Global warming may have big effect here

Climate change will be Florida's No. 1 problem this century, one expert says. Tampa Bay is just beginning to study how the area might be affected.

Published April 22, 2007

Rising ocean levels and temperatures and increased variability in weather patterns caused by global warming could radically affect coastal communities in the Tampa Bay area, according to climate change experts.

They say that in the next 80 years, the county could be plagued with massive flooding, a significant loss in wildlife, and disastrous bouts of Red Tide that could change the landscape of the area, as well as prove detrimental to the local tourism industry.

"Climate change is a big-deal thing in Florida," said Stephen Mulkey, associate botany professor at the University of Florida, who recently talked to state legislators about global warming and its impact on the insurance industry. "I am thoroughly convinced this is going to be the most significant problem for the state in this century."

Global warming, which experts say is being caused by emissions from greenhouse gases, is heating up the oceans and will lead to stronger hurricanes, Mulkey said.

So far, local officials are just beginning to study how global warming will specifically affect the Tampa Bay area. That kind of research is sorely needed to help determine the county's future, Mulkey said.

In St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Baker is leading the statewide Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida. Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissioners have passed resolutions calling on state legislators to create a global warming action plan. Several beach communities are considering curbside recycling. Eckerd College has initiated a green campus program to lower its carbon emissions.

These programs could go a long way to combat the gloomy predictions of global warming's impact.

Impending sea-level changes could dramatically alter coastal habitats and fishing, according to a recent study by the Florida Wildlife and National Wildlife federations.

In 2005, Red Tide blooms began in early January and lasted until mid December. It was one of the worst years on record for fish kills in the Tampa Bay area.

Scientists have said the manatee population is expected to drop 50 percent over the next five decades because of habitat loss, boat collisions and Red Tide. Homeowners along Boca Ciega Bay and boaters who enjoy the mammals could begin to see fewer of them.

Based on a projected 15- to 20- inch rise in average sea levels during this century, the study found that nearly 50 percent of critical salt marsh and 84 percent of tidal flats would be lost. The area of dry land is projected to decrease by 14 percent, or 174,580 acres, and roughly 30 percent of oceanfront beaches and two-thirds of all estuarine beaches would disappear.

In Pinellas, where about 54 percent of the county's total area is made up of water, a 14 percent decrease in dry land means the barrier islands that hug the mainland could be flooded, as well as much of South Pasadena, Seminole and St. Petersburg.

Landmarks like the Don CeSar Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach and the Redington Long Pier in Redington Beach would be underwater.

"During the Katrina storm season, the Gulf of Mexico was the warmest it had ever been," said Jerry Karnas, spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation.

"There are also some studies that link an increase in Red Tide to global warming, because algae thrives in warmer environments. So there is growing anecdotal evidence of changes that have already occurred, but the figures we used in our projections are very conservative estimates."

Tourists spent $3.2-billion at local hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions last year. That money translates into local relief through the county's bed tax.

Mulkey has petitioned the state to consider remedies like greenhouse gas inventories, energy efficiency standards, and requirements for renewable energy such as wind, solar and biofuels. He said the situation is not hopeless.

"People's individual lifestyles can make a huge dent," he said. "And it's going to take willingness, a change in market forces and some governmental incentives."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8845 or csilva@sptimes.com.