As climate changes, we need coping strategies

May 8, 2014 

A sign posted along 14th St. W. in Bradenton warns motorists of flooding hazards in the roadway. PAUL VIDELA/Bradenton Herald

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With barrier islands and other low-lying coastal and inland terrain, Manatee County sits in one of the nation's regions that are "exceptionally vulnerable" to rising ocean levels, extreme heat episodes and declining water resources.

The Tampa Bay area is one of three in Florida listed at risk in a new report by a federal scientific panel. Southeastern states, as one of the country's eight regions examined in the report, are also vulnerable.

The politics in the climate change debate immediately reignited with Tuesday's release of the findings from the U.S. National Climate Assessment.

More than 300 experts and others worked on this three-year project. Their results are most certainly alarming but whether the findings are exaggerated is another matter.

Can the nation continue kicking this can down the road with little strategic planning and action? We know sea levels are rising; that's an established fact.

As polar icecaps continue to melt and snow and ice levels decrease around the globe under warming temperatures, the sea level is projected to rise from 1 to 4 feet worldwide this century -- this after adding 8 inches in the last 100 years.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been monitoring sea levels for the past 150 years. Using measurements from 1947 to 2006 at St. Petersburg, the agency data indicates a rise of 9.24 inches in 100 years.

The agency does not monitor sea levels in either Manatee or Sarasota counties, but the Fort Myers figure is almost identical to St. Peterburg's, at 9.48 inches. Manatee County must be somewhere in the middle -- and a bit higher than the worldwide average.

Higher sea levels threaten saltwater intrusion into coastal freshwater resources, including permeable aquifers and wells. Saltwater intrusion is a growing problem in South Florida as cities scramble to provide water to residents and businesses. Rising seas will exacerbate the situation as saltwater continues to push inland.

The report also states that "just inches of sea level rise will impair the capacity of stormwater drainage systems to empty into the ocean." States and cities are already altering infrastructure to avoid this problem, the Herald Washington Bureau reported Wednesday.

The Tampa Bay area, like elsewhere in Florida, is also witnessing more days with temperatures above 95 degrees with negative impacts on crops and an increase in air pollution in large urban areas. The increasing heat will put more pressure on utilities as electricity demand rises.

Climate change is now "firmly into the present," National Climate Assessment stated. The report blamed "human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels."

While reducing our carbon footprint should be a national goal, arguing over whether climate change is manmade or natural distracts from the most important issue: What are we going to do about it?

The report notes that "large numbers of cities, roads, railways, ports, airports, oil and gas facilities and water supplies are at low elevations and potentially vulnerable."

A follow-up report, anticipated in several months, will address strategies for governments and businesses to consider. That includes some very expensive options, such as moving hospitals and power plants inland.

Tuesday's report applauds the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact as an "excellent example" of county, state and federal collaboration to find mitigation and adaptation planning. Southwest Florida should create a compact, too.

Let's work together on strategies for coping with a changing climate so future generations can also enjoy Manatee County.

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