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Miami Citizens Become Scientists to Study Rising Seas


Miami Citizens Become Scientists to Study Rising Seas
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Rising seas driven by climate change are threatening coastal cities around the world. The Southern U.S. city of Miami is already feeling the effects. Every autumn, when tides are at their highest, residents contend with flooded streets.

It’s a sunny Saturday morning in Miami, and Kiran Bhat is crouching ankle-deep in puddle water, watching the level creep up a measuring tape.

At the bottom of the puddle is a storm drain. It’s supposed to convey rainwater off the street and into Biscayne Bay nearby.

But as the oceans rise with climate change, the opposite is happening more and more often. When tides are at their highest, salt water flows up through the drains in low-lying neighborhoods across the Miami area. At its worst, flooding turns streets into impassable streams.

It’s a symptom of climate change that’s expected to get worse in the coming decades.

Bhat recently moved to the region with his wife, who was born and raised here.

Sea level rise threatens Miami and coastal cities around the world. By 2060, the city could see tidal flooding almost every day.
Sea level rise threatens Miami and coastal cities around the world. By 2060, the city could see tidal flooding almost every day.

“I’m starting to put down roots here as well,” he said. “Miami’s a beautiful place. We don’t want it to be impacted by sea level rise in the way that the projections are putting out there.”

Reality check

While tidal flooding currently happens just a few days each year, “by 2030, we could be seeing it 30 to 40 days a year,” Keren Bolter, climate and policy analyst with the South Florida Regional Planning Council, said. “And by 2060, we could be seeing it almost every single day at high tide.

“It’s a wake-up call,” Bolter added. “It’s a reality check of what the future will be every day.”

That’s why Bhat and 74 other volunteers are splashing through puddles across the city this morning, collecting data to help scientists understand how rising seas will affect their hometown.

When the waters rise, cities need to know street by street who and what is at risk. And they need to know what combinations of conditions turn streets into streams, and which just leave salty puddles.

Tidal flooding in Highland Village, North Miami Beach. As tidal flood waters rise, among the things that city officials and scientists need to know is whether the water poses a health risk.
Tidal flooding in Highland Village, North Miami Beach. As tidal flood waters rise, among the things that city officials and scientists need to know is whether the water poses a health risk.

Plus, they need to know if floods pose a health risk. The rising waters could carry nasty bacteria from septic systems or pet waste, or toxic chemicals that wash off streets and driveways.

Collecting all that data requires a lot of manpower. That’s where Tiffany Troxler’s platoon of volunteers comes in.

“You simply can’t cover the number of sites that we’re working on today with the research infrastructure that we have at our disposal,” said Troxler, director of the Sea Level Solutions Center at Florida International University.

Citizen scientists

Before sunrise, the citizen scientists gather for doughnuts and training. They learn a few simple techniques, then spread out across the city.

As the tide rises, peaks and falls, volunteers collect data on how deep the floodwaters get. They check the salinity to be sure the water is from the bay, not just backed-up rainwater. And they sample for chemicals and bacteria.

But there’s more to the exercise than manpower. Troxler says these outings are a great way to get people thinking and talking about what sea level rise will mean for them and their communities.

Tidal flooding in the Shorecrest area of Miami. About 75 volunteers collect data on which streets flood and when and how badly.
Tidal flooding in the Shorecrest area of Miami. About 75 volunteers collect data on which streets flood and when and how badly.

“Even for myself, I don’t think I really appreciated how urgent the issue of sea level rise was until I saw the water coming out of the drain,” she said. “And it just doesn’t stop.”

Many of the volunteers are FIU journalism students, recruited by a fellow professor with the inducement of extra credit.

“It’s either this or write a report,” said FIU senior Steffi Reyes.

The experience has been an eye-opener for classmate Rosanna Oviedo.

“I’ve probably seen (the flooding), of course, but I haven’t paid attention because I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “The sea comes, and you get flooding in the middle of the street. So, yeah, now we know.”

Aside from the students, many of the volunteers know the issues. But Troxler said they can help spread the word just by being out in the neighborhoods.

“Someone’s out walking their dog, and they’re curious about what’s going on, and then you engage in a conversation about what’s happening there,” she said. “That in effect allows us to connect with people we might not otherwise be able to reach.”

Flooding does not always happen as they expect. This morning was predicted to be the highest high tide of the year. But the puddle Kiran Bhat stood in never got above ankle level, in a neighborhood that’s among the most flood-prone in Miami.

With each outing, Troxler learns a little more about how tides, weather and other factors play out on the streets of Miami, information that will be more and more important as the seas continue to rise.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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