Miami-Dade
10-16-2023

More than half of Miami-Dade residents may be displaced by sea level rise

A recent study from Columbia Climate School has explored the effects of rising sea levels on Miami-Dade County, and the results paint a disturbing picture of the future. The research suggests that four out of five residents may face disruption or displacement, whether or not they currently reside in flood-prone areas.

“Most studies focus on the direct effects of inundation,” said lead author Nadia Seeteram. “Here, we were able to look at flooding on a very granular level, and add in other vulnerabilities.”

Focus of the study 

In an effort to gain a comprehensive understanding of how various resident groups might be impacted, the researchers fused projections of flooding from direct sea-level rise, rainfall, or storm surge with detailed demographic data.

The team used a range of metrics, including U.S. Census Bureau data, to discern potential vulnerabilities based on age, race, education level, income, homeownership, employment status, and more.

Key findings

With a one-meter sea-level rise by the end of this century, 56% of the Miami-Dade population might be pressured into relocation. These individuals, primarily residing on higher ground, are classified as “displaced.”

Furthermore, 19% of residents could end up “trapped,” living in frequently flooded regions with no means to move to safer zones. Another 19% would be “stable,” unaffected by flooding and capable of staying in their current locations.

Seven percent of Miami-Dade County residents, primarily the wealthiest, would have the means to migrate from waterfront or low-elevation areas to safer zones within the county.

Higher sea levels

If sea levels surge beyond one meter, the narrative shifts dramatically. At a two-meter increase, a staggering 55% of the population would face direct inundation from heightened sea levels and exacerbated rainfall, significantly transforming the area’s demographic landscape. 

This scenario would result in almost half the population becoming trapped, a quarter displaced, and only 8% remaining stable.

“This is where it gets to be more drastic, more existential.” In either scenario, said Seeteram, the results would include potential depopulation of the area and devaluation of flooded properties, as people flee to safer inland regions. 

Physical and economic decline 

Such disruptions could severely hamper local authorities’ ability to generate tax revenue, necessary for funding infrastructural adaptations to combat the rising sea. Essentially, Miami-Dade could find itself ensnared in a vicious cycle of both physical and economic decline.

Flooding is already a recurring issue for the region. Regular occurrences of “sunny day flooding” and pooling rainwater, conditions that would be considered extreme elsewhere, have become the new norm for parts of Miami during the wet season.

Climate gentrification 

Signs of “climate gentrification,” where low-income individuals are displaced from elevated areas, appear to be emerging. 

The Little Haiti neighborhood, for example, which stands 10 feet above sea level, has recently seen rapid property value increases. This has raised concerns among its community about their future there.

Study co-author Katharine Mach of the University of Miami said there is a great, raging debate about whether climate gentrification is underway. “I suspect it is already happening,” she said. 

Shifting real estate values 

However, at least for now, other factors may be playing larger roles in rapidly shifting real-estate values, said Mach. These factors include longtime pro-development policies and what she calls “real-estate tourism,” with speculators snapping up relatively inexpensive properties in a still booming region. 

“The question is, what fraction (of rising prices) can you put on climate?” said Mach. She pointed out that real-estate prices are also going up in low-lying and waterfront areas, but not as fast as in less flood-prone areas – one possible indicator that sea-level rise is playing a role in buyers’ decisions.

Seeteram remains cautiously optimistic, believing that proactive steps, such as revamping infrastructure, could mitigate some of the predicted outcomes. The real challenge lies in balancing these solutions with ensuring affordability and sustainability for the majority of residents.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

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