Water’s Triple Threat Surges in Sarasota – April 4 designated as Hurricane Day

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Photography by Mars Productions

As hurricane season 2024 draws near, forecasting is on the minds of southwest Florida’s climate scientists, who rely on modeling to predict what we’re in store for in coming years. In Florida, second only to Alaska in coastline miles, that near-term model is wet.

That’s why the Climate Adaptation Center (CAC), an independent, non-profit organization headquartered in Sarasota, is focusing its message on a trifecta of water threats: more extreme precipitation events, more major hurricanes, and rising sea levels. CAC CEO Bob Bunting points to eight storms within the past seven years battering states along the Gulf of Mexico—including category 4 Hurricanes Irma and Ian in southwest Florida—that not long ago would have been considered once-every-several-hundred-years events.

“For every degree the climate warms, the atmosphere can hold seven percent more water vapor,” Bunting explains. “That water vapor is concentrated in storms with devastating impacts.”

The three water threats work together. Hurricanes and other extreme precipitation events can produce severe inland flooding, while rising sea levels and storm surges compound the disaster along the coastline.“After Hurricane Ian, inland flooding from the state’s rivers did immense damage,” Bunting reports. Three days after the September 2022 storm, rivers were still above flood stage in 11 Florida locations, according to Floodlist.com. Flooding closed Sarasota County’s popular Myakka River State Park for nearly three months, while on the coastal front, Fort Myers suffered a 15-foot storm surge. According to Bunting, Ian’s fury brought nearly 100 deaths, along with $113 billion in damage, thousands of flooded homes and the loss of roughly 300,000 cars. Major rainfall episodes also drive nitrogen-rich runoff into the Gulf, generating red tide events that release neurotoxins harmful to fish, wildlife and humans.

“We need to both mitigate and adapt,” says Sara Kane, Sustainability and Resilience Manager for Sarasota County, UF/IFAS Extension and Sustainability. Mitigation comprises global initiatives to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in order to slow the progression of climate change. Adaptation involves strategies to help humans cope with the climate change impact we’re already experiencing. With much of Florida measuring not even 10 feet above sea level, the Gulf’s nine-inch sea level rise over the past 70 years is noticeable in eroding the state’s world-renowned beaches.

“When there’s a storm surge, we don’t have the buffer we used to have,” Bunting adds. “Our way of life in Florida is definitely under threat.” The CAC has designated April 4, 2024, as the first Hurricane Day, when CAC will release this year’s Hurricane Season Forecast during an event at the University of South Florida and will report on steps being taken to address water’s triple threat to southwest Florida.