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SUNCOAST 2037: Sea Level Rise and its impact on the Suncoast

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SUNCOAST 2037: (WWSB) - Ancient ice is melting and our oceans are rising. That much we know. What we don't know yet, precisely, is how much our seas will rise here on the Suncoast and when it will happen in our future. But fortunately, a younger generation is ready for the challenge.

Ringling College of Art and Design students Kayleigh Castle, Alyssa Concannon and Ruzica Ivanovic are worried about the future. A future in which their generation will have to deal with sea level rise.

Last month, they took part in a project called "Rise and Run" with Ringling College Environmental Studies Professor Tim Rumage. It showed beachgoers how much of Lido Beach would be lost to rising seas. "Say it's going to be 6 to 10 inches, which is what we're predicting for 2030, people kind of go like this and look at it and go ok... but they don't really think about how that translates horizontally, how far in on the beach that new tide line is going to come," says Rumage. Ringling student Kayleigh Castle says the project was eye opening.

"It was rather depressing in the sense of the shock of what we would be losing and how quickly it really could happen," says Castle.

They're hoping this ongoing project will give people a better understanding of what our future will look like with higher seas and tides. "The awareness is really important," says Ringling student Ruzica Ivanovic, "and also conversation more than action at this point, sometimes I think we rely much more on the proof than the actual cause and why things are happening. If we want to stick around and have nice lives, we should definitely think about it."

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report reveals Florida has the most people and property at risk from sea level rise. NOAA maps show the areas most at risk in the future. Just two feet of sea level rise will have dramatic impacts here.

 Already a flooding trouble spot, some areas of Holmes Beach would be underwater with a two foot sea level rise. St. Armands Circle is one of the most popular spots in the area to shop and eat and 20 years in the future, it's also one of the most vulnerable to sea level rise. NOAA's future map shows many streets there underwater.

There are other impacts as well. New College of Florida's marine lab director says a sea wall won't protect your property from even a modest rise in sea level. "Its not just what you see against your sea wall, its what you see under your sea wall, and in that sense, you're going to have a push, a hydrological push of the sea water against the fresh water underneath that sea wall, so you're going to see portions of your lawn that come up to the sea wall die because they have their roots in salt," says New College of Florida Biology Professor and Marine Lab Director Sandra Gilchrist. She adds in the short term, trees along the coast may also die from salt water intrusion.

According to Gilchrist, during times of drought, sea level rise will create a salt wedge of Gulf waters moving up the Myakka River and similar freshwater estuaries.

Ringling College of Art and Design's Resident Futurists David Houle is trying to convince people sea level rise is inevitable. "Generally speaking, with variations based on the elevations of Siesta and Lido, there will be no beaches, as we know beaches, by 2035, 2040," says Houle. "A conversation on Gulf Coast Florida should be, what does a post-beach economy look like, because if we don't start thinking about that, then it will come around and we won't know what to do. We have great culture, we have a great lifestyle, so how do we want to protect what we want if there's no beaches," adds Houle.

Our future generations, the young people who will have to deal more fully with sea level rise remain hopeful, that conversation will begin soon. "It's a very defeatist topic, but it's something that needs to be communicated nowadays in order for us to find a solution," says Ringling College of Art and Design student Alyssa Concannon.

If you'd like to learn more about NOAA's Sea Level Rise visualizations, click here:

This article is part of a month-long series called Suncoast 2037 which will give a glimpse into the future of our local communities.