Studying storm surge and sea-level rise to plan for the future

Published: May 13, 2022 2:11 PM EDT
Updated: May 13, 2022 6:01 PM EDT

Floridians know the sight of sea-level rise all too well.

It comes with crashing waves and rough seas.

“Sea-level rise is something that’s happening at a global scale. We know that sea level is rising, we know that sea level has risen in the past. And we know that it’s going to continue to rise into the future,” said Thomas Wahl, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida.

Wahl studies storm surges and sea-level rise.

“The risk is increasing, sea-level rise is making it more likely that certain communities are affected by extreme coastal flooding events,” Wahl said.

Wahl helped to publish a study that looks at the European coastline storm surge and sea-level rise over the last 60 years.

The study found that European storm surge climates can be linked to human-caused climate change.

But the majority of it is natural variability.

“But even that is very important. Because if we have trends over such long time periods of 60 years, that are linked to natural variability, then we need to account for that in our design,” Wahl said.

The plan is to use the European data and apply it to the U.S. coastline, including Florida, to get a better idea of what our flooding and storm surge levels will look like in 100 years.

Wahl said preparing for the future varies from location to location.

“In Germany, we have a pretty long coastline. It’s just one continuous dike or dune line. Indonesia dunes, dikes, there is no such thing really as a house with beach view,” Wahl said. “Here in Florida, our situation is very different. Our geology would not really allow us to build dikes systems like we have in Germany or in the Netherlands, where they have learned very well to live with the water and the risk of flooding.”

There needs to be other solutions, Wahl said.

“Miami right now is installing pump stations to pump the water back into the ocean, especially when they have these high tide flooding events, where we don’t even have a storm and just because of a high tide,” he said.

And in Southwest Florida with surges come sand.

Wahl said if floodwaters start to take over Southwest Florida streets 50 to 100 times a year, it will be a hit to the economy.

“We anticipate that we are approaching a tipping point where protecting certain parts of the coastline is just infeasible. And people may have to start considering moving out of these risky areas. And that’s something that’s already implemented at a larger scale,” Wahl said. “In Europe, in the UK, for example, whereas here in the US, it’s still very reactive typically, where people are bought out of their properties after a big storm happened, like Sandy or Katrina.”

Wahl said the proof is in the study.

“The option of managed retreat or mandatory alignment is now something that is at least on the table, which is something that 10 years ago, you brought it up in the meeting, there wouldn’t have been much of not much interest in going down that path. But with what we are seeing in certain places right now, it clearly has to be at least one of the options, the worst-case scenario, but an option that has to be on the table,” he said.

Below is a list of where you can find your evacuation zone according to counties: 

Charlotte County

Collier County

DeSoto County 

Hendry County

Glades County

Lee County