Sea level rise due to climate change eyed as contributing factor in Miami-area building collapse

As the search for survivors of the collapse of a 12-story beachfront condominium in Surfside, Fla., continued on Friday, building experts began looking at the possibility that sea level rise caused by climate change may have contributed to the disaster that has left at least four people dead and 159 missing.

From a geological standpoint, the base of South Florida’s barrier islands is porous limestone. As the oceans encroach on land due to sea level rise and the worsening of so-called king tides, groundwater is pushed up through the limestone, causing flooding. That brackish water, which regularly inundates underground parking garages in South Florida, can potentially lead to the deterioration of building foundations over time.

“Sea level rise does cause potential corrosion and if that was happening, it’s possible it could not handle the weight of the building,” Zhong-Ren Peng, professor and director of the University of Florida’s International Center for Adaptation Planning and Design, told the Palm Beach Post. “I think this could be a wakeup call for coastal developments.”

While it is too early to say whether climate change is to blame for the collapse of the 40-year-old Champlain Towers South, or if it also threatens thousands of similar structures along Florida’s coastline, sea levels rose by 3.9 inches between 2000 and 2017 in nearby Key West, according to a 2019 report by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact.

SURFSIDE, FLORIDA - JUNE 25: Maria Fernanda Martinez and Mariana Cordeiro (L-R) look on as search and rescue operations continue at the site of the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 25, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. Over one hundred people are being reported as missing as search-and-rescue effort continues with rescue crews from across Miami-Dade and Broward counties. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Search and rescue operations continue at the Champlain Towers South condo on Friday in Surfside, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Future projections are much more dire.

“Just using the U.S. government projections, we could be at 11 to over 13 feet [of sea level rise] by the end of the century,” Harold Wanless, director of the University of Miami’s geological sciences department and a leading expert on sea level rise, told Yahoo News. “There’s only 3 percent of Miami-Dade County that’s greater than 12 feet above sea level.”

The Champlain Towers South, which had been built on reclaimed wetlands, was found to have sunk by roughly 2 millimeters per year between 1993 and 1999, the Washington Post reported.

“It appears to be something very localized to one building, so I would think the problem was more likely to be related to the building itself,” Shimon Wdowinski, a professor at Florida International University’s department of earth and environment, told the Post.

Though federal and state investigators will attempt to pinpoint the cause of the collapse, rising seas and flooding from king tides (exceptionally high tides that occur during a full or new moon) will certainly be examined as a possible contributing factor.

But even if climate change is ruled out as a significant contributor to this particular instance of structural failure, there is no avoiding the fact that if seas continue to rise, the habitability of much of South Florida will be put in question.

“People have to understand how serious this is going to be quickly, in the next two or three decades,” Wanless said. “We’re just seeing the beginning of this accelerated ice melt.”


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