When I was growing up in Florida, my friend and I played a game in the backyard. We’d get shovels to dig as deep as we could. After uncovering a few inches of black soil, we’d reach white sand. Then it was beach all the way down.
Florida was developed under the assumption that canals, pumps and clever engineering could turn swamps and sandbars into cities, reversing the state’s geological history. For decades, those tools mostly worked.
But recent storms and floods are highlighting Florida’s tenuous status as dry land. We’re entering a more extreme climate regime, Hurricane Idalia’s record-breaking storm surges and roaring winds remind us. It’s one that could overwhelm even a state used to the onslaught.
For Americans living elsewhere, it might be easy to dismiss what happens to Florida, a vulnerable peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. But Florida is not an exception. It’s just early.
As climate change advances, the rest of the country will see old assumptions crumble as other communities get hit by calamitous natural disasters, unaffordable insurance, stranded real estate and other problems Florida is facing now.
“Florida is really the tip of the spear on climate impacts,” says Rachel Silverstein, a marine biologist and head of Miami Waterkeeper. “Living in Florida is already living on the brink of where humans can survive.”
I spoke with scientists, policy experts and Florida residents about what the rest of us can expect in the future, and what the Sunshine State has to teach us.
Florida’s insurance marketplace is a hot mess. Climate-related disasters have inflicted billions of dollars in damage, while unscrupulous insurers, fraud and poor regulation mean bankrupt insurance companies have left many homeowners with nothing.
Premiums are skyrocketing. In the United States, the average homeowners insurance premium is $1,900 a year. In Miami, it’s $5,000. Yet property and casualty insurers, as a whole in Florida, haven’t turned a profit since 2016.
Insurers are now waking up to — and attempting to price in — these risks: “Climate risk is driving insurer decisions like never before,” writes Benjamin Keys, a professor of finance and real estate at the Wharton School.
For now, regulation is holding prices in check in some places. But once climate disaster risks are fully priced in, entire states will probably see premiums soar, and disaster-prone areas may become uninsurable, with policies not even offered. Many people will risk everything by going without coverage. An estimated two-thirds of households in flood zones have flood insurance.
If you thought this was a coastal problem, think again. Anyone living in the path of wildfires, floods, hailstorms and other natural disasters will find an unstable climate far more expensive. Insurance troubles are already spreading beyond Florida to Louisiana and California, where floods and wildfires have put multiple insurance companies out of business or forced their exit.
We tend to see climate change as a gradual process. But we may be leaving behind a climatically stable period, the 10,000-year-old Holocene, for the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch in which human activity has transformed the climate and ecosystems. Rapid changes beyond anyone’s personal experience are likely.
“Very little in nature is linear,” Silverstein says. “The expectation that we’d see this change in any sort of regular way is an incorrect expectation.”
Millions of homeowners in coastal Florida are already living with the likelihood that their property will be underwater this century. Researchers and government agencies estimate rapid sea level rise in the coming decades: 10 to 17 inches by 2040 and up to 4.5 feet by 2070, according to an estimate commissioned by local authorities. You can see how climate change is predicted to inundate low-lying communities with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s sea level rise maps.
“The idea we can build walls doesn’t work. It will come in from underneath‚” says Harold Wanless of the University of Miami. “When sea levels rise, it will be impossible to keep the water out. We’re all going to have to look at moving on.”
If you do want to pass on your home, expect climate risks to lower property values. Keys’s research found prices for coastal Florida real estate had already begun reflecting sea level risk as early as 2010, shaving about 5 percent off prices compared to less exposed communities. “In 50 years, the result could be miles of unlivable homes,” Keys writes.
South Floridians are already seeing the limits of existing infrastructure. Rising sea levels mean the canals they rely on to keep homes dry can no longer drain during storms. Waste in septic tanks has nowhere to go as intense rains and rising seas boost water-table levels, contaminating water supplies.
“We can no longer depend on gravity to be able to move water off the land, so pump stations are becoming necessary,” Nancy Gassman, Fort Lauderdale’s assistant public works director in charge of sustainability, told the Miami Herald. While Miami plans to spend $3.8 billion to elevate roads and install more than 100 pumps, those are just stopgaps.
These kinds of challenges are beginning to show up across the country. Extreme heat is melting roads, buckling train tracks and expanding bridges beyond their limit. Water supplies in desert cities such as Phoenix are running short, while scorching heat and frigid lows are testing electricity grids.
Floridians have vowed to rebuild in the wake of Idalia. But there are no easy answers. “We have to seriously question not just rebuilding after a disaster, but building our infrastructure with the acceptance the next 50 years will not look like the last 50 years,” Silverstein says.
Adapting means major, long-term shifts in how we think. Changing our mind-set, Silverstein says, is one the most powerful things people can do in their own community — and country.
“The best thing I’ve come up with is something our mayor [Miami-Dade County’s Daniella Levine Cava] said about civic engagement:
‘Every day you can read something about an issue to learn about it, every week you can make a call about something or send a letter, and every month you can show up to a meeting or community group.’
We can all do that,” says Silverstein.