Keys could be lost to rising seas

KEY WEST — Treasure salvors searching for an 18th-century wreck in the Florida Straits a few years ago made a fascinating but little noticed discovery. Not buried treasure. Buried land.

Some 35 miles west of Key West, in 45 feet of water under a five-foot layer of dense mud lay an 8,500-year-old shoreline not unlike today’s coast of the Florida Keys. There were well-preserved mangroves, pine cones and pine tree pieces, some amazingly still fragrant when brought to the surface.

“Looking at it, I was thinking: ‘Wow, this could be the shoreline of Big Pine Key,’” said Corey Malcom, director of archaeology for the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society.

The prehistoric past paints a sobering picture of what many experts see as an all-too-near future for the string of low-lying islands that make up the Florida Keys.

“South Florida is on the front line against sea-level rise in the United States, and the Florida Keys are ground zero,” said Evan Flugman, who co-authored a Florida International University report on the importance of Monroe County tackling the issue now.

By 2100, under the best-case predictions of a seven-inch sea-level rise by an international climate panel, the Keys would lose about 59,000 acres of real estate worth $11 billion, according to the nonprofit Nature Conservancy.

Under the panel’s worst-case projection of ocean waters rising 23.2 inches, about 75 percent of the Keys 154,000 acres and nearly 50 percent of its $43 billion property value could become submerged. Consequences also include the loss of habitat for many endangered plants and species, including Key deer.

And the panel’s predictions are conservative in comparison to some scientists’ calculations.

The eye-opening projections were presented at a June meeting in Marathon to urge Monroe County Mayor George Neugent, other Keys leaders and residents to develop long-term plans to deal with climate change. Unlike Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the Keys do not have a climate change task force.

The charts depicting disappearing land that were displayed at the meeting weren’t intended as scare tactics. As Chris Bergh, the Nature Conservancy’s director of coastal and marine resilience for Florida, said: “Nobody is going to drown from sea-level rise.”

In the last century, waters in the Keys gradually rose nine inches, an amount that caught the attention of scientists but few others.

But if a growing consensus of climate predictions for this century prove true, rising waters will become impossible to ignore.

James Murley, appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist as chairman of the Florida Energy & Climate Commission, said Monroe County should take advantage of its state designation as an area of critical concern.

He said the county should seek help from the state and nearby climate change task forces.