Something odd happens to the neighborhood around Marlins Park, Miami’s new $650 million baseball stadium, when you overlay 21st-century sea-level rise projections. It sinks below the waterline.
It’s a shame. The park has a retractable, cloud-white roof to shield players and spectators from the summer sun. It recycles, sips energy and water, and is plugged into public transit. It has 27 flood gates, and was built one foot higher than floods are supposed to reach in once-in-500-year storms. The total, publicly financed package, with debt servicing, could cost Miami $2.4 billion by 2049.
If the Atlantic inches in as projected, eventually it might not matter how many flood gates there are. Oceans are swelling as they absorb heat, and ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica have been melting faster since the early 1990s. Sea-level rise estimates for later this century have been revised upward, to a global average of a foot and a half to three feet by 2100, without aggressive carbon-cutting, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
South Florida is a national leader in understanding the changing world. But politics and even policy change much more quickly than bureaucracy. That makes Marlins Park a symbol for cities in transition, a future relic from a time when the people who could build really cool things worked more or less independently from the people who monitored how fast the seas were rising.
The same potential problem exists wherever cities are laying down infrastructure expected to last into the second half of the century. Boston’s “Big Dig” highway project, a generation in the making, wasn’t driven by late 21st-century storm surge considerations. Oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico have never been built with permanent sea-level rise in mind. Another newish baseball stadium, Nationals Park, stands yards from Washington’s Anacostia River.
"Cities can't wait for the next crisis," said former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, by email. He is now chairman of The Sustainability Exchange, a business that works with cities to identify more affordable and enduring infrastructure projects. "They need to plan today for what we know we will have to deal with tomorrow."
Marlins Park checked enough LEED boxes to make it “the most sustainable stadium in Major League Baseball,” according to the team’s website.
Green building standards became common before a city’s ability to bounce back from large-scale shocks, or resilience, surfaced as a popular idea. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) developed its widely used LEED building practices to promote efficiency in the use of energy, water and materials, and other practices related to construction, safety and maintenance; not necessarily to help people live through some of the charms that might await us in a hotter world -- extreme heat, stronger storms and encroaching seas, to name three.
Work on traditional efficiency and on climate adaptation have been moving on parallel tracks for the last couple of years. It’s about time they intersected, said Brendan Owens, the USGBC’s vice president for LEED technical development. Marlins Park’s LEED score “doesn’t reflect at this point the decisions that they could have made” around climate change adaptation, Owens said. “Going forward we’ll start seeing more and more projects that are bringing that into consideration longer-term.”
The insurance industry is waking up and smelling the advancing shorelines. The Geneva Association, an insurance industry think tank, concluded last summer that the changes wrought by warming seas mean that the profession’s "traditional approaches, which are solely based on analyzing historical data, increasingly fail to estimate today’s hazard probabilities."
In other words, when it comes to understanding climate risks, past performance no longer predicts future results. Swiss Re counsels civic leaders to consider “total climate risk,” a combination of historical risk, the pace economic development and projected climate change, according to David Bresch, global head of sustainability at Swiss Re.
Miami has the most assets at risk from climate change among the world’s port cities. It’s not news to local leaders. Miami-Dade County in 2010 formed a compact with three neighbors to coordinate climate change policy. For their official baseline, the counties adopted sea-level rise projections of the Army Corps of Engineers, which estimate three feet could come as early as 2080.
An underwater ballpark could be the least of Miami’s problems. “It’s low, it’s flat and it’s sitting on porous bedrock,” says Ben Strauss, who directs sea level rise research at ClimateCentral.org, a science and journalism nonprofit and occasional contributor to this blog. “You can’t build a seawall to protect it.”
Marlins Park has an official life of 50 years, and could last 75 if well-maintained, said Claude Delorme, the team’s executive vice president for operations and events. Stadiums built a long time ago last even longer than that; Boston's Fenway Park opened in 1912. There’s no telling what the world will look like that far in the future -- only a constrained set of probabilities based on evolving scientific understanding.
What we know now should be enough to get people moving toward more rigorous long-term planning, according to the South Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. As Marlins Park was being designed and built, the four counties’ technical group wrote in a 2011 assessment that “uncertainties about the timing and magnitude of future long term sea level rise should not be a reason for inaction.”
Lest the pitcher’s mound end up as a sand bar.
Images from the Climate Central Surging Seas mapping tool:
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