Climate change experts to talk about ocean warming, sea level rise at Naples event

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Harold Wanless gave his first talk on climate change in Naples in 1981, and the University of Miami professor, now 80, will return Tuesday to speak on the same subject as part of a Collier County Waterkeeper presentation.

"It’s going to be talking about the reality and irreversibility of sea level rise because of what we have done by burning too many fossil fuels," said Wanless, a University of Miami professor. "It’s warmed the ocean, and that is happening now in Greenland and around Antarctica. The warm ocean isn’t going anywhere. It’s going to keep melting as far as our lifetimes are concerned." 

Wanless said people in South Florida should worry and act now in regards to climate changes that will occur within the next few generations. It's an issue for today, not for our grandchildren, Wanless said. 

"Some of the things people working in Antarctica have found suggests that there’s a broad outlet where the west Antarctic ice sheet could detach from the bottom by the end of this decade, and that could trigger a quick couple feet of rise; and that could set in motion a much larger rise," Wanless said.

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The planet has experienced rising sea levels in the past, between periods of cooling. 

"The last time we were between ice ages, the sea level was 20 feet higher," Wanless said. "There’s nothing special about where the sea level is now." 

Kissimmee Waterkeeper and climate change expert John Capece will also be speaking. 

"We’re going to need more zero emission energy to fortify ourselves against that climate change," Capece said of future needs. "It’s not only going to take the science and engineering folks, but there’s the social aspects: the education and getting the proper community response. And we have to support a reorientation toward the young." 

Capece said climate change is speeding up and that impacts are being felt here already. 

"It’s going to take a long time to solve this problem, whereas (if work to reduce gasses had started) 30 years ago it may have been a gradual reduction in greenhouse gases," Capece said. "But now we’ve set in motion all sorts of feedback loops." 

Wanless said one way of knowing that sea levels are rising here, besides the actual data, is the fact that king tides flood larger areas than they did just a few decades ago. Where roads were once still dry during these highest of tides, water can now get more than 1 foot deep. 

An anhinga perches on a snag on the plugged Merritt canal in the Picayune Strand recently. This section of Collier County is particularly vulnerable to climate change, which is the topic of a discussion Tuesday night at the Norris Center in Naples.

Wanless said humans have already pumped enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to cause the planet to warm for several more centuries, even if all gas emissions stopped today. 

"With the extra carbon dioxide, we’re still going to be warming the ocean for hundreds of years, and that’s the big driver of ice melt and sea level rise and rainfall," Wanless said. 

He said heat, excessive drought, ocean acidification and the killing of vast swaths of coral reefs will become regular occurrences in the next few decades. 

"People say if we stop now we can do it a lot better but I don’t think we’re going to save Naples and Miami," Wanless said. "It’s just taking time to play out. It won’t take hundreds and hundreds of years. This isn’t going anywhere anytime fast. We’ve warmed the ocean and it’s still happening." 

Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani said he's noticed hotter weather and longer summers in South Florida, and that having public engagement on climate change issues is vital to our future. 

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"There's two things, one is the heat in the summer," Cassani said. "I'm at the point where I really can't work very well past 11 or noon, so the heat has just become oppressive. And the duration of the heat season seems to be growing over time." 

Cassani said rising flood insurance rates will also cause issues for some residents and some seasonal visitors. 

"Can you afford it," Cassani said rhetorically.

Tickets for the evening's presentation can be purchased online. 

Wanless said climate change is so urgent that even at his age he wonders about living in South Florida. 

"I just turned 80 and have a house in Coral Gables and wonder myself if I should even stay here," Wanless said. 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter. 

About the Climate Change Now or Never event

Climate Change Now or Never 

Time: 6 to 8 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 22.

Location: Norris Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples.

Price: $20 

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