How can a heater raise the sea level

Climate change: when the water rises

So this is one of those places where Frank Behrens wants to make money. Behrens turns off the engine of our motorboat and we drift through brown brackish water to the middle of Maule Lake, a lakein the north of Miami Beach. The water is privately owned. A paradise? Not really.

But here, says Behrens, there is an opportunity for his company. The lake in a former quarry has already served as a setting for boat races, as a biotope for manatees and as a filming location for the television series "Flipper". Now Behrens is promoting a floating village with 29 man-made private islands, each with a five-room villa, sandy beach, swimming pool, palm trees and a jetty for a 25-meter yacht. Price per island: $ 12.5 million.

Behrens is Dutch, his company is called Dutch Docklands, and you can say that it earns its living with the downfall. Dutch Docklands has secured the development rights for the lake to present the answer to global warming to the rich. Is the sea level rising? So what, then we'll just build islands and fix them to the bottom of the lake in such a way that they rise or fall with the level - like floating oil rigs, only with noble houses on them.

There is a lot of spectacular construction going on right now here in Florida. From the boat we can see how the construction cranes rise into the sky on Sunny Isles.

It can't get luxurious enough there. Rich South Americans and Europeans are fueling the building boom, and they often pay large sums in cash. In the Porsche Design Tower, every apartment has a glass elevator for the car.

The forecasts say that there will be more and more floods in the coming years and that a large part of the country's area will be permanently flooded by the year 2100. Even so, many continue to build skyscrapers for billions of dollars. That could one day be money sunk in the sea.

If you want to know what the costs of climate change are, you should travel to Florida. Coastal areas are threatened all over the world, but this is where it gets most expensive: Experts estimate that Miami could suffer $ 278 billion in damage by 2050 due to climate change. No city in the world will pay a higher price.

In Miami there are two perspectives on the impending catastrophe: Some just keep going, even if it is only for the term of a mortgage. The others look ahead and take climate change into account in their decisions. The warnings about the consequences of global warming have become too gloomy for this group, the effects are now too clearly noticeable: floods and extreme weather. In a city where the real estate business is the engine of the economy, however, one does not ask: How can one stop climate change? But: What can you do to keep growth going for as long as possible.

That also attracted people like Behrens to Florida. The managers of his Delft company don't believe their floating village can save southern Florida. It is just one more of many innovative projects that the Dutch have been using to save their own low-lying country from extinction since the Middle Ages. For the Miami region, says Behrens, it's an attractive model for investors. There are other options too: floating communities with floating parks and floating schools. A floating hospital. “The possibilities are almost unlimited.” His company has also built a floating prison in Zaandam in the north of Amsterdam.

"Many people only see the negative effects of floods," says Behrens, and there is not a hint of irony in his voice. “We want to show them that you can earn money with it. Climate change is about a lot of money. It's going to be a whole new industry. "

In Behrens ’home country of Holland, around 450 companies have already made rising water their business area. They operate worldwide and generate four percent of the Netherlands' economic output, as much as the US auto industry. Miami is a nice market for them, and recently there was even a Dutch Chamber of Commerce here.

Piet Dircke founded it. His company Arcadis worked on the construction of new levees in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, last summer Dircke came to Miami to use pretty sketches in a workshop to show how the future could remain bright despite climate change, at least economically. “The Miami River Delta is one of the best places to invest,” he says. “Rotterdam is a model for that. Singapore, Copenhagen, Stockholm - all of these cities have made water their trademark. Miami could do that too. ”As long as you use innovations like those of the Dutch.

The "water town" with the floating residential islands? That would be a great selling point indeed. But it's not just rising water that is approaching Miami. According to the National Climate Council, Florida will experience a wide variety of extreme weather in the coming decades - from periods of drought to storm surges and hurricanes. Heat and drought threaten an agriculture that supplies the entire east coast with vegetables in winter, as well as the cultivation of the most important crops: tomatoes, sugar cane and citrus fruits.

The consequences will be most clearly felt on the 2170 kilometer long coastline. The infrastructure there - buildings, roads, and bridges - was estimated to be worth two trillion dollars in 2010. 13 million people live on the coast, they generate four fifths of the state's economic output. Around 2.4 million of them live less than 1.20 meters above the high water line, hurricanes hit them first, and the sea comes steadily towards them. Already today, almost half of the 1330 kilometers of sandy beaches are losing their area to the sea.

“Climate change is about a lot of money. It's going to be a whole new industry. - Frank Behrens, investor

Researchers have set up various models that assume different reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In a medium-sized variant, the oceans could rise by 60 centimeters by 2060 because their water is getting warmer and expanding, and the ice caps in Greenland and at the poles are melting. If the worst scenarios were true, the tide could rise two meters by 2100. Large parts of Miami-Dade, the southernmost district, would then be under water. An increase of 30 centimeters in each case would move the coastline 150 to 610 meters inland, depending on the region, an increase of 60 centimeters would flood the sewage treatment plants in the Miami-Dade district and the Turkey Point nuclear power plant on Biscayne Bay.

“We have done everything to heat the oceans. Now we have to see how we deal with the consequences. ”- Hal Wanless, Professor of Geology, University of Miami

"Then they're in the middle of the ocean," says Hal Wanless. “Most of the offshore islands will no longer be habitable. The airport gets problems at 120 centimeters. And when the seas rise, salt water will enter our drinking water supplies. Everyone here dreams of a nice happy ending. But we are facing a disaster. We have done everything in the past decades to heat the oceans. Now we have to deal with the consequences. ”Wanless is director of the geological institute at the University of Miami. For three decades he was almost the only one to warn that the ocean could wash over Florida. As early as the eighties he documented that the barnacles were settling higher and higher on the jetties of his hometown Coral Gables. It has now become difficult to ignore reminders like him.

In 2012, floods, forest fires, droughts and storms in the United States caused more than $ 110 billion in damage. In terms of environmental damage, it was the second costliest year in the country's history. In Asia, Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 provided another outlook into the future: It was one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded, killing 6,200 people. In the same year periods of drought destroyed numerous harvests on almost every continent, especially in Africa and South Asia. The Brazilian highlands experienced the worst drought since 1979. Salty seawater threatens to rise into the estuaries of large rivers, poisoning the freshwater and destroying agriculture.

World Bank experts predict political instability, food shortages and famine. Worldwide, millions of people may be displaced from their homes by the effects of global warming in the coming decades. But politicians around the world have been wondering how to slow down the rise in temperatures for decades.

Little can be expected from the Florida state government at the moment. The Republicans have a majority there, and many of them still do not believe in the results of climate research. That is why the local politicians in the four districts in the south have taken their fate into their own hands and drawn up a list of priorities for the construction measures up to 2060. However, one thing is clear to them: It will be expensive, and it will take courageous, painful new steps.

"So far we have always drawn up a budget in which everything was then packed, desalination plants, raising roads, building canals," says Harvey Ruvin, who headed a working group on sea level rise in Miami-Dade. "But that is not enough. In the future we will have to raise entire areas. And that is only possible at the expense of other areas of land that have to be given up for it. ”He suspects what will happen to the region. Politicians will put uncomfortable decisions on the back burner. There will be arguments about who owns which area. Endless discussions about development plans and building regulations will break out. What does it all cost? Ruvin would prefer not to talk about it at all. “I can't give you a realistic number. Maybe $ 50 billion? ”He knows that this is still going too far.

In the long term, it will not be enough to reinforce dikes. In the future, entire factories will have to be relocated away from the coast.

And then comes the next question in this region, where everything revolves around quick profits: “How do you teach the voters that a municipality has to go into debt for future projects where the municipalities are already afraid of increasing property taxes a little to keep libraries? ”Ruvin, 77, is one of the most skilled politicians in the region. He tried to make the eternal procrastinators see the cost of waiting. Last year he invited two managers from the global reinsurance group Swiss Re. You should educate the members of his working group about the future of Florida. The tough numbers people presented a forecast model: The region must reckon with storm-related damage amounting to 33 billion dollars by 2030. Each year! In 2008 it was only half as much. Then the insurers declared that the damage could be reduced by 40 percent. If something is done soon to protect endangered properties. “We can't just wait another 10, 20 or 30 years without doing anything,” says Mark Way from Swiss Re.

“Protection”, “adaptation”, “retreat” - that sounds like the grief of an urban planner. But it is the slogans that people like Way use to encourage courage: You are not at the mercy if you react quickly and are innovative. Factories have to be relocated, away from the coast. Valuable real estate must be protected: universities, hospitals, airports. And the tourist areas on which Florida's economy thrives.

However, the task of protecting the eleven-kilometer offshore island on which the tourist center of Miami Beach is located will not be easy, even with Dutch know-how. “Welcome to the center of the danger zone,” says Bruce Mowry, an urban engineer. I meet him on the corner of 20th Street and Purdy Avenue, one of the lowest points in Miami Beach. Here he celebrated a great victory in the floods last fall: With an investment of 100 million dollars and 20 new pumps, he kept the city largely dry during a spring flood in October. A year earlier, a kayaker had paddled down Purdy Avenue in a similar tide - not exactly a photo for the tourist brochure.

If you add 60 more pumps and $ 200 million on top, Miami Beach has another 20 to 30 years of air, Mowry hopes. After that, however, the sea level is likely to have risen so much that the city has to reckon with up to 237 floods a year. "It won't get to the point where Miami Beach no longer exists," he says. “But it will be a different place. Maybe with floating neighborhoods. With elevated roads on pillars. When people ask me, 'Bruce, is that possible?' I reply, 'It is possible. But can you afford it? ‘"

Where in one or two generations everything may already be under water, building continues as if there were no tomorrow.

The water city of the future? Even if Miami reinvents itself with a lot of money, it will probably look less like the seaside beauty of Stockholm. More like the Florida Keys. Many houses there stand on stilts, there the pines are dying of saltwater poisoning, and salt-tolerant grass is now being sown on the golf courses. The highway to Key West connects the island chain over 42 bridges. He too will one day be under water, and it is questionable whether it makes sense to raise it for hundreds of millions of dollars, because the water would soon catch up with him again. The population on the Keys is limited anyway: no more people are allowed to live here than can be evacuated by car within 24 hours when a hurricane is approaching.

The islands are the remains of an ancient coral reef. Reefs can protect coastlines from storm surges. As long as they are healthy, they keep pace with sea level rise and grow taller as the ocean rises. Most Florida reefs died from disease 40 years ago. And because the water is warmer today and also contains more acid, the reefs are no longer recovering. Marine biologists are currently looking for coral species that can survive under such conditions. Because the reef, if it could be reanimated, would offer as much protection as a 150 mile long dyke. This living dike would be free and would keep increasing on its own.

But the effort is not yet too great. Even here, where the water is on the doorstep, many would simply turn a blind eye, says Don Craig of the city administration. In the past few years, Key West has invested millions of dollars in new pumps, built an elevated fire station and renewed parts of the levee that almost completely surrounds the island. Many hope to get through this way. When Craig tells people that the Keys' lifeline, the highway, will one day be submerged, he triggers four different responses. “Some get scared,” he says. “But some say: 'I'll be dead by then, so I don't care.' And still others say: 'The researchers don't even agree on whether this will happen, so why are you telling us?' fourth reaction? "Remain silent."

Ignorance is blooming surreal across Florida. Where in one or two generations everything may already be under water, building continues as if there were no tomorrow. A new housing estate was built in the swamps of the Everglades, with an artificial lake in the middle. A dredger is now piling finger-shaped peninsulas there - building ground for more houses. In Miami, a 5,000-square-foot property right on the banks of the Miami River was recently sold for $ 125 million. The $ 1 billion Brickell City Center is being built nearby. A cement factory was built on the spot especially for this purpose. A $ 600 million convention center is planned across town.

After all, a few hand-picked executives from major banks, insurance companies and the real estate industry met with the insurer Lloyd’s of London last autumn to find out about the risks of optimism. An insurance manager told them that in some areas, homeowners are already paying insurance premiums that are higher than their mortgage rates. If the premiums were to become unaffordable one day, it could trigger a financial crash, against which the collapse of the real estate market of 2008 acts like a small rear-end collision: if homeowners don't get insurance, the banks won't give out any loans, there is no more money in the region, the The value of real estate is falling - and the economy is falling. But this is mostly only discussed behind closed doors for the time being.

Phil Stoddard, third-term mayor of South Miami, is one of the few politicians willing to speak openly about the economic threat. He welcomes me to his house, a bungalow with a stone floor (flood prevention class 101) and solar cells on the roof. “I tell people to buy at a high level and sell at a low level,” he says dryly and waits a moment for the joke to take effect. He doesn't mean stocks, of course, but the location of building land and houses.

Stoddard is also a professor of biology at the University of Miami. During a boring session on the consequences of climate change, he scribbled his own analysis on his pad. At that time it was on the beach grass committee Uniola paniculata gone, he remembers. Its deep roots stabilize the dunes on the coast. “That's great - as long as the rising ocean doesn't wash away everything. I thought to myself: 'We're facing a real disaster and we're talking about beach grass here?' "

On his pad he drew a diagram with three curves: the development of the population, house prices and the sea level. All three rise. Then population growth and property prices suddenly plummet. “Something is going to topple the system one day,” says Stoddard. “It could be a hurricane, a flood, or the loss of fresh water. Then people will see that they are getting away. "

The real estate sale will sooner or later be unavoidable for him. He tells people that too. “Anyone who asks me: 'I am so old. My house is so valuable. What should I do? ‘, To which I reply: 'If you need the value of the house as a pension, you should cash in at some point. It doesn't have to be this year. But you shouldn't wait 20 years. "

Stoddard was also there when the geologist Hal Wanless reported some time ago on the latest findings from climate researchers: that the accelerated dissolution of the ice caps will cause sea levels to rise faster and higher than official forecasts have so far admitted. That evening he took his teenage daughter down the moonlit beach in Miami and told her about it. “She only became very still,” he says. “And then she asked me: 'I probably won't live here again later, will I?' And I replied: 'No, you won't.' The children got it. Many of their parents still don't want to admit it. "

(NG, issue 3/2015, page (s) 114 to 133)