Back-to-back hurricanes left an unnerving scene on the Florida coast in November 2022: Several houses, and even swimming pools, were left dangling over the ocean as waves eroded the earth beneath them. Dozens of homes and condo buildings in the Daytona Beach area were deemed unsafe.
The destruction has raised a disturbing question: How much property along the rest of the Florida coast is at risk of collapse, and can it be saved?
As the director of iAdapt, the International Center for Adaptation Planning and Design at the University of Florida, I have been studying climate adaptation issues for the last two decades to help answer these questions.
Living by the sea has a strong appeal in Florida – beautiful beaches, ocean views, and often pleasant breezes. However, there are also risks, and they are exacerbated by climate change.
Sea level is forecast to rise on average 10 to 14 inches (25-35 cm) on the U.S. East Coast over the next 30 years, and 14 to 18 inches (35-45 cm) on the Gulf Coast, as the planet warms. Rising temperatures are also increasing the intensity of hurricanes.
With higher seas and larger storm surges, ocean waves more easily erode beaches, weaken sea walls, and submerge cement foundations in corrosive salt water. Together with subsidence, or sinking land, they make coastal living riskier.
The risk of erosion varies depending on the soil, geology and natural shoreline changes. But it is widespread in U.S. coastal areas, particularly Florida. Maps produced by engineers at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection show most of Florida’s coast faces critical erosion risk.
Aging or poorly maintained buildings and sea walls, and older or poor construction methods and materials, can dramatically aggravate the risk.
So, what can be done to minimize the damage?
The first step is to build sturdier buildings and fortify existing ones according to advanced building codes.