Thursday, December 7, 2023

From the Magazine: Winds of Change

Written by James Biagiotti and John Thomason

South Florida is on the front lines of the global climate crisis. As we find ourselves deep in another hurricane season, here’s what you need to know about changing weather and the challenges we face as a result.

Robert Molleda, Warning Coordination Meteorologist, National Weather Service

Any true South Floridian will tell you that our home isn’t defined just by its beaches and retirement communities, but also by its unique and often arduous weather. Whether it feels like the hottest summer yet, or temperatures below 70 degrees signal the beginning of our “winter,” most of us have our own benchmarks to determine what’s normal and what isn’t on any given day. But to understand the way the climate is changing in South Florida, we first need to understand what the climate should be like, right?

On rising temperatures:

“If you look back at the data, it’s pretty universally accepted that temperatures have generally increased. You can go back several decades or even a century, and certainly the temperatures have increased during that time frame. It doesn’t matter how we look at it, the data is pretty consistent. … Including this past winter period, we’ve had 10 consecutive winters where the temperatures have been above normal.”

On what makes South Florida’s weather unique:

“We’re in a relatively low latitude on the boundary of two climate regions, the tropical and the subtropical. We’re on a peninsula, and we’re surrounded by warm water. Just to our east, the Gulf stream is a warm current of water that flows northward, stays relatively warm year-round, and is driven mainly by two seasons.

We have a wet season (May 15 to October 15), and we get about 70 percent of our yearly rainfall during that time frame. And then the dry season, when we get much less rainfall. We don’t necessarily have the traditional four seasons you see in the mid-latitudes, due to our location, our latitude and the fact that we’re surrounded by warm water.”

On tropical storms and how they relate to our climate:

“Hurricane season is June 1 to November 30… The main driver in overall hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean is a cycle called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation… changes in the sea surface temperatures of the North Atlantic. So there are cool and warm phases of this. If we look over the last hundred years or so, it appears to run in cycles that go from about 25 to 40 years. We’re currently in a warm phase, and that started back in 1995… that translates directly to more tropical activity.”

On the need for South Floridians to stay vigilant:

“The main thing to remember is that no matter what these conditions are forecast to do, we always have to be ready for the possibility of adverse weather or hazardous weather. We are one of the most vulnerable areas of the country to be hit by hurricanes. That’s what history tells us. Regardless of what the future may hold when it comes to exact numbers, we are still in a hurricane-prone area. So we need to always keep that first and foremost in our minds. You can look long-term, sure, but we also have to keep in mind that our shorter-term threats are still there.”

Steve Weagle, Meteorologist, WPTV and WFLX

Weatherman Steve Weagle acknowledges there is a chasm between meteorology and climatology. Asking a meteorologist to explain all the contours of climate science is, he says, “like going to your general doctor and expecting him to do brain surgery on you.” But he regularly attends conferences on climate change, and can sense its impact on his night job analyzing weather patterns on WPTV (NBC) and WFLX (Fox). On the heels of a record year for named storms, Weagle shares a few of his observations.

On the likelihood of a busy 2021 hurricane season:

“We still seem to be in this active pattern. Last year was borderline surreal in the number of storms that formed out here. When you start getting into the Greek alphabet for your names, you know it’s an intense storm season. But a lot of the storms that form are also very weak, and they may only last a couple of days. El Niño and La La Niña play a big part. It’s difficult to forecast if there will be an El Niño or La Niña when it really matters, which is August and September and October. If I had to guess, I think it will be a slightly above-normal season.”

On weather anomalies in South Florida:

“We’ll get extreme rain events, [but] in the end it all seems to average out. We had incredible rain last summer and fall in Northern Palm Beach County. In a normal season, we’ll see 60 to 70 inches of rain on average. In seven or eight months in this area, we saw 90 to 100 inches of rain. We’ll get months where there will be nothing after that. And I’ll get emails or comments from viewers, ‘it never rains in Boca,’or ‘the storms always miss us.’ But … it usually averages out.”

On adapting to monster storms:

“Inland flooding from hurricanes is a serious concern. Last season, I think we had on the northern gulf coast six or seven land-falling storms, and the flooding was incredible in spots. Some of those storms were very slow moving, and that was a big issue. That’s an impact we’re watching very closely in the future. Right now, all our evacuation zones are based on storm surge, which is valid. But if we’re getting extreme flooding miles and miles inland, because these hurricanes are slowing down and leaving more rain, then we have to take a serious look at evacuation areas in those flood-prone areas that are inland.”

In preparedness in the time of corona:

“We’re in a weird situation with COVID and hurricanes. I have a friend who owns a hurricane glass company. I wanted to do a few more windows. He said, ‘you’d have to do it today to have it for the start of hurricane season.’ Because of COVID, the product just isn’t there. Imagine the delay now with generators. I bought a new home generator last April or May, and it wasn’t installed until December. And now we had that ice storm in Texas, and you know everyone in Texas is buying home generators. Even if you go to buy a refrigerator, it can be months before it’s delivered to your house. I’m afraid people will be, ‘OK, I’m going to upgrade my windows, or get a generator this season, and decide to do it June 1.’ Well, you’re already too late.”

Colin Polsky, Ph.D., Director, Florida Atlantic University Center for Environmental Studies

In the battle against climate change, knowledge is perhaps the greatest tool that environmentalists wield. Dr. Colin Polsky, director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University, with a long background as a climate social scientist, is on the front lines of that struggle.

He studies “how people perceive, create and respond to climate challenges such as sea level rise,” and he’s working to educate South Florida on the challenges it faces while helping to bring the region to the forefront of a new “Resilience” industry—with the sole purpose of fighting the adverse effects of climate change.

On what South Floridians should know about climate change:

“Number one is that climate change and sea level rise are real, today. Number two is that we expect the pace to pick up rapidly in the coming decades. Number three is that this matters in South Florida, because we’re at such a low elevation. In other places, like New York City for instance, you go inland a little bit and you rise in elevation a lot. Here, you go inland, and it’s still flat.

All of these things are troublesome. South Florida is arguably the first test worldwide for whether or not a population will successfully adapt to this challenge. There’ll be a number of other places worldwide that will be facing this soon, but we’re the first ones out of the gate.”

On local recognition of the issues:

“There is an increasing awareness here that something is going on, but the details are a surprise to people. Even the question of whether or not the ocean goes up and down over time by itself, over Earth history, [can be] surprising. Southeast Florida is really the leading edge of the spear, and because of that, the partisan nature of this issue here is melting away … [and there is] a higher level of awareness here than in most places, which makes sense because the water is in the streets.”

On how climate change is impacting hurricane strength and frequency:

“We know that the oceans will be warmer, which gives greater fuel to storms. And so whatever number of hurricanes we observe in any given year, they’re likely to be, on average, stronger and wetter because the oceans are warmer and the atmosphere is warmer.”

On what gives him hope:

“There are some bright spots, and that’s why I find this field so interesting and exciting. I moved here because if any place has a fighting chance at succeeding at this experiment, which has never been undertaken before, it’s here. And by here, I mean the four counties, Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, because they banded together. Because of their inter-county agreement—the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact—there’s been a tremendous synergy of science and engineering and policy work for the last 10 years.

A lot of people who live here love it here… Some neighborhoods will look different in 20 years than they do today as a matter of necessity—because they’re just too wet to be livable. But I think there’s enough love for this place, and the economy is strong enough, that we’ll be able to reorganize and still make it work. There’s still a good fighting shot at that. And that’s what keeps me going each day.”

On the future for South Florida in the battle against climate change:

“One interesting silver lining is that as a result of all of these challenges and pressures, and the energy being invested to meet the challenges, we have the emergence of a new industry. We’re calling it resilience—coastal resilience or climate resilience—and it’s basically a synthesis of engineering and planning and business and architecture.

What it requires is a mindset around change, and growth, and equity in the face of increasingly wet conditions. This industry is going to be a high value-added industry, and it’s something that should arguably and rightfully have its home worldwide right here in Southeast Florida. Much like the global financial industry has Wall Street, and tech has Silicon Valley, and automotive is in Detroit, the resilience industry is being born and it should really be focused here, in a place that’s growing its own talent.

And then that can be a knowledge-based economy that we can export. Because other cities worldwide are going to be facing the same set of falling dominoes that we are.

We’re just up to bat first.”

This story is from the July/August 2021 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.

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