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Study: Increasing sea level in Gulf

Higher Gulf of Mexico sea levels ups flooding risk

January 31, 2014

Variations in sea level are increasing along the eastern Gulf of Mexico coast, potentially increasing the risk of flooding from hurricanes, researchers say.

Around the globe, sea levels typically rise a little in summer and fall again in winter. Now, a new study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters shows that, from the Florida Keys to southern Alabama, those fluctuations have been intensifying over the past 20 years, potentially increasing flooding from hurricanes and stressing delicate ecosystems.

The trend is strongest in Florida, such as in Key West, where tidal flooding regularly inundates low-lying city streets. Summer sea levels are now 1.8 inches higher than before 1993, and that’s on top of the contribution from global sea level rise. This means that in the past two decades, summer sea level has increased on Florida’s Gulf Coast by a total of 4 inches.

“We don’t know whether this is climate change or part of a natural cycle, but this increase over the last 20 years is not found elsewhere in the world.” Lead study author and coastal engineer at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, Thomas Wahl, said.

Additionally, the growing difference in the region between summer and winter sea levels might be disrupting coastal ecosystems adapted to what was once a relatively stable difference from season to season, Wahl said.

“Very sensitive ecosystems along the Gulf coast depend on the seasonal cycle,” he said. “If there are significant changes in the seasonal cycle then this very likely has an effect” on these ecosystems.

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