New course offers deep dive into the dynamics of sea level rise

In this photo from 2015, street flooding near Collins Avenue in Miami Beach was in part caused by high tides due to the lunar cycle, according to the National Weather Service. Photo: The Associated Press

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

In this photo from 2015, street flooding near Collins Avenue in Miami Beach was in part caused by high tides due to the lunar cycle, according to the National Weather Service. Photo: The Associated Press

New course offers deep dive into the dynamics of sea level rise

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Taught by a team of University of Miami researchers with expertise in climate change, the semester-long course will cover everything from how and why sea level rise is occurring to its impacts on coastal cities and how people around the world might adapt.

The waters from Biscayne Bay had risen all the way to the outside of the ground floor of the Doherty Marine Science Center at the University of Miami’s Marine Campus, completely covering the sandy shoreline in the back of the building. Oceanographer Lisa Beal stood on the building’s third-floor outdoor stairwell that day in late 2019 to take in the view, realizing that the tide, which would eventually recede, was another reminder of how sea level rise is impacting coastal cities. 

The world, she knew, was rife with such examples. Like the once-thriving village of Tebunginako on the Central Pacific island nation of Kiribati. There, the rising sea has forced residents to abandon their thatched homes and relocate further inland. 

“Sea level rise is one of the most serious and challenging consequences of climate change, and the long-term impacts on coasts and coastal cities are potentially catastrophic,” said Beal, a professor of ocean sciences at the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science on Virginia Key. 

Beal has often envisioned and advocated for a semester-long course that specifically addresses sea level rise. Now, that vision will become reality during the 2023 spring semester, when MSC 348: Sea Level Rise, an undergraduate course she co-designed and will help teach, debuts as a Rosenstiel School academic offering. 

From how and why sea level changed in the past to how it will change in the future, the course will cover the physics and geophysics of global and regional sea level rise. It will also delve into its impacts and how coastal communities around the world might adapt. 

“There is so much that goes into understanding sea level rise. There’s geology, there’s thermodynamics, there are ocean currents and the rotation of the earth, and behind everything, there’s the changing composition of the atmosphere,” Beal said. “This course is a great way to pull students into seeing just how the natural world is a part of their everyday lives, especially here in Miami.” 

Indeed, with measurements from the Rosenstiel School’s own dock showing that sea level has already risen 12 inches during the last century, and with projections showing that sunny-day flooding across Miami-Dade County will occur ten times more often a few decades from now, South Florida is often called “ground zero” for sea level rise. 

“Unfortunately, with king tides and seasonal flooding, Miami is probably one of the best places to learn about sea level rise. It’s not just an academic problem; it’s a problem of immense societal importance,” said Igor Kamenkovich, a professor of ocean sciences, who co-designed the course and, with Beal, will teach two of its segments. 

In all, nine University of Miami researchers—eight from the Rosenstiel School and one from the College of Engineering—will teach the course’s eight modules. From global and regional signals of sea level rise to the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets; from climate model projections to flood events, waves, and tides; and from cities most at risk to water management policies and construction, those modules will cover the gamut. 

“A powerful example of problem-focused learning” is how Katharine Mach, a professor of environmental science and policy, describes the course. “One of its goals is to build the interdisciplinary skills and knowledge needed to create solutions to real-world problems,” she said. 

Mach will teach a module focusing on the ways in which societies are preparing for more flooding. “This flooding involves intensifying storm surges and new normals such as water from high tides flooding roadways,” she explained. “Students will come to understand the toolkit of options that can be deployed, ranging from keeping water out with infrastructure to ensuring people and assets are out of harm’s way in the first place. There is no better place than South Florida to learn about efforts underway to increase preparedness for sea level rise.” 

Mach and Helena Solo-Gabriele, professor of environmental engineering, will co-teach the module. “I’ll be concentrating on the impacts of sea level rise on coastal water quality and on the potential impacts on disease transmission, and we’ll discuss possible strategies to minimize those impacts,” Solo-Gabriele said. 

“The uniqueness of this course lies in how comprehensive it will be, looking at all the factors involved and all the various timescales,” said Ben Kirtman, professor of atmospheric sciences, who was a coordinating lead author for the Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change working group one—the Scientific Basis. 

Kirtman will teach two course modules, one focusing on regional differences in sea level and sea level rise and another examining what sea level rise will look like in the future. “A lot of what I’ll be talking about is on somewhat shorter time scales and having a little bit of a focus on coastal flood risks as opposed to what’s going to happen to sea level in the year 2050 or 2100,” he said. “Overall, this class will be a much more comprehensive look at sea level rise, the mechanisms for it, and coastal flood risk across timescales. And it is that comprehensive look that I suspect doesn’t exist in any other course anywhere else.” 

How sea level has changed over time will be the focus of a module taught by Larry Peterson and Gregor Eberli, professors of marine geosciences. 

“The geological record of sea level is a good place to start because we know sea level has varied considerably over time for different reasons,” said Peterson, who, using marine sediments, reconstructs past oceans and climates. “You talk about Miami being ground zero for sea level change, but South Florida has really been shaped by sea level because pretty much all the limestone that you find in South Florida dates to the last warm interglacial period about 120,000 to 125,000 years ago. And that’s the last time that the Earth was as warm as it today and probably a bit warmer. At that time, sea level was six, seven meters higher than it is today. All South Florida was underwater.” 

Beal will use her own research to help teach the modules she will lead. An oceanographer who has studied the Agulhas system of currents off South Africa and their role in a warming climate, Beal is currently leading a study that examines how variability in the Florida Current affects sea level and flooding events in Miami. She and her team plan to spend several days at sea aboard the F.G. Walton Smith research vessel, deploying special instruments and moorings across the Florida Straits to obtain the critical data that will answer questions. 

“Every professor involved in teaching this course has conducted research that touches on changes in sea level. And that’s the beauty of this course,” Beal said. She noted that her colleague, Kamenkovich, studies mesoscale sea level anomalies and how they influence the atmosphere. 

“Sea level rise is real. It affects all of us,” Beal added. “We need to be talking about how it affects people in less affluent areas, where the money to elevate infrastructure and implement other preventive measures isn’t as readily available. So, there’s also an ethics issue here. Those of us who can motivate young adults to be part of a solution, we need to be doing that. And this course will help in that regard.”