MIAMI BEACH (Reuters) - Climate change is already impacting south Florida coastal communities, which could see a three-foot rise in sea level by the end of the century, a panel of officials and scientists testified at a Senate hearing on Miami Beach on Tuesday.
"This is ground zero for sea-level rise," said Senator Bill Nelson, who hosted the hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space at Miami Beach City Hall.
Part of a series of statewide meetings organized by Nelson, the hearing coincided with Earth Day.
Florida had recorded between five and eight inches of sea level rise in the last 50 years, said Miami-born Nelson, noting that 75 percent of the state's population live near the coast.
"We'd best get about the process of recognizing what is happening all around us," the Democratic lawmaker said.
The low-lying greater Miami area, with a population of 5.7 million, is one of the world's most at-risk from flooding urban communities, environmental studies show.
The United States Geological Survey has warned that sea level could rise by two feet by 2060.
Sea level could rise by up to three feet by 2100, Piers Sellers, a deputy director for Sciences and Exploration at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told the hearing.
A one-foot rise would threaten $4 billion of south Florida's property tax base, while a three-foot rise would put $31 billion of property at risk, said former Broward County mayor Kristin Jacobs.
While the insurance industry has yet to fully factor climate change into premiums, that is gradually changing, Megan Linkin, Natural Hazards Expert at the reinsurance firm, Swiss Re Global Partnerships, told the hearing.
The risk to coastal communities was "indisputably growing," she said, calculating that it threatened $6.6 trillion in coastal property and 55 million jobs in the United States.
Miami Beach, at an average elevation of 4.4 feet, with 7 miles of beaches, was already seeing more frequent salt-water street-flooding at high tide, said Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine. He added that it was a threat to the city's tourism industry, which drew $9 billion in revenue last year.
With plans to invest $300 million to $400 million in upgraded salt water pumping systems, Levine called climate change mitigation his "top priority."
After Hurricane Sandy washed away broad swaths of Florida beaches, cities are looking at a variety of options, from drainage ditches, taking water treatment and management systems further inland, or relocating residents in high-risk areas.
But even that may not be enough, said some in the audience.
South Florida's sea level rise is 50 percent above the global average, said climate scientist Robert Corell, a senior fellow at Florida International University and former member of the UN's International Panel on Climate Change. "The global average will go up 1 foot every 25 years according to latest global data."
Acknowledging Nelson's efforts, oceanographer John Englander, author of 'Hide Tide on Main Street' expressed disappointment that "we do so little so late."
Talk of salt water pumps was "really like bailing the Titanic with a tin can," Englander said.
editing by Gunna Dickson