Beaches, Spring Break, and Disney World are all images that come to mind when you think of Florida. However, one that probably doesn’t come to mind is occasional floods that reach higher than the doorways of residential and commercial buildings. Rising sea levels are a partial cause of this increase in flooding. The majority of South Florida has an elevation that is at or a few feet above sea level; therefore, any increase will cause coastal areas to flood and erode the landscape. The area doesn’t have a large buffer against even a small change in water heights. These impacts represent just one area in the United States, where almost 40% of the population lives in relatively high-population-density coastal areas. As sea levels continue to rise, the country will be forced to make some expensive decisions to repair the damage caused. The responding actions could include legislation to physically raise establishments out of flood zones, like those proposed in Florida, or ideally actions that target the root cause of climate change.
You may be wondering, what exactly is causing sea levels to rise and how serious is the issue. The underlying cause of rising sea levels is global warming because warmer temperatures cause seawater to expand and ice over land to melt. The three specific factors that affect sea levels are oceanic thermal expansion, melting glaciers, and loss of Greenland and Antarctica’s ice sheets. Oceanic thermal expansion occurs when trapped heat from greenhouse gases is absorbed by the ocean, causing the water to expand and increase its volume. This phenomenon accounts for about half the sea-level rise in the past 25 years. The rate of these factors has been growing because anthropogenic climate change has caused global temperatures to increase. In 2019, the global mean sea level was 3.4 inches above the average level in 1993 and 0.24 inches above the 2018 average. Although it may seem like a few inches of water, this increase can cause erosion, flood wetlands, contaminate agriculture and aquifers, and destroy habitats due to the flooding and salination associated.5 The last few decades have seen higher sea levels, which is a global concern.
Rising sea levels have direct detrimental consequences on human health and the economy. Rising sea levels can contaminate drinking water as saltwater can seep into aquifers and force water managers to seek other freshwater sources or increase desalination. This strain on drinking water will negatively affect many populations, especially those who can’t afford to purchase water from other areas. In South Florida, the Biscayne Aquifer provides most of the freshwater. A majority of that freshwater comes from the Everglades. Rising sea levels could cause an abundance of saltwater to leak into the Everglades; thus, contaminating this aquifer.8 Not only are these freshwater sources used for drinking, but they are also essential for agriculture. An increase in water salinity could stunt or kill certain crops, causing farmers to produce less or spend more money finding other water sources.6
Besides a decrease in safe drinking water, rising sea levels have economic costs. Rising sea levels could damage hotels and beaches, leading to a more expensive insurance and hesitation for investments. Also, infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, power plants, and landfills, are at risk from rising sea levels as they would be damaged from the water and are costly to rebuild. Without action in South Florida, more than $3 billion worth of property could be destroyed by daily tidal flooding by 2040.1
The cost associated with filtering drinking water and compensating economic losses will fall onto state and local governments, who would have to spend extensive resources solving the problem retroactively. As sea levels continue to rise at an unsustainable pace, so too will the efforts to mitigate its issues. State officials in Florida proposed several bills in the State House and State Senate to address the impacts of rising sea levels, such as a tax break for people who elevate their homes and aid to local governments to address the flooding. This legislation was introduced by Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls to protect the state from the unusual flooding that occurs after rainy days.10 However, these solutions aren’t proactive because they address the issue as it occurs rather than the root cause of climate change. For instance, the tax break for people who elevate their homes assumes that sea levels will rise to a level that will affect the homes of citizens, rather than being a solution that focuses on reducing the growth of sea levels. The tax break would only help those who participate and wouldn’t solve the other health and economic problems that come with rising sea levels. To combat the long-term consequences, Florida’s state officials should instead introduce legislation that targets greenhouse gases. For example, to slow down thermal expansion, we should shrink the amount of heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases. If they only focus on mitigating the flooding after the fact, governments will have to continue to address the problem every year as it worsens. On the other hand, addressing climate change could help slow the sea level increase and allow officials to avoid the associated issues it causes.
Next time you ponder about the beach, imagine the impact of just a few feet of water on the area. A few feet may seem like a big move from the inches we’ve recently experienced, but at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that sea levels can rise more than 3 feet by the year 2100. That means that the next generation or two will be alive to experience the devastating effects. Sea levels are rising now and will have significant impacts on many communities; therefore, governments should fight to combat climate change. The priority should be to reduce greenhouse gases to slow down the warming temperatures that contribute to rising sea levels.
 Flavelle, Christopher, and Patricia Mazzei. “Miami Says It Can Adapt to Rising Seas. Not Everyone is Convinced.” NYTimes, 2 Mar. 2021.
 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Is Sea Level Rising?” National Ocean Service, 26 Feb. 2021.
 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “How is Sea Level Rise Related to Climate Change?” National Ocean Service, 26 Feb. 2021.
 “Understanding Sea Level.” NASA.
 Nunez, Christina. “Sea Level Rise, Explained.” National Geographic, 19 Feb. 2019.
 Lindsey, Rebecca. “Climate Change: Global Sea Level.” NOAA, 25 Jan. 2021.
 Harvey, Chelsea. “Sea-level Rise Will Cause More than Flooding – these 5 Other Impacts of Rising Oceans are Just as Bad.” Business Insider, 17 Feb. 2015.
 “Climate Impacts on Water Resources.” United States Environmental Protection Agency.
 Becken, Susanne. “Climate Change Impacts on Coastal Tourism.” Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy.
 Wronka, Tim. “Florida Bill to Combat Rising Sea Levels and Flooding.” Spectrum News, 27 Feb. 2021.
 Woodward, Aylin. “Sea Levels are Projected to Rise 3 Feet Within 80 Years, According to a New UN Report. Hundreds of Millions of People Could be Displaced.” Business Insider, 25 Sept. 2019.