Preparing Coastal Cities for Climate Change

TAMPA (Nov. 18, 2009) -- The cities of Tampa and Rotterdam are a half a world apart in geography but as coastal cities facing an uncertain future amid climate change, water experts from both citeis are finding they have a common challenge in preparing the future.


That’s why researchers and water managers at the University of South Florida and their Dutch counterparts have united in a series of conversations designed to share the Netherlands’ experience in adapting to rising seas with those in Florida who will be facing similar challenges in the years ahead.


Called the “Dutch Dialogues”, the discussions are sponsored by the Patel Center for Global Solutions is seeking to draw on the Netherlands’ historical expertise in creating infrastructure designed to cope with rising water.


A second round of Dutch dialogues drew dozens of participants to the USF’s Gibbons Alumni Center in a daylong conference designed to inform local water and planning officials about how to adapt to changing weather patterns and rising sea levels in transportation, energy and public works projects. Experts shared their insights on how emergency management systems and post-disaster recovery plans could be affected by climate change.


“When people think about climate change, the first thing they think about is sea level rise,” said  Daniel Yeh, a research fellow at the Patel Center and USF assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. “However, in addition to sea level rise, there are increased temperatures, irregular weather patterns, flooding – all those phenomena will wreak havoc on infrastructure.


“We want people at all different levels to think about adaptation, about how can we prepare our infrastructure for the uncertainty that comes with climate change.”


The program is an outgrowth of USF’s partnership with UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft, the Netherlands, the world’s preeminent institution on water education and research. In 2007, USF became the first American university to sign a memorandum of understanding with IHE to collaborate on research and education.


USF hosted the first of its workshops with Dutch officials this summer, hosting a group of 20 water managers from developing nations in Africa, Latin America and Asia for a multi-day program on sustainable water supplies. At the same time, a group of six USF students were in Delft for a 10-week research program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, conducting laboratory research on sustainable water technologies.


Speakers at the conference included representatives of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, Tampa Bay Water, Tampa Electric, the Florida Department of Transportation and the Hillsborough County Planning and Growth Management, as well as the Royal Netherlands Embassy and Dutch consulting firm DHV BV.


The dialogues are building toward a multi-day symposium with the Dutch Water Sector and the American Planning Association in Summer 2010.


The shared concern between Dutch officials and their counterparts in the U.S. is even while researchers look for ways to mitigate man’s impact on climate, some effects of climate change are now inevitable and communities will have to adapt. In the Netherlands’ case, the concern begins with the North Sea, which may rise another two to five feet by the end of the 21st  Century, she said.


Esther van Geloven, senior commercial officer for the Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, told conference participants that even her nation’s extensive network of dams, levies, sea walls and canals may has created a “false sense of security” and may not hold back the rising waters which come with climate change.


“After Hurricane Katrina we needed to take a look at our flood plans and draft a plan for the future,” she said.


The Dutch dialogues draw on the geographical similarities between Tampa and Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port. Florida and Holland have similar, heavily-urbanized coastlines that are vulnerable to storms, rising sea levels and increased risks of flooding.


The Tampa Bay region is also is vulnerable to seal-level rise; projections show a one-meter rise in the waters surrounding Tampa and St. Petersburg by the year 2100, said Bob Hunter, executive director of the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission.


The higher water level could mean that portions of downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg and strategically important locations, such as MacDill Air Force Base, or tourist attractions like the Florida Aquarium, would be permanently flooded.


Rotterdam has created a multi-decade plan to renovate and adapt its planning and infrastructure to the rising sea levels and flooding problems brought on by climate change. USF researchers are hoping that local officials can draw on the Dutch experience as they began considering how climate change may affect Tampa and other Gulf Coast cities.


Yeh said the objective of the programs is to focus on how communities adjust to climate change, not just mitigate its effects.


The current infrastructure – such as roads, bridges, sea walls and storm sewers – are designed to withstand past storm events, Yeh noted, but with accelerated climate change and intensified weather patterns, researchers and engineers need to reevaluate whether past is still prologue.


“The big overarching question is how we can best plan for uncertainty,” he said. “These questions need to be addressed now – so we can put ourselves on a path that is more adaptable, with a range of options that are less costly.”


The Dutch have historically dealt with vulnerability of flooding from the North Sea in a nation where about two-thirds of the population lives in communities below sea level. The current Dutch storm water protection system can handle about a one-meter rise in sea level, but not much beyond that.


The Dutch have also had to consider other threats. The focus used to be on storm surge from the North Sea, but now that that the Rhine River is experiencing higher water levels because of the melting of the Alpine snow caps, the port city’s vulnerabilities have become more complex.


“They can’t just close off the front door, now they’re looking at water coming from all directions,” Yeh said. “They have to look at adaptability- creating all kinds of additional water storage.”


The adaptation strategy can be something as creative as building parking garages or parks that flood intentionally to store water or vegetative green roofs to soak up stormwater and reduce the city’s summer temperature. While the exact strategies might vary, the Dutch have been eager to embrace new ways of looking at the problem.


For coastal Florida and other flood-vulnerable areas, the overarching lessons is now is the time to start planning.


“It’s cheaper now to start the dialogue than when you are faced with limited options,” he said. “The question for us is how do you get decision makers to look at this important but long range threat when they are faced with more pressing immediate issues?”


Some cities are eager to meet the challenge, including New York where the City Climate Change Adaptation Task Force is already looking for ways to counter the effects of rising sea levels. Locally, government officials and planners are being encouraged to join in the conversation, even though the current economic crisis gives them little immediate ability to plan massive new projects.


Crucial for Tampa is identifying vulnerabilities and educating the public about what climate change will mean to their community’s infrastructure, Yeh said.


“The silver lining is that the current economy might actually create an opportunity,” he said. “We are not just pushing forward full-steam ahead on a lot of traditional construction projects. We are at a point of pause and it’s a good opportunity to examine how we are doing things. We are going to turn the corner, and now is an opportunity to think how we might do things differently.”





The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.