Sea-level Rise Expert Helps Florida Cities Plan for Survival

It's just after 9 a.m. and the air is thick, even on the water. 

Jason Evans is aboard an aging pontoon boat, scanning the banks for drainage pipes. He closes in on a 12-incher coated with barnacles, then hauls out his GPS device. 

"Go ahead and mark this as No. 1," he tells his two research assistants from Stetson University. 

A pileated woodpecker thumps on a palm while the GPS plots the pipe's location along the Grand Canal in Satellite Beach. Evans and his crew bake in the sun as they wait. 

This is the life of a sea-level rise researcher. It's not glamorous work — but it's increasingly vital to the future of the Sunshine State. 

“We know it's accelerating in Florida,” Evans says of the rate of rising sea levels. “That’s a big deal. It’s a really big deal.”

And, increasingly, the responsibility for addressing it is falling on local governments. That's where Evans, an associate professor of environmental science and studies at Stetson, has found his niche. 

The 43-year-old researcher has worked with local governments from the Florida Keys to the Carolinas on climate-change adaptation. Flooding from Hurricane Irma last year triggered even more interest from local governments. 

“I wouldn’t have known 10 years ago if you’d asked me if this was what I’d be working on,” he says.

Satellite Beach has been an especially proactive locale. Like so many Florida communities built on barrier islands, it's vulnerable to increased flooding. But the city has confronted stark projections head-on: It forecasts a tipping point for its municipal operations around 2050, when sea levels are expected to be 2 feet higher, according to the city's 2017 Sustainability Action Plan.

"Negative effects of this rise will be seen earlier in the form of enhanced storm surges, tidal flooding, and stormwater runoff issues," the report states. 

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