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Global warming could swamp Florida within 50 years, U.N. report suggests

February 2, 2007; South Florida Sun-Sentinel; Global warming could swamp Florida within 50 years, U.N. report suggests; By Tim Collie.

A much-debated U.N. report on climate change to be released today raises the specter of rising sea levels and hurricanes that could eventually swamp much of South Florida.

One official this week even suggested the Bahamas could be under water by 2030.

Dozens of scientists and government experts from 113 countries edited the new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. It is considered by most in the scientific community to be the comprehensive document on climate change, one that could influence government and industrial policy worldwide.

Specifically, experts are looking at predictions of sea level rise over the next 50 years from 2 feet to 10 feet.

A rise of 10 feet could swamp the state's highly populated coastline and send salt water spilling into the freshwater Everglades, said a leading South Florida-based scientist.

"It's an outlying estimate, but a 10-foot rise is within the realm of possibility," said Stephen P. Leatherman, director of the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University. "If that happens, not only do you have rising water to the east, but you have saltwater encroachment in the Everglades. It essentially becomes part of the ocean to the west of us.

"At that point, forget about Everglades restoration ... Most of this area is maybe 10 feet above sea level, so if you're talking about a 10-foot rise, and rising tide on top of that, then it's all over."

It would be inconceivable that construction could easily adapt to such a rise, Leatherman said.

"To preserve places like Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, you'd be building high sea walls like they have in New Orleans, and that wouldn't help during storms," he said.

But critics of efforts to mandate industrial controls on carbon emissions, thought to be a leading cause of the warming, are not likely to be silenced by the report.

"This is ... an advocacy group for controls on carbon emissions," said Tom Harris, executive director of the Natural Resources Stewardship Project, a leading clearinghouse for challenges to the science behind global warming. "We haven't seen the science they're drawing on in this report, and we're not going to see it tomorrow.

"There're over 10,000 reports that come out in any year on climate change ... Our own scientists have raised questions about the data they've seen from the IPCC."

Over the past century, sea levels have risen one foot, but that rate has doubled in the last two decades, alarming climate scientists. They are especially concerned by recent evidence that shows huge areas of ice disappearing for the first time in centuries in the Arctic and Antarctica.

The melting ice raises sea levels and, with global warming, water gets hotter and expands.

Scientists involved in the IPCC are trying to incorporate concerns that their early drafts underestimate how much the sea level will rise by 2100 because they cannot predict how much ice will melt from Greenland and Antarctica.

In early drafts, scientists predicted a sea level rise of no more than 23 inches by 2100, but that does not include massive ice sheet melts that have been measured over the past few years.

Still, Leatherman says he's cautious about the projections. A pioneering researcher in sea-level rise who has been involved with IPCC reports for three decades, Leatherman said that the more likely scenario is that South Floridians will face a massive effort to stave off beach erosion from moderate rises of 2 to 3 feet.

"It basically means instead of putting enough sand down to fight off a foot, you've got to put much more sand down to keep beaches with a 2-foot rise," he said.

"That's what's going to happen because nobody's going to let prime real estate like the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood just collapse in the water."

The report also will say global warming has made stronger hurricanes, including those that hit South Florida in 2004 and 2005. The panel approved language saying an increase in hurricane and tropical cyclone strength since 1970 "more likely than not" can be attributed to man-made global warming.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Tim Collie can be reached at tcollie@sun-sentinel.com and at 954-356-4573.

Copyright © 2007, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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