palm Films and Fish Amen Films.