Tampa Bay Area scientists, policymakers plan for rising sea levels

First in a series.

It’s an unusually cool and overcast January day as Dr. Mark Luther, an Associate Professor of Physical Oceanography at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, drives out to the U.S. Coast Guard Station on Downtown St. Pete’s Bayboro Harbor. 

As a local partner of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Agency, he’s here to see how a team of visiting NOAA engineers is fairing as they replace St. Petersburg’s aging tide gauge station with a new microwave sensor monitoring system.

While the technicians connect wires and test the new monitor, Luther explains how the microwave system will measure the sea level in Tampa Bay once a second and, in turn, send that data over satellite to NOAA’s operations center in Silver Spring MD every six minutes. The tide gauge data provides real time updates on sea level rise and other local climate conditions to NOAA and their partners at the National Weather Service. 

The St. Pete tide gauge is an important node in a growing national network of climate sensors and monitors. The data it provides is tapped by a wide range of institutions and researchers, including environmental scientists like Luther, who leads the University’s Ocean Modeling and Prediction Laboratory, along with Port Tampa Bay, the U.S. Coast Guard and a variety of private sector companies. The insurance industry uses tide gauge data to model and monitor climate-related risks to their portfolios of outstanding policies, for example. 

The new microwave tide gauge is the latest and most sophisticated to be installed at the station, which has been continuously monitoring sea level in St. Petersburg for nearly seven decades. Today, the tide gauge is playing a new role in helping Tampa Bay scientists to create regional sea level rise projections that local governments can use to plan for rising tides.

Piecing together the global puzzle to predict local change   

Rising seas are projected to transform the world’s coasts, and a growing number of national and international organizations believe that the Tampa Bay region will be one of the areas most significantly effected. In 2013, for example, the World Bank named Tampa the 7th most at-risk metro in the world in terms of the overall cost of property damage from sea level rise. 

Although the risks to our region’s coastal communities -- and, by extension, real estate values and local government property tax bases -- are profound, they’re also a more complex function of where and how we’ve built our neighborhoods, the area’s coastal geology and topography, and the sensitivity of our area’s natural ecosystems to environmental changes. 

And the rate at which sea levels will rise in the Tampa Bay area is one element of a larger climate change puzzle that global scientists are still working to piece together. 

In cities across the world, knowledge-seeking people in the public and private sectors are coming together to define the potential problems and find solutions on a more local scale. Community leaders are asking how sea level rise will impact our environment, economy and ways of life -- and to figure out how to adapt while balancing ecological and economic needs that often appear to be at odds. 

In our own backyard, one of the best examples of climate leadership takes the form of the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel (or CSAP, pronounced see-sap), a group of scientists who joined forces in early 2014 to develop data-backed tools to help local governments and institutions better understand and determine responses to sea level rise. 

CSAP’s members have a long history of working together to solve the region’s biggest environmental problems. The Tampa Bay area was the first in the country to prepare a regional hurricane evacuation plan, for example. More recently, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program celebrated the restoration of seagrass in Tampa Bay to 1950 levels -- a key landmark in the restoration of the health of the Bay’s coastal ecosystems -- thanks to the efforts of vibrant and diverse group of collaborators, ranging from volunteer elementary school students to environmental scientists.

Members of CSAP hope to focus that history of collaboration and technical expertise on the unique challenges posed by sea level rise. Over the past year, they’ve embarked on their first major project: to develop a common set of sea level rise projections for the region, enabling local governments and institutions to develop a shared vocabulary for action. 

Measuring impact by fractions of inches

That’s where the St. Petersburg tide gauge station has come in handy, providing a source of local sea level data that scientists can use to “correct” global sea level rise models to account for historical environmental conditions in Tampa Bay. Historic data from the gauge, which can be viewed online here, shows that Bay waters have been rising at an average rate of about an inch per decade. That local rate of sea level rise looks to be increasing, in keeping with the most recent findings of the National Climate Assessment. 

So how quickly will seas rise in our region? CSAP’s initial projections offer a wide window of possible scenarios, ranging anywhere from one foot to seven feet of rise by 2100. 

In late 2014, the group presented a report featuring these projections to the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council’s membership, which includes the elected leaders of Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties and their cities. At that meeting, the Council agreed to adopt CSAP’s projections for regional planning purposes, although many local elected officials have expressed concern over the uncertainty reflected by a 1-to-7-foot window, particularly when it comes to designing costly once-in-a-generation coastal infrastructure, like new bridges, or upgrading aging storm water systems. 

Several of the report’s contributors concede that although the scenarios represent a wide range of uncertainty, the rate of sea level rise ultimately depends on the extent to which the climate warms. Last year’s UN Climate Conference in Paris saw significant progress in setting goals to cap the increase in global temperature, in part by curbing harmful greenhouse gas emissions. These broader efforts aim to forestall the worst sea level rise scenarios.  

Moving forward, CSAP plans to revisit the sea level projections regularly as new data becomes available from the National Climate Assessment and other sources, in hopes of narrowing that field of uncertainty. In the meantime, it’s up to Tampa Bay area leaders to plan for the impacts of sea level rise and to adapt course as needed. 

“Realistically, local governments alone cannot control greenhouse gasses, but they can implement strategies to protect the health, safety and welfare of their residents,’’ says Maya Burke, Senior Environmental Planner at the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, which co-hosts CSAP, along with the University of Florida’s IFAS Sea Grant Extension. “Sea level rise is a tangible challenge that makes sense to tackle at a local government scale. Our intent is to work collaboratively to promote the practical application of scientific data in public policy.”  

That’s where one unified set of sea level rise scenarios can come in handy, playing a modest but crucial role in helping local institutions to “sing the same song,” says Burke.  

Sea level rise is but one of several climate change impacts that the Tampa Bay region will face over the coming decades. Hurricanes may prove stronger, summer temperatures may be hotter and rainfall patterns may become more extreme.

Today, the Tampa Bay region is already seeing some of the first impacts and issues related to climate change come into focus, and conversations about how to address them are well underway in a number of communities. 

Over the course of the next several weeks, 83 Degrees Media will bring stories of regional climate leadership to the fore, diving deeper and looking closer at how individuals and industries, business and government alike are taking innovative steps to rethink and retrofit the Tampa Bay area to meet the challenges raised by climate change. 

In the meantime, the first full report of the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel is available online here. Readers can also explore online tools like NOAA’s new Sea Level Rise viewer, which provides a look at how higher seas could impact the Tampa Bay region’s coastal communities. 

And for those who are ready to join the conversation, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council regularly hosts the One Bay Resilient Communities Working Group, where local leaders share learning and initiatives happening across the region. More information is available on the One Bay website.

Next in our climate change series, 83 Degrees Media will chart a few of the different paths Pinellas County governments are taking as they work to incorporate climate change adaptation into their community planning efforts. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees Media. Follow us on Twitter @83degreesmedia. 

Links to 83 Degrees Media's series of stories on climate change:

Part 1 -- Tampa Bay Area scientists, policymakers plan for rising sea levels

Part 2 -- Preparing for climate change: Pinellas County, local towns take steps to get ready

Part 3 -- Is the global reinsurance industry making Florida more resilient to climate change, hurricanes?

Part 4 -- Tampa Bay real estate boom and climate change: 5 big insights

Part 5 -- Climate change: Across Tampa Bay, environmental organizations mobilize around sea level rise

Part 6 -- Rethinking Tampa Bay's water resources as the climate changes

Part 7 -- Retrofitting Tampa Bay for climate change: From understanding to action
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Read more articles by Zac Taylor.

Zac Taylor, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at KU Leuven in Belgium, where he studies climate change adaptation in cities, with a focus on real estate and finance. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Leeds in the UK and holds degrees in urban planning from U.C. Berkeley and the London School of Economics. You can reach him on twitter @zacjtaylor.