Dome homes offer look into future of Ten Thousand Islands area

Erosion, sea-level rise, stronger storms are erasing Florida islands

Chad Gillis
Marco Eagle
The abandoned dome homes on Cape Romano in Collier County are seen at sunset in late June of 2022. The residences were built on the Florida beach but decades later the sea has moved in, for many reasons.

TEN THOUSAND ISLANDS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, FLORIDA — Tiny waves lap along a deserted stretch of shell-laden beach as the sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico. Brown pelicans plummet from the purple- and salmon-hued sky and crash into the waters in search of a late-day meal. 

Off in the distance, a wave builds on the north side of a concrete home huddled with a few other futuristic-looking structures near the southwest corner of Cape Romano. They are not sitting on land. These domed shapes, empty shells, rest a quarter-mile or so into the Gulf, far from today's shoreline. 

Forty years ago, there was land around and under these homes. Eight acres of beach, a shifting island actually, sprawled just south of a popular winter tourism town known as Marco Island.

The original owner saw the homes as futuristic — solar-powered, self-sufficient, elevated from the seas and designed to survive high winds.

"At that time it was quite a distance to the water," said Jim Beever, a biologist and climate crisis planner. "Over time you’d see the beach going away and eventually the leading edge of the homes in the water and eventually all of it being in the water."

Poor planning, sea level rise and coastal erosion combined to ensure that the dome homes were short-lived. Add several major hurricanes into the equation and the strong currents that area is known for, and you have a recipe for brevity. 

Waves lap on the sides of the dome homes on Cape Romano in Collier County, Florida, in late June 2022. The homes were built on the beach on dry land in the early 1980s. Without ever moving, they now find themselves several hundred feet offshore. Erosion, hurricanes and strong tropical weather have contributed to the demise of the homes. Climate change is causing sea-level rise. Planners say that the homes should have never been built in this location due the changing landscape of barrier islands.

"I think it’s a case of a heavy level of erosion and sea-level rise," Beever said. "I’m not sure there was any planning for it other than someone pulled a permit and built it. It was an isolated place for people who could afford to build on it."

The homes would become a symbol of the future, though probably not what builder Bob Lee envisioned — they're now an example of what poor planning combined with powerful storms and erosion can do to human-made structures. 

 "It’s the classic: 'you don’t build your house on sand'," Beever said. "But there's always been a very strong current in that area, and those islands have always been moving." 

Islands in this area of Florida are constantly moving — expanding and contracting, twisting and contorting into new forms with each passing storm. Erosion and sea-level rise are two of the first changes a warming climate will bring, experts say. 

  • The initial damage came when powerful Hurricane Andrew (1992) slammed into South Florida, leveling entire communities and sawing through the low-lying lands of the Everglades.
  • Strong storms kept coming through the decades — Hurricane Charley (2004), Hurricane Wilma (2005) and then Hurricane Irma (2017).
  • All three were major storms, and the East Coast will see more Category 3 and higher hurricanes as the planet continues to warm and seas continue to rise, experts say.

Four of the original six structures still stand, and they look to be on the verge of collapse.

Weather-worn and tattered, covered in bird scat and tilted toward the sea, the homes are little more than a landmark today, an aquatic oddity that's destined for the sea floor. 

Relatively high beaches can still be found on the southeast side of what's left of Cape Romano, but many of the old clumps of hardwood trees that once stood on drier grounds have been lost to the sea.

The Florida dome homes became a symbol of the future, though probably not what builder Bob Lee envisioned — they're now an example of what poor planning combined with powerful storms and erosion can do to human-made structures.

Mark Danaher, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said islands from Cape Romano and to the south and east are more impacted by winds, tides and even tropical storms and hurricanes.  

"An important thing to keep in mind is that barrier islands are dynamic environments, and most in the Ten Thousand Islands (with the exception of those built up by Calusa Native Americans) are only usually a few feet above sea level," Danaher said. "They have and will always change as they are highly dependent upon and impacted by wave energy, winds, tides and currents, and most importantly, storms." 

  • Mangrove islands, as an example, change shape with each passing tropical system. 
  • These types of changes have been ongoing here for thousands of years, since peninsular Florida emerged from the seas. 
  • But the effects of erosion will be compounded by higher seas and stronger storms, a combination that threatens the existence of fragile barrier islands. 

"As sea level rises, waves reach higher on the landscape, causing many barrier islands to migrate landward over time and/or be washed out completely," Danaher said. 

Danaher said one island within the refuge, known as B Key, appears to be moving inland, or it has in the past several years. Sand that was on the side facing the Gulf of Mexico is now largely on the back side of the island.

Other keys have already been lost to storms, rising seas and currents. 

"One of the favorite Ten Thousand Islands of us conservationists and the public was an island called Round Key," Danaher said. "Back in the 1940s it was heavily forested with tropical hardwoods and mangroves."

Tropical hardwoods like mahogany and gumbo limbo grow on higher grounds on coastal barrier islands here. But as the sand and land literally washes away from beneath the mangroves, the trees collapse into the sea and are left to slowly decay. 

"Even seven years ago, it still had a large forested section left on it," he said. "Unfortunately, Hurricane Irma completely wiped out Round Key, and all that is left is a section less than a one-tenth of an acre."

Large, powerful hurricanes like Irma are expected to become more common in the future, meteorologists say, as the planet, overall, continues to warm. 

More heat means more energy to whip mild hurricanes into massive ones. 

So the shifting sands of the Ten Thousand Islands will continue to move in the future; that movement will be exacerbated by higher sea levels and stronger storms. 

For now, the sand is washing away from some areas and building in others. 

A view of the dome homes on Cape Romano in Florida. Ecologist Mike Barry said the Ten Thousand Islands are destined for losses in land as seas continue to rise. Erosion will play a part, but so will larger tropical storms and hurricanes that are forecast to hit areas like South Florida.

Some of the islands that were once home to generations of fishing and coastal farming families have largely changed in recent decades.

Perhaps worse than the loss of these rare forests is the idea that they'll never return. Unlike some ecological systems, this area will be impossible to restore due to the size and scope of the landscape. "The chances of these old growth forests returning are nil if the rate of rise we saw this past decade continues," ecologist Mike Barry said.

A quarter-mile into the water, a great egret balances on the top of the dome's curve. Graffiti peeks above the tide line on the concrete as if it wants to say something.

The forces of nature, some visible and some not so visible, continue to have the last word on the future.