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With hundreds of scientists compiling data on climate change worldwide, municipalities must grapple with conflicting data in making decisions costing millions – or even billions of dollars – to safeguard communities against the growing threat of sea level rise and catastrophic storms, a panel of South Florida scientists said. 

UM is getting behind the “notion of doing science hand-in-glove with the people who are making the decision so that we develop guidance and information we can trust,” said Ben Kirtman, a professor of atmospheric science at the UM’s Rosenstiel School.

Kirtman was joined by three other scientists for the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel school’s Climate Cafe Series hosted Wednesday by WLRN’s Tom Hudson.

The taxpayer money at stake in these resilience programs is enormous. On Key Biscayne, the Village Council has debated the realities of sea-level rise and the predictions of different models as move toward greenlighting a new stormwater project. Statewide, Florida is engaged in building a $4 billion reservoir as a pivotal component to Everglades restoration. 

Kirtman showed a slide of two rainfall prediction maps. One, he said, would mean restoration efforts currently would fail, while the other one meant they would be successful. “How we deal with this fire hose of information is a really tricky problem and we need to engage the people who are making decisions,” he said.

Brian McNoldy, a Rosenstiel meteorologist, recapped the remarkable climate year where 2024 became the warmest on record in the last 174 years of man taking the planet’s temperature. Locally, the temperatures of Biscayne Bay rose above 100 degrees this summer, bleaching coral reefs off the coast. 

“The ocean is taking the brunt of everything that’s happening,” McNoldy said.

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McNoldy said sea level is rising on Virginia Key about .25 inches per year, which might not seem like much but is disastrous for coastal communities. “The coastlines are in big trouble,” he said.

South Florida has been “very lucky” recently in that it hasn’t been hit by a major hurricane, he said.

“We’ve had four Category 4 or 5 hurricanes come ominously close to us in the last few years,” McNoldy said. “So what happens when our luck runs out? How resilient are we? And if our luck runs out, how resilient can we rebuild?” 

Scientists, Kirtman said, need to be able to translate the different research models into information municipalities can use, so decision makers have some kind of idea – for instance – what coastal flooding will be in 10, 20, even 50 years. 

Michael Berkowitz, executive director of UM’s Climate Resilience Academy, said ongoing scientific climate research should be influencing not only government policies, but private capital allocation, philanthropy, bond rating systems, among other things.

Such research, for instance, shows reduction in high blood pressure and diabetes in neighborhoods where green spaces – think more trees – replaced concrete heat islands, he said. 

“That should change the way we architect our cities, but we really are not doing it,” he said.

Tiffany Troxler, director, Sea Level Rise Solutions Center at Florida International University, said avoiding the consequence of climate change is not an option. But municipalities can prepare for the worst possible scenarios – such as the 26-inch rainstorm that hit Fort Lauderdale last April.

“When we’re thinking about transformational change toward something that looks more resilient, it’s about building systems that are safe to fail,” she said. “If we do get a 26-inch storm, we have other systems in place that can help.”

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.