Hurricane Sandy gave people living in coastal areas a serious wake-up call about the risks of rising sea levels and storm surge.
Those risks are no more evident and dire than in the low-lying Florida Keys, where 90 percent of the land mass is 5 feet or less above sea level.
Mounting evidence suggests that rising sea levels, coupled with related increases in storm surges, will increasingly put coastal populations at risk for inundation, storm damage, and saltwater intrusion, according to environmental group The Nature Conservancy. Inundation is basically flooding that doesn't go away.
In order to protect homes, decision-makers need access to information and tools. With that goal in mind, The Nature Conservancy has unveiled a new interactive website that allows residents and governments to see and understand the impacts of sea level rise now and in the future. It also addresses the issue in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Eastern Seaboard.
The site -- coastalresilience.org -- is a collection of interactive maps, photos and research documents. Users can select a base map or satellite photo and see how their properties are impacted or relate to sea level rise. Some of the data takes into account information gathered during and after Hurricane Wilma, which flooded the Keys in 2005.
The maps and satellite images are so finely detailed that residents can pinpoint their own homes and measure how different levels would affect them.
There will be tutorials offered on how to use the site, which may be difficult for the average computer user. For more information, call 305-872-7071.
Government officials could also use the site to make better-informed decisions on future Keys development, said Chris Bergh, the Conservancy's South Florida conservation director, based at its Big Pine Key office.
Bergh and other researchers have conducted multiple studies documenting the potential impacts of sea level rise here.
"Development rules should take into account sea level rise, and currently it doesn't," Bergh said. "We think this can help local governments and wildlife managers make informed decisions ... . The visual nature of this (site) helps people get it."
The site also focuses on using natural buffers such as mangroves, dunes and berms to minimize erosion and flooding. Coral reefs, mangroves, beaches and marshes help protect the Keys and other low-lying areas at a fraction of the cost of seawalls, breakwaters and engineered stormwater management systems and with added benefits for fishing, diving and the tourism economy in general, Bergh said.
"Natural features are part of the solution," Bergh said. "We need to let them do their work."
The level of the ocean in the Keys already has risen almost 9 inches over the past 100 years, according to data collected by The Nature Conservancy. The rate of the rise has accelerated in recent years, and is projected to speed up even more.
In 2009, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, consisting of Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, was created to make recommendations and help set policy to deal with sea level rise. Its fourth Climate Leadership Summit will be held in December in Palm Beach County.