Not to Ruin the Super Bowl, But the Sea Is Consuming Miami

Ah, the Super Bowl, a bonanza of overeating and watching men brutalize each other (brain health be damned), punctuated by 30-second reminders to spend money. This weekend the spectacle will play out at Hard Rock Stadium, a lovely open-air structure mere miles from Miami Beach, which is disappearing into the sea.

But I’m being negative. Here’s the good news: This time of year is (literally) the cosmically ideal moment for men to brutalize each other in a stadium in Miami. Right now, Miami is smack dab in between the seasonal events that ravage its shores: king tides. Peaking around October, the gravitational interaction between the sun, the moon, and our planet pulls on the oceans, resulting in extra-high tides that rush through Miami, flooding buildings and closing streets. But those tides only run through November, returning to a lesser degree in March. Thus the Super Bowl is perfectly timed, because it means that all those football fans don’t need to worry about king tides flooding their hotels.

King tides are normal—our celestial bodies have been doing their gravitational dance for a long while—but what’s not normal is human-induced climate change. And that takes us back to the bad news: In the longer term, this change is assaulting Miami from all sides, with increased rainfall from above, and rising seas pushing in from the east, raising the water table below. It is a city in the early stages of an existential crisis, and whether it can host Super Bowls in the future is the least of its worries.

Melting glaciers thousands of miles away have led to a sea level rise of 5 inches in the last 25 years in South Florida, with many more inches to come. At the same time, the warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, resulting in more rainfall. Just add a hurricane to the mix (the hurricane season starts in early summer and lasts through the autumn) and you’ve got not just a perfect storm, but a potentially catastrophic one.

“You can have an extreme high tide associated with king tide,” says University of Miami climate scientist Ben Kirtman, “plus sea level, plus a hurricane, plus excessive rainfall. So you have this compounding flood risk.”

It’s a risk that Miami is trying desperately to mitigate. It’s already got a flood control system in place, a series of canals that ferry rainwater to the sea. But these were built in the middle of the last century, and didn’t take sea level rise into account. They work on a gravity system; the water builds behind gates before being released into the ocean. That system is useless when sea levels go up. “When there are king tides, or even when there’s an offshore storm or wind event, the ocean water level can be higher than the canal level. So they cannot open that gate because the salt water will come into the interior,” says Jayantha Obeysekera, a hydrologist and civil engineer at Florida International University.

Hard Rock Stadium has a problem: It sits right smack on canal C-9, which Obeysekera says has been flagged as particularly vulnerable to this issue. (A request for comment sent to Hard Rock Stadium reps was not immediately returned.) Not that it’ll be a problem this Super Bowl weekend, but Hard Rock Stadium doesn’t exist only for the Super Bowl—it’s rockin’ year-round with concerts, too. And as the Miami Herald points out, a city under siege isn’t exactly attractive to tourists, or to an NFL considering it for future Super Bowls.

Sea levels are going nowhere but up, and fast: By the middle part of the century, we could see two to four feet of sea level rise in Florida, according to coastal scientist Harold Wanless of the University of Miami. And within 50 years, it could rise by three to six feet, or maybe more.

As rising seas encroach on Miami from the east, they’re also causing grief from below. The city is built on highly porous rock, limestone that’s almost like Swiss cheese. As the sea level rises, it pushes inland under the ground, raising the water table closer to the surface. When a heavy rain comes, the ground is already waterlogged. So instead of trickling down into that Swiss cheese, the water has nowhere to go. It accumulates on the surface, leading to flooding.

Standing water also becomes a breeding ground for disease-carrying pests like mosquitos. “With the water comes more vector-borne diseases,” says Cheryl Holder, also of Florida International University, and co-chair of the Florida Clinicians for Climate Action. “So we already had dengue and Zika, and we expect more of this happening if we continue with stagnant water, sea level rise, and more extreme weather.” Dengue can in severe cases lead to internal bleeding and death, while Zika can lead to severe birth defects. The Super Bowl happens to coincide with a kind of Goldilocks season for Miami, where there’s low risk of extreme weather, and it’s still too cold for mosquito populations to explode. But Floridians have no such guarantees the rest of the year.

And there’s another problem, one that brews underground. As the water table rises, it infiltrates sewage systems. “Septic wastes may be discharging around the surface and people are trudging through them. And maybe some of it’s even getting into their homes under really more dramatic flooding conditions,” says Michael Sukop, a hydrogeologist at Florida International University. “That definitely could be an issue from a public health perspective.”

Meanwhile, as the sea levels rise, salt water taints fresh water aquifers. “Probably with the next two feet of rise we’ll have to be desalinating all our water,” says Wanless, of the University of Miami. “Even with the big Everglades next to us, it’ll probably be significantly compromised.”

So don’t cancel your trip to this weekend’s Super Bowl. But the next few years will be a critical period for Miami to adapt to a host of threats—rising tides, fiercer storms, and an elderly canal system. Engineers have been retrofitting those canals with pumps to get water out of them even during high tides. The city has 20 in operation, with dozens more planned—though these are expensive to build and run.

Sea walls can be useful, but it’s not like engineers can barricade the city and it will never flood again. “You actually have to go below the floor of the ocean to stop the sea level rise, because it’s coming under the land,” says Kirtman. “Sea walls work to some degree in some places, but if you’re looking for a Dutch solution to our problem, it’s not going to happen.” (For centuries, the low-lying Netherlands has held back the sea with dikes.)

Massive undertakings like sea walls raise the specter of inequality. Climate change will in many ways disproportionately imperil the most vulnerable among us, particularly those who can’t afford to insulate themselves against it. Miami Beach is loaded with money that could be used to hold back the tide. But Miami Gardens, where Hard Rock Stadium sits, is a working-class neighborhood with a median household income of $42,000. “Miami Gardens, thank God, they’re about 7 to 10 feet above sea level, so there may be less flooding,” says Holder. “But with salt water incursion into your sewers, you’re going to have other issues.” And extreme weather, like supercharged hurricanes, cares not for sea walls. Insurance premiums in high-risk zones are climbing, premiums that, increasingly, only the rich can afford.

And then there’s the “R” word: retreat. In some places, cities will have to surrender to the sea. San Francisco, for instance, is surrendering part of a coastal highway to the ocean, intending to use an expanded beach as a natural bulwark against rising waters.

In Miami Beach, officials have floated the idea of transforming a golf course into a water-absorbing wetland. “It’s truly a fierce debate,” says Kirtman. “Answering some of these questions—what part of the built infrastructure are we going to keep investing in and what part are you going to do water management?—that’s a generational problem. If we want solutions 30 years from today, we have to start today to implement those.”

If Super Bowl LXXXIV ends up back at Hard Rock Stadium three decades from now, Miami will look radically different, no matter whether city officials decide to repurpose golf courses or not. The sea is coming for the coastal metropolises of the world, and only those with thoughtful leaders who adapt thoughtfully—and adapt fast—will survive.

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