Surfside Ecotones

Shifting from a vision of blissed-out honeybees flying from hives to a flowering birch tree in gardens of a city whose buildings encode “labor-intensive materiality” in each of their individual bricks, American poet Campbell McGrath conjured a distinctly modern melancholy that turns from wonder at bees bearing pollen from blossoms of cherry trees on their anthers to hexagonal cells to the transience of New York, reduced to an “archipelago of memory,” as buildings of man-made bricks once “barged down the Hudson,” from a hinterland of clay pits, quarries, and factories, disintegrate into the Atlantic, and in an imagined future we are left to imagine their eventual return to silt: “It’s all going under, the entire Eastern Seaboard,” the Miami-based poet prophesied the impending retreat of the city, almost as an afterthought with resignation or awe in early 2020, and imagined how a new map of the nation that emerged as the Atlantic rose. The American Capitol secures more solid grounds in Kansas City and leaves the shores of Washington, DC, leaving “flooded tenements” or houseboats that are “moored to bank pillars along Wall Street.” As the Atlantic rises, few “will mourn for Washington,” and the once densely inhabited seaboard has been all but abandoned. What was the coast became a fluid ecotone bridging land and sea, in this dystopic flight of fancy, shifting the capitol to western Missouri in a search for more secure grounds.

The sudden collapse of half of the south tower of Champlain Towers in Surfside, FL, may be less apocalyptic in scope than the eastern seaboard. But it is now impossible to speak of offhand: we are agape mourning residents of the collapsed tower, trapped under the concrete rubble after the sudden pancaking of the southern tower. Without presuming to judge or diagnose the actual causes for the tragic sudden collapse of a twelve story condominium along the shore, the shock of the pancaking of floors of an inhabited condominium raises questions on how the many structural questions that surround Champlain Towers were overlooked. While retrospective attention is devoted to whether the certification process is adequate for forty year old concrete weight-bearing structures that are exposed to far more saltiness and saltwater than they were ever planned to encounter, they also raise questions of the increasingly anthropogenic construction of the coast. For the coast is not only an increasingly overbuilt environment, but less of a clearly mapped divide between land and sea, and not only because of sea-level rise, in an age of global warming.

We have long mapped Florida by its beaches, and constructed buildings for a market that privileged the elusive and desired promise of a beach view. Yet despite the allure that the state offers as a sort of mecca of beach settlement, even generating a market for vicarious live beach webcams in Florida and refusing, in the 2020 pandemic, to close beaches and beach life that promises as an engine of economic activity, to imagine danger signs on the beaches, or the instability of the shoreline communities we already know are instable, and not only from rising sea-level and surging seas. The fantasy and attraction of the beach, perhaps because of its own apparent instability and otherworldly qualities as “edges” that we imagine ourselves to be exhilarated, and released from day-to-day constraints, offers a destination, and not only for retirement homes, promising a new prospect on life.

The long distinction of the state by its beaches–its uncertain edges with the ocean–demand to be mapped and acknowledged as less of the clear line between land and sea than not only a permeable boundary, but of a complex geography vulnerable to both above ground flooding and underground saltwater incursion, sustained exposure to salty air, winds of increased velocity, and an increasing instability of its shores that have long been a site attracting increased settlement. Can one view the ocean surrounding the shores not only as a quiescent blue, but as engaged with the redrawing of the line of the shore itself as a divide long seen as a stable edge of land and sea?

From the increased tensions of hurricanes from the warming oceans, to underground saltwater incursion, to a constant beach erosion and remediation, the beaches we map as lines are coastal environment whose challenges engineers who valued the economy and strength of concrete towers did not imagine. The combination of the influx of salty air, the erosion and replacement of beach “sand”, and increased construction of condominium have created an anthropogenic shore that demands to be examined less as a divide between land and sea than a complex ecotone where salt air, eroding sand, karst, and subsoil weaknesses all intersect, in ways that the mitigation strategies privileging seawalls and pumping stations ignore. As importation of sand for Miami’s “beach” continues, have we lost sight of the increasingly ecotonal organization of Florida’s shores?

Sands from Central Florida Arive with U.S. Army Engineers in January, 2020
Matias Ocner/Miami Herald

The point of this post is to ask how we can best map shifts in the increasingly anthropogenic nature of Miami’s shores to come to terms with the tragedy of Champlain Towers, to seek us to remain less quiescent in the face of the apparent rejiggering of coastal conditions as a result of climate change beyond usual metrics of sea-level rise. For the collapse of Champlain Towers provides an occasion for considering how we map these shores, even if the forensic search for the immediate structural weaknesses that allowed the disaster of Champlain Towers to occur.

Miami Beach has the distinction of the the lowest site in a state with the second-lowest mean elevation in the nation, and ground zero of climate change–but the drama of the recent catastrophic implosion of part of Champlain Towers should have become national news as it suggested the possible fragility of regions of building that are no longer clearly defined as on land or sea, but exist in complex ecotones where the codes of concrete and other building materials may well no longer apply–or, forty years ago, were just not planned to encounter. While we have focussed on the collapse of the towers with panic, watching the suddenly ruptured apartments akin to exposed television sets of everyday Americans’ daily lives, the interruption of the sudden collapse of the towers is hard to process but must be situated in the opening of a new landscape of climate change that blurs the boundary between land and sea, and challenges the updating of building codes for all coastal communities. The old building codes by which coastal and other condominiums were built by developers in the 1970s and 1980s hardly anticipated to being buffeted by salty coastal air, or having their foundations exposed to underground seepage or high-velocity rains: the buildings haven’t budged much, despite some sinking, but demand to be mapped in a coastal ecotone, where their structures bear stress of potential erosion, concrete cracking, and an increased instability underground, all bringing increased dangers and vulnerabilities to the anthropogenic coast in an era of extreme climate change.

Rescue Workers in Surfside Disaster Attempt to Find Survivors in Champlain Tower South

A small beachside community bordering the Atlantic Ocean just north of Miami Beach, on a sandy peninsula surrounded by Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic, the residential community is crowded with several low-rise residential condominiums. While global warming and sea-level rise are supposed to be gradual, the eleven floors of residential apartments–a very modest skyscraper–that collapsed was immediate and crushing, happening as if without warning in the middle of the night. As we count the corpses of the towers residents crushed by its concrete floors, looking at the cutaway views of eerily recognizable collapsed apartments, we can’t help but imagine the contrast between the industry and care with which bees craft their hives of sturdier wax hexagons against the tragedy of the cracked concrete slab that gave way as the towers collapsed, sending multiple floors underground, in a “progressive collapse” as vertically stacked concrete slabs fell on one another, the pancaking multiplying their collective impact with a force beyond the weight of the three million tons of concrete removed from the site.

This post seeks to question if we have a sense of the agency of building on the shifting shores of Surfside and other regions: even if the building codes for working with concrete have changed –and demand changing, in view of the battering even reinforced concrete takes from hurricanes, marine air, flooding, and coastal erosion and seawater incursion near beachfront properties–we need a better mapping of the relation of man-made structures and climate change, and the new coasts that we are inhabiting in era of coastal change, far beyond sea-level rise.

Champlain Towers
Chandan Khanna/AFP

As we hear calls for the evacuation of other forty-year old buildings along the Florida coast, it makes sense to ask what sort of liability and consumer protection exists for homeowners and condominium residents, who seem trapped not only in often improperly constructed structures for an era increasingly vulnerable to climate emergency, but inadequate assurances or guarantees of protection. We count the corpses, without pausing to investigate the dangers of heightened vulnerability of towers trapped in unforeseen dangers building in coastal ecotones. Indeed, with the increased dangers of flooding, both from rains, high tides, storm surges, and rising sea-lelel, the difficulty of relying on gravity for adequate drainage has led to a large investment in pumping systems in the mid-beach and North Miami area. The sudden collapse of the building, which civil engineers have described as a “progressive collapse,” as occurred in lower Manhattan during the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center, the worst fear of an engineer, in which after the apparent cracking of the structural slab of concrete under the towers’ pool, if not other structural damage. The thirteen-story building, located steps from the Atlantic ocean, was part of the spate of condo construction that promised a new way of life in the 1970s, when the forty year-old building was constructed; although we don’t know what contributed to the collapse that was triggered by a structural vulnerability deeper than the spalling and structural deterioration visible on its outside, the distributed liability of the condominium system is clearly unable to cope with whatever deep structural issues led to the south tower’s collapse.

Americans who hold  $3 trillion worth of barrier islands and coastal floodplains, according to Gilbert Gaul’s Geography of Risk, expanding investment in beach communities even as they are exposed to increased risk of flooding–risks that may no longer be so easily distributed and managed among condominium residents alone. And the collapse of the forty year old condominium tower in Surfside led to calls for the evacuation and closure of other nearby residences, older oceanfront residences vaunted for their close proximity to “year-round ocean breezes” and sandy beach where residents can kayak, swim, or enjoy clear waterfront. The promise that was extended by the entire condominium industry along the Florida coast expanded in the 1970s as a scheme of development that was based on the health and convenience of living just steps from the Atlantic Ocean, offering residences that have multiplied coastal construction over time. While the tragic collapse suggests not only the limits of the condominium as a promise of collective shouldering of liabilities, it also reminds us in terrifying ways of the increased liabilities of coastal living in an age of overlapping ecotones, where the relation between shore, ocean spray, saltwater incursion, and are increasingly blurred and difficult to manage in an era of climate change–as residences such as the still unchanged splashpage of Champlain Towers South itself promise easy access to inviting waters that beckon the viewer as they gleam, suggested exclusive access to a placid point of arrival for their residents that developers still promise to attract eager customers.

Although the shore was one of the oldest forms of “commons,” the densely built out coastal communities around north Miami, the illusion of the Atlantic meeting the Caribbean on Miami’s coasts offers a hybrid of private beach views and public access points, encouraging the building of footprints whose foundations extend to the shores, promising private views of the beach to which they are directly facing, piles driven into wetlands and often sandy areas that are increasingly subject to saltwater incursion. The range of condominiums on offer that evoke the sea suggest it is a commodity on offer–“surfside,” “azure,” “on the ocean,” “spiaggia“–as if beckoning residents to seize the private settlement of the coasts, in a burgeoning real estate market of building development has continued since the late 1960s, promising a sort of bucolic resettlement that has multiplied coastal housing developments of considerable size and elevated prices. Is the promise to gain a piece of the commons of the ocean that the real estate developers have long promoted no longer sustainable in the face of the dangers of erosion both of the sandy beaches and the concrete towers that are increasingly vulnerable not only to winds, salt air, and underwater inland flow, but the resettlement of sands from increased projects of coastal construction?

If collapse of the low-rise structure that boasted proximity to the beach may change the condo market, the logic of boasting the benefits of “year-round ocean breezes,” has the erosion of the coast and logic of saltwater incursion in a complex ecotone where salty air, slather flooding, and poor drainage may increasingly challenge the stability of the foundations of the expanding market for coastal condos–and to lead us to question the growing liability of coastal living, rather than investing in seawalls and beach emendation in the face of such a sense of impending coastal collapse, as the investment in concrete towers on coastal properties seem revealed as castles in the sand.

If the architectural plans for the forty-year-old building insured adequate waterproofing of all exposed concrete structures, in an important note in the upper left, the collapse left serious questions about knowledge of the structural vulnerability in the towers, whose abundant cracking had led residents to plan for reinforcement. The danger that Surfside breezes sprayed ocean air increased the absorption of chloride in the concrete over forty years that it cracked, allowing corrosion of the rebar, and greatly weakening the strength of supporting columns that had born loads of the tower’s weight, significantly weakening the reinforced concrete. The towers had been made to the standards of building codes of an earlier era, allowing the possible column failure at the bottom of the towers that engineers have suggested one potential cause for collapse in ways that would have altered their load-bearing capacity–the lack of reinforced concrete at the base, associated with the collapse of other mid-range concrete structures often tied to insufficient support and reinforced concrete structures. The dangers of corrosion of concrete, perhaps compounded by poor waterproofing, of cast in place concrete condominium towers in the 1970s with concrete frames suggest an era of earlier building codes, often of insufficient structuring covering of steel, weaknesses in reinforced concrete one may wonder if the weathering of concrete condominiums could recreate between columns and floors–and potential shearing of columns to the thin flat-plate slabs whose weight they bore, creating a sudden vertical collapse of the interior, with almost no lateral sideways sway.

Courtesy Town of Surfside, FL
Champlain Towers
Chandan Khanna/AFP

Even as we struggle to commemorate those who died in the terrifying collapse of a residential building, where almost a hundred and sixty of whose residents seem to be trapped under the collapsed concrete ruins of twelve floors, we do so with intimations of our collective mortality, that seems more than ever rooted in impending climate disasters that cannot be measured by any single criteria or unique cause. The modest condo seems the sort of residence in which we all might have known someone who lived, and its sudden explosive collapse, without any apparent intervention, raises pressing questions of what sort of compensation or protection might possibly exist for the residents of buildings perched on the ocean’s edge. Six floors of apartments seem to have sunk underground in the sands in which they will remain trapped, in sharp contrast to the bucolic views the condominium once boasted.

Miami Beach Coast/Alamy

While the apparent seepage in the basement, parking garage, and Champlain South that ricocheted over social media do not seem saltwater that seeped through the sandy ground or limestone, but either rainwater or pool water that failed to drain adequately, the concrete towers that crowd the Miami coastline, many have rightly noted, have increasingly taken a sustained atmospheric beating from overlapping ecotones of increased storms, saltwater spray, and the underground incursion of saltwater. If the causality of the sudden collapse twelve stories of concrete was no doubt multiple, the vulnerability to atmospheric change increased the aging of the forty year old structure and accelerated the problems of corrosion that demand to be mapped as a coastal watershed.

The bright red of coasts in the below map seems to evoke a danger sign that is intended to warn viewers about heightened increased consumer risk, from the Gulf Coast to Portland to Florida to the northeast, as sustained exposure to corrosive salt increased risk to over-inhabited coasts, particularly for those renting or owning homes in concrete structures built for solid land but lying in subsiding areas along a sandy beach. Indeed, building codes have since 2010 depended on the gustiness of winds structures would have to endure and not only along the coast, as this visualization of minimum standards across the state–mandating the risks coastal housing needs to endure–a green cross-hatched band marking new regions added to endure 700-year gusts of wind, inland from Miami.

Gusts Required Residences to Endure by Minimum Building Codes since 2010

Florida received a low grade for its infrastructure from the incoming administration of President Biden–he gave the state a “C” rather grudgingly on the nation’s report card as he promoted the American Jobs Plan in April, focussing mostly on the poor condition of highways, bridges, transit lines, internet access, and clean water. The shallow karst of the Biscayne aquifer is a huge threat to the drinking supplies of the 2.5 million residents of Miami-Dade County, but the danger of residences has been minimized, it seems, by an increasingly profitable industry of coastal building and development. While incursion of saltwater inland remains a threat to potable water, the structural challenges of the new As coastal Floridians have been obsessed with working on pumps to empty flooded roads to offshore drains, clearing sewer mains, and moving to higher grounds, the anthropogenic coastal architecture of towering condominiums offering oceanfront views have been forgotten as a a delicate link whose foundations and piles bear the brunt of the ecotonal crossfire of high winds, saltwater, and salty air that contributed to the “abundant cracking” of concrete that is not meant to withstand saltwater breezes, underground incursion, or the danger of coastal sinkholes in the sandy wetlands where they are built.

It is hard to look without wincing at a visualization designed to chart cost effectiveness by which enhanced concrete would mitigate the damage of hurricanes and extreme weather to coastal communities.

The below national map colors much the entire eastern and southeastern seaboard red, as a wake-up call for the national infrastructure. In no other coastal community are so many concrete structures so densely clustered than Florida. If designed and engineered for land, they are buffeted by salty air on both of its shores, from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic; wind speeds and currents make the coast north of Miami among the saltiest in the world–as high winds can deliver atmospheric salts at a rate of up to 1500 mg/meter, penetrating as afar as one hundred miles inland that will combine with anthropogenic urban pollutants from emissions to construction–creating problems of coastal erosion of building materials, as much as the erosion of beaches and coast ecosystem threatened in Miami by what seems ground zero in sea-level rise, and, as a result, by saltwater incursion, and indeed the atmospheric incursion of salty air–concentrations of chloride that is particularly corrosive to concrete.

And is the exposure of concrete structures across southern Florida to salty air destined to increase with trends of rising sea-levels, already approaching five inches, and projected to deviate even more from the historical rate along the coast, exposing anthropogenic structures from skyscrapers to residences to increased flow of saltwater air?

Dr. Zhaohua Wu, FSU

We are all mourning the collapse of the Surfside FL condominium whose concrete pillars were so cracked and crumbling to expose rusted rebar exposed to salt air. Built on a sandbar’s wetlands, reclaimed as prime property, the town seems suddenly as susceptible to structural risk akin to earthquakes, posing intimations of mortality fit for an era of climate change. The collapse of the southern tower in the early morning of pose questions of liability after the detection of the cracked columns, “spalling” in foundational slabs of cement that allowed structural rebar within to deteriorate with rust that will never sleep. Its collapse poses unavoidable questions of liability for lost lives and unprecedented risk of the failure to respond to concrete cracking, but the ecotonal nature of the Florida shore, whose stability has been understood only by means of a continuing illusion as a clear division between land and sea, as if to paper over the risk of a crumbling shore, where massive reconstruction projects on its porous limestone expose much of the state to building risk of sinkholes and the sudden implosion or subsidence of the sandy shore in a county that was predominantly marshlands, and the inland incursion of salty air that make it one of the densest sites of inland chloride deposition–up to 8.6 kg/ha, or 860 mg/sq meter–and among the most corrosive conditions for the coastal construction of large reinforced concrete buildings facing seaward.

Miami building collapse: What could have caused it? - BBC News

While coastal subsidence may have played a large role in the sudden instability of the foundations that led the flat concrete slab on which the pool to crack, and leak water into the building’s garage in the minutes before it collapsed, the question of liability for the sudden death of Surfside residents must be amply distributed. For the question of liability can be pinned to untimely review process, uncertainty over the distribution of costs for repairs to condominium residents, and the failures of proper waterproofing of concrete as well as a slow pace of upkeep or repairs, the distributed liability raises broad questions of governance of a coastal community. The proposed price of upkeep of facade, inadequate waterproofing, and pool deck of $9.1 million were staggering, but the costs of failure to prevent housing collapse are far higher–and stand to be a fraction of needed repairs for buildings across Miami-Dade County over time.

The abundance of concrete towers in Miami-Dade county alone along the coast poses broad demands of hazard mitigation for which the Surfside tragedy is only the wake-up call: the calls from experts in concrete sustainability at MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHUB) for a reprioritization of preparation for storms from the earliest stages of building design has called fro changes in building codes that respond to the need for increased buffeting of coastal concrete buildings, arguing that buildings should be designed with expectations of increased damage on the East and Gulf coasts that argue mitigation should begin from the redesign of cement by a better understandings of the stresses in eras of climate change that restructuring of residential buidings could greatly improve along the Florida coast–especially the hurricane-prone and salt incursion prone areas of Miami-Dade county both by the design of cement by new technologies and urban texture to allow buildings to sustain increased winds, flooding, and salt damage. Calculated after the flooding of Galveston, TX, the calculation of a “Break Even Mitigation” of investing in structural investment of enhanced concrete was argued to provide “disaster proof” homes, by preventing roof stability and insulation, as well as preventing water entry, and saltwater corrosion in existing structures, engineering concrete that is more disaster resistant fro residential buildings in ways that over time would mitigate meteorological damage to homes to be able to pay for themselves over time; the “Break-Even Mitigation Percent” for residential buildings alone was particularly high, unsurprisingly, along the southern Florida coast.

MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub)

1. Although discussion of causes of its untimely collapse has turned on the findings of “spalling,” ‘abundant” cracking and spiderwebs leading to continued cracks in columns and walls that exposed rebar to structural damage has suggested that poor waterproofing exposed its structure to structural damage, engineers remind us that the calamity was multi-causal. Yet it is hard to discount the stresses of shifting ecotones of tides, salty air, and underground seepage, creating structural corrosion that was exacerbated by anthropogenic pollution. The shifting ecotones create clear surprises for a building that seems planned to be built on solid ground, but was open to structural weaknesses not only from corrosion of its structure but to be sinking into the sandy limestone on which it was built–opening questions of risk that the coastal communities of nation must be waking up to with alarm, even as residents of the second tower are not yet evacuated, raising broad questions of homeowner and consumer risk in a real estate market that was until recently fourishing.

The apparent precarity of the pool’s foundations lead us to try to map the collapsed towers in the structural stresses the forty year old building faced in a terrain no longer clearly defined as a separation between land and sea, either due to a failure of waterproofing or hidden instabilities in its foundations. And despite continued uncertainty of identifying the causes for the collapse of the towers, in an attempt to gain purchase on questions of liability, the tower’s collapse seems to reflect a zeitgeist of deep debates about certainty, the anxiety with which we are consuming current debates about origins of its collapse in errors of adequate inspection or engineering may conceal the shaky foundations of a burst of building on an inherently unstable ecotone? While we had been contemplating mortality for the past several years, the sudden collapse. of a coastal tower north of Miami seemed a wake-up call to consider multiple threats to the nation’s infrastructure. Important questions of liability and missed possibilities of prevention will be followed up, but when multiple floors of the south tower of the 1981 condominium that faced the ocean crumbled “as if a bomb went off,” under an almost full moon, we were stunned both by the sudden senseless loss of life, even after a year of contemplating mortality, and the lack of checks or–pardon the expression–safety nets to the nation’s infrastructure.

The risks residents of the coastal condominium faced seemed to lie not only in failures of inspection and engineering, but the ecotonal situation of the overbuilt Florida coast. Residents seemed victims of the difficulties of repairing structural compromises and damage in concrete housing, and a market that encouraged expanding projects of construction out of concrete unsuited to salty air. As much as sea-level rise has been turned to visualize the rising nature of risk of coastal communities that are among the most fastest growing areas of congregation and settlement, as well as home ownership, the liability of the Surfside condominium might be best understood by how risk is inherent in an ecotone of overlapping environments, where the coast is not only poorly understood as a dividing line between land and water, but where risk is dependent on subterranean incursion of saltwater and increasing exposure inland to salt air, absent from maps that peg dangers and risk simply to sea-level rise? The remaining floors of the partly collapsed tower were decided to be dismantled, but the disaster remains terrifyingly emblematic of the risks the built world faces in the face of the manifold pressures of climate change. While we continue to privilege sea-level rise as a basis to map climate change, does the sudden collapse of a building that shook like an earthquake suggest the need to better map the risks of driving piles into sandy limestone or swampy areas of coastal regions exposed to risks of underground seepage that would be open to corrosion by dispersion of salt air.

Florida building collapse video: Surfside, FL condo disaster | Miami Herald

The search for the bodies of residents buried under the rubble of collapsed housing continued for almost a full week, as we peered into the open apartments that were stopped in the course of daily life, as if we were looking at an exploded diagram–rather than a collapsed building, wondering what led its foundations to suddenly give way.

Michael Reeves/Getty Images

As I’ve been increasingly concerned with sand, concrete, and the shifting borders of coastal shores, it seemed almost amazing that Florida was not a a clearer focus of public attention. The striking concentration of salts that oceans deposited along the California coast seemed a battle of attrition with the consolidation and confinement of the shores. Long before Central and Southern Florida were dredged in an attempt to build new housing and real estate, saltwater was already entering the aquifer. As the Florida coast was radically reconfigured by massive projects of coastal canalization to drain lands for settlement, but which rendered the region vulnerable to saltwater, risking not only contaminating potable water aquifers, but creating corrosive conditions for concrete buildings clustered along the shores of Miami-Dade County across Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, as much of Florida’s coast–both in terms of the incursion of saltwater and the flow of salty air, that link the determination of risk to the apparent multiplication of coastal ecotones by which the region is plagued, but are conceptualized often only by sea-level rise. Even as Miami experienced a rise in sea-level some six times the rate of the world in 2011-2015, inundating streets by a foot or two of saltwater from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale was probably a temporary reflection of atmospheric abnormality or a reflection of the incursion of saltwater across the limestone and sand aquifer, lying less than two meters underground. Did underground incursion of saltwater combine with inland flow of salty air in dangers beyond tidal flooding in a “hotspot” of sea-level rise? One might begin to understand Surfside, FL as prone to a confluence of ecotones, both an overlapping of saline incursion and limestone and its concrete superstructure, and the deposit of wet chloride along its buildings’ surfaces and foundations, an ecotonal multiplication of risk to the consumers of buildings that an expanding real estate market offered along its pristine shores.

Approximate Inland Extent of Saltwater Penetration at Base of Biscayne Aquifer, Miami-Dade County, USGS 2018

While the inland expansion of saltwater incursion and penetration has become a new facet of daily life in Miami-Dade County, where saltwater rises from sewers, reversing drainage outflow to the ocean, and permeates the land, flooding streets and leaving a saltwater smell in the air, the underground penetration of saltwater in these former marshlands have been combatted for some time as if a military frontline battle, trying to beat back the water into retreat, while repressing the extent of the areas already “lost” to the sea. If the major consequences of such saltwater intrusion are a decay. and corrosion of underground infrastructure as water and sewage pipelines, rather than the deeply-set building foundations of condominiums that are designed to sustain their loads, the presence of incursion suggests something like a different temporality of the half-life of concrete structures that demands to be examined, less in terms of the damage of saltwater incursion on building integrity, than the immersion of reinforced concrete in a saline environment, by exposing concrete foundations to a wetter and saltier environment than they were built to withstand, and exposing concrete to the saline environment over time.

As much as we have returned to issues of subsidence, saltwater incursion, and other isolated data-points of potential structural weakness in the towers, the pressing question of the temporality of building survival have yet to be integrated–in part as we don’t know the vulnerability or stresses to which the concrete foundations of buildings perched on the seaside are exposed. The very expanse of the inland incursion of saltwater measured in 2011 suggests that the exposure to foundations of at least a decade of saltwater have not been determined, the risks of coastal buildings and inhabitants of the increased displacement of soils as a result of saltwater incursion or coastal construction demands to be assessed. The question of how soils will continue to support coastal structures encouraged by the interest of developers to meet demand for panoramic views of coastal beaches. While the impact of possible instability on coastal condominiums demands to be studied in medium-sized structures, the dangers of ground instability created by increased emendation of beach sand, saltwater incursion, and possible subsidence due to sinkholes. All increase the vulnerabilities of the ecotonal coastline, but only by foregrounding the increased penetration of saltwater, salt air, and soil stability in the increasingly anthropogenic coast can the nature of how ecotonal intersection of land and augment the risks buildings face.

The shore was ween as open to risk by sea-level rise, but didn’t we know it was also already crumbling? The systematic undermining of manmade coastal structures that crowd the Florida seashore might suggest that the active area of building along coastal areas that were once wetlands, and whose aquifers are increasingly at risk of subsidence, create an accentuated level of risk our maps don’t often show, focussed as they are on sea-level rise. The projection of sea-level rise as a danger to built environments encouraged current plans in Miami-Dade County provide for the elevation of a huge section of the city’s housing to mitigate disaster by removing residences and offices from inevitable saltwater damage, in an unprecedented scale of rebuilding akin to terraforming by 2025.

The online service of First Street Foundation’s Flood Factor allowed homeowners in the Miami-Dade area to navigate uncertain waters of flood risk, dividing housing properties into buckets of at-risk status in the face of coastal flooding, providing tools of “future projections based on peer-reviewed research from the world’s leading flood modelers” that suggest the atomized nature of risk homeowners face in the city, balancing dreams of coastal access against extreme dangers that are loosely cast only in terms of flooding–not outright building collapse. But the collapse of the Champlain Towers, on the eve of its Forty Year Inspection, made those dangers palpable–going beyond the increasing fears of the emergence of two-tiered levels of risk for urban inhabitants, akin to a fear that the city will be reshaped by a process of climate gentrification driving property values beyond access of lower-income residents, who are left holding the very vulnerable properties that are exposed to climate risk. (Currently, 100% of Surfside properties are at risk.). And in areas of Miami, in particular, that are built on sand and filled sediment that has been compacting over time with over-construction, rates of subsidence are approaching parity with sea-level rise, making reliance only on the slider of sea-level rise an insufficient register of climate change.

2. But in many ways, the process of coastal construction along the Florida beaches near Miami proceeded in the very sites deemed least favorable for construction, even as Miami, Boca Raton, and Fort Lauderdale as other coastal communities started to notice unusual “sunny-day flooding,” a foot or two of salt water inundating their streets as more important a challenge than the broad threat of sinkholes due to subsidence, using remote detection of changes in in ground elevation to detect the precarious nature of karst to sudden “catastrophic ground collapse” that home owners or residents might be aware. NASA technology of remote radar measurements of subtle changes in ground elevation over time by Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar–InSAR–creates a rather terrifying picture of susceptibility to sudden “cover-subsidence” by repeated flights over areas presents a picture of risk in need of inclusion in homeowners’ insurance claims that currently only cover “catastrophic ground collapse” whereas the below map suggests that “sinkhole insurance” might benefit to homeowners across the state.

Florida-Sinkholes.jpg
Clint Kormhout, Florida Geological Survey:  InSAR Predictive Map of Sinkholes in State of Florida, 2017 Smithsonian, outlining Sumter County, the Site of a Spate of Sinkholes

Florida Geologic Surveys situate registered sinkholes at a remove from the overdeveloped coast of Miami, but subsidence encourages in sites that have been seen as less vulnerable to sinkholes, perhaps encouraged by soil instability due to coastal construction.

While we associate the risk of sinkholes with the rise of reports of sinkholes that have plagued central Florida in inland areas, in recent years, surprising residents who lack insurance for their homes,

–subsidence reports are not limited to the center of the state, and have occurred with surprising suddenness in coastal regions of Miami-Dade county, and those reported within North Miami Beach are not far from the shore, if often in Broward County, more than Miami-Dade.

In a map that FEMA funded for emergency preparedness to predict future likelihood by “weights of evidence” went beyond the combination of publicly available data on depth of limestone, water table, and streams, by measuring actual levels of surface subsidence. Was the sudden buckling and collapse of the Surfside tower, eerily akin to the planned demolition of a neighborhood or the destruction films that were echoed by the fall of the Twin Towers in the events of 9/11, triggered by a sort of return of a marshy Florida, long simmering underneath the extension of paved concrete, Champlain Towers’ foundations weakened by saltwater incursions into its foundations cracked that rusted reinforced rebar in a sort of return of the repressed?

Miniature Map of Florida, 1888

John J. Gibson mapped the watery region known for indigenous villages, forts, against the harbor of Pensacola against the London meridian in 1763, that could be immediately recognized as defined by bays, rivers, inlets, and anchorages unlike the modern state, but that poses questions for its current government.

John J. Gibson, A Map of the New Governments of East and West Florida (London, 1763)

If Surfside sold itself to residents as on the edge between land and sea, offering unobstructed views of the Atlantic, it is important to remember if difficult to calculate how much the entire community–if not the entire coast of Florida–exist as an ecotone, defined by its permeability to not only sea-level rise but to underground incursions of saltwater in a brittle porous karstic limestone and sand, where the entire Biscayne aquifer in Miami-Dade county is only less than two meters underground, a karistic region susceptible to sudden subsidence, a risk that is immeasurable increased by the moving of surface land that accompanied recent construction of the Four Seasons beside Champlain Towers, and the emendation of Surfside beaches with pristine non-native white quartz sand, mined from Withserspoon mine, near Lake Ockeechobee, to mine beach sand of sufficient whiteness to preserve the distinctive beaches of Surfside and the Miami environs as a coast.

Increasingly, truckoalds of sand are transported by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the trunkful onto the beaches in hopes to maintain the “stability” of their attractiveness. While the process of beach emendation is temporary–and any sand added to the beach will need to be replaced as it is soon washed away–the hope of restoring the extent of old beaches leads to the important of sands, rather than searching for the reasons or dynamics for the beach’s erosion: if half of beaches in the United States that are monitored by the EPA are eroding, and the Army Corps of Engineers has nourished beaches with over a billion cubic yards of sand, at a cost of $8.6 billion, according to the Western Calronia University’s Program fo the Study of Developed Shorelines, not only will most alll that sand wash away to the continental shelf, as winter storms carry the sand offshore, Miami Beach has spent $16 million a pop in hopes to create a buffer between beachfront condominiums and the rising seas.

Matias Ocner/Miami Herald

The process of emendation was itself a blurring of the ecotones of a thin limestone aquifer, as if in a belief that the lots of highly valued property could be enclosed from the shores which could be regularly emended and nourished by new sand, concealing the dangers of a Sisyphean task of combatting coastal erosion that risks increasing rates of erosion, and the vulnerability of the coast, without regularly repeated nourishment of the strip’s sand budget. If the region has long faced risk of the contamination of its aquifers by salty seawater, vulnerable because of recent man-made canalization of the eastern Florida coast, it is increasingly defined by the inland incursion of the sea even as attempts to create enclosures along the shore seemingly proliferate along the thin strip of land where the condominium suddenly pancaked, as if hit by a sudden, inexplicably localized seismic quake. Suddenly, the considerable cost of supplementing sand along the coastal strip of such low elevation pales before fears of a collapse or drop in shoreline property values.

Surfside, FL

“That’s not an old building,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett correctly observed after the south tower collapsed, as if shaking his head sagely, limiting himself to observing “that sort of thing should not be happening.” Few admitted that the community had shouldered risks of clear gravity in encouraging the enclosure of the thin strip of coastal properties. The prospects of ownership of residences should include acknowledgement of the effects increased construction and shifting of sand on beaches might have to exacerbate risks of future subsidence, and of the dangers of underwater incursions of saltwater–and consistent exposure to salt air–on structural integrity in an area where the the historical flow of freshwater to the coastal aquifer has been expanded by increased canals designed for water discharge but that invite saltwater intrusion of now drained environments near Biscayne Bay, above which dense coastal settlements of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale lie, impacting not only drinking water purity.

Promising residents and tourists framed direct access to a crystal blue ocean and the sea, rather than consideration of ecotonal fluidity, the images of a clear divide between the condominiums and hotels on the edge of the shore and crashing waves of the Atlantic ocean without any sense of the porous nature of the shore, or the dangers its porosity placed their inhabitants, as if the edge between water and built environment were clearly drawn. And while we often think of sinkholes as lying inland, far from the ocean and nearer to the areas of actual state preserves rather than on paved land, risk assessment is usually understood on the coast and by Coastal Risk Assessment in terms of addressing flooding concerns by higher sea walls, rather than redefining and upgrading building codes, and new upgrades in municipal infrastructure and building materials. Yet the continued construction of “sea walls,” imagined as obstacles to rising tides by “engineer our way out of it” by increased offshore infrastructure, tied to the energy companies, which promotes a rhetoric of more “wall-building” ignoring their damage to beach erosion.

Yet if Bloomberg Philanthropies have already estimated that $15 to $36 billion of Florida’s coastal property will be threatened by sea-level rise by 2050, the rising storm and flood insurance in low-lying coastal areas would do well to include sinkholes and concrete erosion as concrete building continues to expand. And if we associate sinkholes with mainland risks that Florida’s Dept. of Environmental Protection normalizes as “a common feature of Florida’s landscape,” leaving many of the over twelve thousand sinkholes in carbonate rocks in underground drainage systems near Florida’s coast–in geological areas of limestone or permeable sand–often not in the public record as those shown in dots of bright green–running along the coast of Broward and Miami Dade County’s sandy shoreline.

We do usually map sinkhole “risk” in ways that have directed attention inland–understanding high risk as a reflection of the sedimentary nature of the soil, its clayiness, underground streams, and the relation of limestone karstic landscape to rainfall permeation.

–although many sinkholes skirt Biscayne Bay’s exposed sandstone surfaces and highly permeable sandy shores, a level of vulnerability to collapse that grows with the sustained arrival inland of saltwater dispersed in the air.

Risk Management Monitor, Regional Sinkholes (2013)

Limits of truth in advertising aside, how could the dense resettlement of the coast gained its own logic, growing at a rate and density that wasn’t mapped against saltwater incursion or saline air, but focussed on the strip of beach recently emended with white sand, more than the foundations of concrete condominiums atop a sinkhole terrain of porous limestone slabs–akin to the limestone slabs already showed signs of cracking beneath Champlain Towers’ pool. The considerable stress of construction projects, land movement and importation of coastal sand on the beach-dune system of the region and the possible relation of increased sand erosion to saltwater incursion around houses that for the most part were engineered to stand at a remove from oceans and atmospheric diffusion of salt.

The transformation of sand–now a desparately sought disappearing commodity for making concrete–has been shifted to condominium construction, even as it erodes from the very beaches of which the buildings offer views.

Getty Images

Is the expansion of lines of enclosure along the thin strip of shore a cause for worry of the risks of further exposing porous sandstone that often lies less than two meters below the ground?

Alamy/BBC

While Florida Senator Marco Rubio has not been a climate change denier, his assertion “climate is changing because the climate has always changing” when he ran for Republican nominee for President in 2016 oregrounded a sense of relativism that led him to emphasize “adaptive solutions” to limit flooding or confront sea-level rise and privilege mitigation strategies, rather than foreground the changed rate of change that have led dunes in danger of being washed away, and forced the prioritization of beach replenishment in areas as Surfside that have destabilized the ground and exacerbated beach erosion. And as Gov. Ron DeSantis burnishes hopes for reelection in 2022 before hoping to arrive at a national stage, he promoted plans for Resilient Florida rather than investment in renewables, or alternative energy sources; DeSantis has broadly advocated building seawalls– roundly blamed for contributing to beach erosion, while ostensibly preventing coastal communities from rising tides–rather than being concerned for anthropogenic change as contributing to climate change, despite the broad dangers climate change poses in Florida, from hurricanes of rising force and frequency to drought to potentially growing crises in freshwater supplies and coastal pollution as coast flooding threaten to become increasingly regular.

DeSantis’ leadership of the state climate policy is a huge shift from the previous Governor, Rick Scott, who barred use of terms like “climate change” or “sea-level rise” as if to remove them from public discourse, by preferring all public records try to minimize them by referring only to “nuisance flooding,” DeSantis has primarily objected that “the idea of, quote, ‘climate change’ has become politicized,” rather than addressing the preservation of coastal communities by changing either urban texture, building materials, insurance policies, or emissions: the underlying challenges for coastal inhabitability seem constrained by the priorities of developers’ interests, and many developers have close ties to DeSantis’ platforms and politics. By promoting adaptation and preparation “for the broad impacts resulting from rising sea levels, changes in precipitation, and associated flooding,” in the words of the state’s former Chief Science Officer, DeSantis has endorsed paying local communities for adaptation projects to engineer a way out of rising sea-levels, rather than a centralized climate change policy for coastal vulnerabilities. Rather, the Governor has limited state policy to optimistically encouraging insurers to cite flood risk, promoting “resilient” coastal infrastructure and coastal property values by introducing energy inefficient stormwater pumps and a twenty-foot seawall, harmful to marine ecosystems.

But if DeSantis, who reached office under the promise to “drain the swamp in Tallahassee, which needs to be drained just like the one in Washington,” when he declared his candidacy, hoping to ride on the coattails of Donald Trump’s three-word Twitter-friendly chants, the loss of beach property, real estate, and coastal communities in Florida, one of the most vulnerable sites as well as states to climate change and beach erosion, demand strategic attention in its building standards and codes, as well as seawalls. The embrace of the seawall as a strategy of mitigation is, at least symbolically, terrifying similar to the “wall” Trump promoted as a cure-all to economic challenges of global markets.

The siren calls of sands progressed in announcements of coastal properties “still ripe for development,” all warnings to the contrary. Given the focus of fears on rising tides and sea-level rise in the region, climate change scenarios plotted at ClimateCentral for sea-level rise focussed on the risks to shores even a moderately successful scenario might create; scenarios of controlled global warming show few buildings on the beach would remain above sea-level, as suggested in the below paired images, if we succeed in reducing current levels of atmospheric pollution that project a rise of three degrees. Warnings were dire for Miami, and especially Biscayne Bay, a municipality on average only four feet above sea-level, and where the King Tides raise ocean level rapidly, at a pace approaching two feet a year, per Concrete Construction, creating levels of risks for building engineers.

In a city where seawater regularly enters drainage pipes, bubbling up through manhole covers in low-lying areas, flooding sidewalks and regularly entering front doors, hopes for mitigation seemed were tied to dreams of elevating much of the city by major construction projects destined to put untoward pressure on the limestone and sand aquifer, and increasing sinkhole risk, as the consequences of a C rise–3.6°F–would stand to inundate urban properties, and a 1.5°C rise produce a smattering of keys along an oceanfront reduced to a thin strip fated to disappear, akin to the remnant of the narrowest strip of a sinking atoll, as much as an actual destination than a sinking atoll.

The projection of Surfside lying underwater by 2100 may seem wildly far-off, but the collapse of the Surfside condominium in the first days of summer of 2020 suggest it might well be a result of the existing inland saltwater seepage that has entered much of the southern Florida coast over a decade ago.

Saltwater Seepage Saltline, 2011

Collapse of the Surfside condominium tower raises questions about rising seas and saltlines in relation to the porous limestone that undergirds much of Miami, encouraging incursions of saltwater to seep into the ground, filter into buildings and threaten their stability, beyond the septic system and freshwater supplies. After recent fears of the seepage of pools of toxic waste into the sea in recent years, the risks posed by the ecotonal nature of Florida’s shoreline demands better mapping of its function as a site of passage, a membrane carrying dangers and risks we are finding new ways to map in hopes to, pardon the expression, render far more concrete.

3. The concrete foundations of buildings have long been a concern for swelling saltwater along the Florida coast posed a danger to the explosive coastal development of skyscrapers that promised desired coastal views as if offering on the open market a bountiful cornucopia of coastal views of the sea, in an area of increased groundwater discharge that sends nitrogen to benthic environments, with a porosity that benefits algal blooms where the coast demands to be mapped as an ecotone of exchange, more than a fixed line.

But if we have mapped the transit across coastal membranes of landwater pollution and groundwater discharge, the membrane is hardly unidirectional: is the inland incursion of saline water, an increasing ecological danger to habitats of the California coastline in an era of climate change and rising sea-level, both to estuaries and coastal habitat, perhaps not also a danger to the spate of vertical structures that define the anthropogenic coast of Miami? The hidden pollution of groundwater discharge is easy to bracket from the considerable effects of anthropogenic influences, but the scarier effect of saltwater invasion has long posed the possibility of structural damage that the condominium’s collapse may well preface: not only is Miami a coastal site vulnerable to ocean pollution, but lies on an aquifer vulnerable to saltwater intrusion as a sandbar of semipermeable status; the local rising of sea-level by more than four inches since 1994 links melting ice masses off of Greenland to increased intrusion of saltwater particularly dangerous to coastal structures in Miami.

Eco Magazine/2016/National Hydrography Dataset NHDPlus, built by Environmental Protection Agency and USGS

Although such a broad national survey as the National Hydrography Dataset NHDPlus, even when enhanced, cannot connect the dots to the scale of overbuilt coastal communities that are structurally vulnerable to saltwater invasion as the Miami Beach area, recent models of more extensive sea-level rise from one foot to three feet suggests the increased risk faced to buildings, not only in relation to their height, but structural damage depending on their foundations and building materials, and the possibility of seepage as was evident in Champlain Towers in Surfside–a region susceptible to both coastal flooding and saltwater intrusion, shown in the red line in the below ESRI map.

ESRI/Earthstar Geographics Maps Saltwater Incursion and Sea Level Rise in Miami-Dade County

The extreme nature of overbuilding to allow coastal views in a virtually unregulated market for construction seems to invite a level of risk tantamount to building on unstable conditions along fault lines without attending to seismic risk, using maps based on the viability of landfill on sandy shores that remain increasingly permeable to ocean water, and are indeed surrounded by saline invasion rarely registered or noted on most property maps. Let the buyer beware.

Surfside considers itself a “beach town,” as evident in its colorful seal that lends more prominence to the sands that the city has pledged to regularly re-nourish, in order to create a sense of a healthy beach in the face of continued erosion of dunes–and indeed maintain the identity of a city on the water, best known for boating and beachballs, as well as beachgrass and palms that its four thousand residents help to service and preserve. The illusion of an open beach of white sands that serve bolster median home values as well as oceanfront hotels rests on the sense that white sand beaches and dunes that border the Atlantic ocean in a region distinguished by a uniquely high groundwater table in the Biscayne aquifer, nourished by multiple man-made canals that move water into the Bay. The city was incorporated by founders of the Surf Club to preserve a barrier beach a mere mile in length from being consolidated into Miami Beach, and had based itself on its sand, rather than its land, zealous to preserve legendary white sands along the section of coastal barrier beach as an “escape” from the man-made world.

The cherished image of such a preserve was recently compromised by the construction of a five-star Four Seasons hotel, whose construction had in 2014 sullied the prized “Surfside white” with dirty sand debris that was found to contain arsenic: the demand for restoring bucolic purity to the beachside resort was immediately seen as a breach of contract, leading to the removal of “fill” sand after 15,000 cubic yards of excavated “fill” had covered the once-pristine beach with “dirt” that was soon found to include arsenic. Did the “restoration” of its past purity and removal of the unwanted–and poisonous–fill disturb the ability of the coastal sands to serve as the barrier they were intended to function as? The relocation of large amounts of newly imported sand reorganized not only the native sand that served as a boundary, but the stresses on the limestone and sand aquifer.

The longterm arrival of excavated sand over the years intended to “emend” the local sand budgets may well have created a beach more susceptible to erosion, even if the decision to “renourish” Miami-Dade beaches demands the US Army truck additional sand to the beach to preserve its coast, even as it continues to wash offshore onto the continental shelf, not confronting problems of beach erosion, soil subsidence, and underground saltwater incursion have redefined the shore in ways the superficial addition of white sands will not address.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumps new sand from Central Florida along the Miami Beach shoreline near 65th Collins Avenue on Monday.
Arrival of Sand from Central Florida in Surfside, FL/Matias J. Ocner, Miami Herald January 2020

The Surfside fiasco created a surface of silt, sand, and debris excavated from the offshore ocean that removed not only the fill from the beach but also much of the sand that–while of high quality–remained beneath it, scraping “native” sand that was not as white as the sand emendation projects of the late 1970s had rendered Surfside beaches whiter than the original beach, leading not only to the removal of fill and native sand, but considerable beach erosion, leading to the importation of quarried quartz sand of desired pristine whiteness from southwest of Lake Okeechobee that was screened for its chroma and whiteness, to meet new standards for texture, grain size and color more stringent than the elsewhere in the state to preserve its desired pristine purity–rather than wait for the fill to mix with native sand as was proposed, so fearful were residents of the discoloration of fill sand along the valued beach. Repeated emendation of the shores with imagined sand “budgets” have however increased rates of erosion, most probably exposing the coast to increased saltwater incursion.

As part of the recent 2020 replenishment of Surfside beaches, US Army Corps of Engineers had driven in 61,000 tons of sand at the rate of a hundred truckloads a day, mined from near Ft. Myers, in Central Florida, as part of regular “replenishment” of beaches, at a cost of $16 million, in hopes to create a buffer between the concrete condominiums and the sea “to maintain a suitably wide beach for recreational usage” of sufficiently white quartz, whose difference from local sand supplies beachgoers were not notice. Did the arrival of 66,000 tons of sand from 2019 in Surfside to build a barrier between the condominiums and the sea on Collins Avenue disturb subsoil in the region near the collapsed condominium of Champlain Towers, as much as the construction of nearby houses?

The regular replenishment of beaches of such a huge tonnage of sand every four to five years on the Surfside coast temporarily expands recreational areas to address erosion, but is a fix that alters the: of the 1.2 billion cubic meters of sand that have nourished American beaches since 1923, when sand first arrived at New York’s Coney Island, national expenditure for nourishment projects have ballooned to $100 billion annually, mostly in California, Florida, New York, South Carolina, New Jersey and Louisiana, in an age of sea-level rise and increased erosion from storms and hurricanes, paying for temporary fixes rather than on long-term structural protection of coastal communities. Despite attempts to minimize ecosystemic impact on shoreline and coastal habitats, the illusory beaches preserved create a confidence for developers to promote coastal projects of construction, increasing freshwater use and rendering the shoreline more precarious–generating tourism, but altering the beach-dune system.

Airborne Response/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumps new sand from Central Florida along the Miami Beach shoreline near 65th Collins Avenue on Monday.
61,000 tons of Sand Arrives at 6500 Collins Avenue in Surfside, CA in January, 2020/Matias J. Ocner, Miami Herald
South Florida's beaches getting a sand boost. But it's only temporary. -  South Florida Sun Sentinel - South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Is the investment in simulations of beaches, simulacra of ecosystems, a front for the unmitigated increase of coastal development, increasing cycles of soil subsidence, and shoreline instability, even in an era of climate change? Did repeated processes of beach emendation invite increased instability and subsidence, or saltwater incursion?  Florida International University’s Prof. Shimon Wdowinski, with expertise in plate tectonics, geodesy, and earth sciences, had feared the mass of Champlain Tower South had indeed been sinking into the reclaimed wetlands, as have many other buildings in Surfside, irrespective of spatial proximity to the shore.

Have increased erosion in recent years and conditions of widespread subsidence occurring thirty years ago rendered Champlain Towers’ structural foundations increasingly vulnerable to saltwater incursion that have rendered them increasingly in danger of collapse? Wdowinski had only recently identified the 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium in specific as a place on the eastern side of the barrier island where prominent land subsidence had rendered the towers at risk. Although land subsidence in itself is not a risk, the striking rates of subsidence of over two millimeters a year created new conditions of risk that engineers may not have considered in calculations of structural integrity. Is it possible that the land subsidence rarely included in maps of risk and sea-level rise led the subsidence detected remotely sensed from 1993-99 by satellite radar to be be a danger specific to the Surfside tower, that is acting as a proverbial canary in the coal mine?

The precise pinpointing of areas of increased subsidence is no doubt linked to specific buildings, more in danger of sinking by a greater number of millimeters into the ground, suggesting a specificity that might be tagged to specific buildings, which pop out by structural damage at a striking line almost a kilometer from the shoreline, as if they were not built to withstand saltwater intrusion, and saltwater vapor, in a building resting on foundational pillars driven into the old wetlands. Soil subsidence is of course only part of the story. For structures buffeted by the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway alike. While promoting an ability for “adapting to sea-level change” the sporadic re-nourishment of beaches’ sand budgets undertaken from the late 1980s have increased dangers of erosion, often the result of sharp discontinuities between “restored” and “unrestored” areas of the beachfront. A dual focus on breakwaters and beach nourishment dramatically increases erosion and the risk of greater saltwater penetration over time.

The rhetoric of sand “budgets” and coastal “renourishment” are cast in a hybrid of claims of economic protection the value of sand to the coastal community and of the nutritional maintenance of livestock echoing agribusiness, or animal husbandry, but presume an unending reserve of sand supplies that are able to be restored to the coastline, rather than the ongoing effects of saltwater incursion on what was once a shore, seeing the shore as a line–more than a membrane and fluid ecotone. Indeed, the apparent inexhaustibility of sand–the most unstable of substances–has served to create a confidence in coastal development (or overdevelopment) across America, a feint of promised permanence of beaches and beach life, belying poor sediment management, providing a false sense of security in areas of historical erosion that has increased due to storms along the eastern seaboard and Florida, as well the Gulf Coast–as well as California–by encouraging building right up to the ocean’s edge?

As we have added sand to the beaches, we have imported and mined sand for the reinforced concrete condominiums that crowd up to the Florida coast’s edge–and stand to create increased urban sprawl along the coasts.

By 2070, Florida could lose 2 million acres of green space to sprawl |  Miami Herald

Yet the vulnerability of coasts to a spate of development projects and urban sprawl has proceeded without notice of the increasingly unstable nature of Florida’s shore–and the risks and vulnerabilities to which coastal overbuilding is exposed. Is Surfside FL a wake-up call?

4. Has the use of vulnerable building materials–we know that the Champlain Towers had received a broad warning of the dangers of seepage into the concrete that poor waterproofing that allowed water to stagnate, rather than run off, creating “abundant cracking” in the concrete the slab of concrete evident under the pool deck; similar structural deterioration of concrete concrete columns, beams and walls under the pool deck, all cracking to expose structural reinforcements of rebar to corrosive breezes running inland bearing saltwater and tidal floods. The concrete binding agent seems spectacularly inadequate to sustained exposure to salt deposits from the air. Migration of saltwater inland leads it to be sucked up into porous concrete and corrode many building materials in Miami-Dade county; chloride accelerates the crumbling of modern concrete as saltwater percolates within the concrete, unlike the ancient concrete described by the ancient architect Marcus Polio Vitruvius wo described strengthening mortar by immersing a concoction of volcanic ash, rocks, and lime in seawater as a binding ingredient, in 30 BCE, in a text that remianed authoritative through the Renaissance. Vitruvius celebrated how concrete was used to create sturdy breakwaters in massive marine structures in the Mediterranean judged “impregnable to waves”: largely land-based formula for modern concrete from inert sand and gravel harbors the danger of while seawater interacted with volcanic ash in roman structures to allow new minerals to form in ancient breakwaters’ cement matrix in the Bay of Naples, creating a binding agent with tuff to become stronger, whereas percolation of seawater and saltwater air start acidic reactions in the modern concrete aggregate to weaken its structure, as the size of pores in the concrete paste grow, opening fissures that allow additional saltwater to corrode modern aggregate.

Was the the vaunted fifty year life cycle of modern concrete diminished by exposure to salt air in the final of its forty years? The need to integrate building materials, maintenance, and infrastructural improvements in maps of risk to sea-level rise might focus risk less on sea-level rise, than multiple vectors of risk, from the incursion of saltwater into increasingly exposed beaches, as well as to the structural engineering of their concrete foundations? We’ve long mapped risk of seawater incursion and flooding as if it were pegged to sea-level rise, and above-ground flooding–rather than the incursion of underground seepage of the sort seen in the videos of police and EMT responders to the collapse of Champlain Towers southern tower, where water–presumably saltwater of marine origin–was seen entering the basement chambers, as dangerous to concrete walls and structures that lend many coastal structures support, most probably creating cracking along the foundational concrete, similar to the cracks visible in the concrete slab below its pool deck and in the columns, beams and walls of its parking garage. Why were such problems, intended to be responded to in a multimillion-dollar repair project, inexplicably delayed?

The arrival of saltwater air, underground incursion, and weak cement structures would create a different map of risk, as would exposure to saltwater air and underground currents from multiple directions. The multiple routes for the arrival of saltwater–which in Surfside occurs from both sides of buildings–suggests the inadequacy of visualizing risk by sea-level rise. Yet even the image of a one foot to building impacts in Seaside creates a fearsome picture, in coastal management maps created by NOAA by Maxar GIS services. Despite reassurance in pinpointing apparent risk, maps omitting exposure of structures designed to be landlocked more than withstand continued exposure to salt air–a coastal problem afflicting Portland, Oakland and San Francisco as well as Florida’s overbuilt coast.

Building Risk in Seaside FL with Five Feet SLRInhabited Areas Underwater (Light Blue) or Buildings at Risk (Red)

Aspirations to mitigate climate change on the thin strip of populated coast is a poor language of governance, and fails to articulate the scope of climate change despite its promise of containing the effects of sea-level rise on the coastal community: it is a denial, in effect, that Miami lies on the coast, or that the value of planning and insuring further coastal condominiums, buildings, and homes can continue despite the complex threats posed by a number of intersecting ecotones: is it a surprise that the same Governor who has stood by Trump in supporting the barrier of the border wall as a response to the manufactured threats of illegal immigration, globalization, and has promoted the beneficial effects of a seawall projects as panacea for property values, rather than the costs of corrosion on coastal buildings that have been pointed to as risks by actual engineers?

If Miami-Dade County assures readers in a rhetoric of resilience in the face of climate change, the statement that “mitigation is a way to lessen the impact of a disaster on a community through disaster preparedness, structural hardening and infrastructure projects,” the few projects that are indeed underway or complete is shocking. Many of the planned mitigation projects that are in the works or in the process of planning for the North Miami area remain incomplete; construction has been begun on relatively few, and if magenta circles of the below bubble map are planned many more await funding, and the vast majority await funding not yet secured. The scope of delay projects of risk mitigation currently face in the Miami Beach area are astounding–a landscape of bureaucratic delay that appears a disaster in the making, the scale of which is hard to contemplate, or even to assign emergency funds to address. Surveying the range of mitigation projects that dot the shore of Miami-Dade county alone, one cannot but be struck by the predominance of “funding secured,” “funding applied for,” and “future unfunded projects” from North Miami to Miami to Key Biscayne to Biscayne National Park. The prominence of circles of dark blue among mitigation projects related to sea-level rise suggests how much remains to be done: the complex balancing act between maintaining “beach aesthetics” by beach nourishment, as noted by Leatherman, and demand for public safety may have forestalled many of the mitigations projects in response to sea-level rise and the incursion of saltwater into concrete foundations of coastal skyscrapers in need of regular structural inspection. The isolated dots designating completed projects are in large part in North Miami, many a bit inland, and dominate inland sites, unlike the sea of dark blue TBD projects, and others whose funding is applied for or secure–but have not begun. Is this even a credible or persuasive story of mitigation?

Miami Dade County Local Miami-Dade Mitigation Strategy Dashboard
Sea Level Rise Mitigation Projects/Miami-Dade County, FL

The level of projects for which funding has not been secured realizes the poor grip we have collectively on maintaining the shore as a line. The problem is not only of conducting regular structural inspections and following proper procedures of waterproofing and building repairs, but of performing mitigation projects in record turnaround: delayed local mitigation projects are evident in the proliferation of deep blue “future unfunded projects” and many projects that remain in planning stages near the coast. The large list of climate change improvements in the storm surge zone of Miami-Dade County suggests a long waiting list. The needed infrastructure for climate change and the mitigation of saltwater invasion will be difficult to respond to or address quickly; the atmosphere in the state suggests collective denial of climate change and sea-level rise, in the face of evidence to the contrary. Because beach property is a driver of the local economy, the perilous cocktail of subsidence, beach erosion, and beach nourishment or sand excavation is insufficiently appreciated, in ways that increase the vulnerability of Florida’s coastal communities to multiple ecotonal threats. Is this the level of leadership about which Ron DeSantis boasts? Let us hope that his embrace of wall-building in his advertisements for Florida Governor embrace such outdated technologies as “strategies” of coastal improvement.

If mitigation promises a return on investment–every dollar spent is a fourfold savings in potential losses–the logic of a ROI is inadequate to understand the scope of coastal vulnerability in all of its magnitudes.

If residents of Miami-Dade County are urged to “know your storm surge planning zone” akin to your school district or ZIP, as a way to register for emergency notifications to the device of your choice, keyed to levels of risk due to different categories of storm, the “limits” of risk level in these maps are so rectilinear in nature to be removed from the fluid , relying on crisp colors and numbers to project security and belie the extent of the multiplication of risk.

This is a problem of coastal governability. Mapping for risk is conducive to GIS layers, superimposing fixed levels of risk with provisional certainty that is reassuring despite its clears echoes of the often apparently arbitrary lines drawn in insurance maps, they are of course over-simplifications. On the one hand, layers reveal levels of risk not otherwise evident in the terrain, or satellite view. But the crisp chromatic classifications are removed from the ground, or from the structures that lie on the shore, and the different levels of vulnerability they are exposed.

5. The problems of mapping are suggestive of the nature are improvised solutions to questions of coastal governance they fail to address: we sense that the premium long placed on property values often located at higher elevations in coastal real estate and the rates of insurance maps both press against the clarity of these classifications, informing if not in part determining the broad categories of risk in which the area of Surfside, Indian Creek Village and Bay Harbor Island share. If value in Miami-Dade County was long tied to the elevated views buildings offer of the coastal ocean, and the promise of proximity to the beach, we must recalculate safety in terms of the security offered by higher ground, in tension with the economy of Florida that places a premium on its coast, and doesn’t want that coast or its beaches to disappear. Property developers who have embraced the idea of preventive coastal measures to ensure the value of the coast have embraced iconography promoting the biodiversity of a healthy future ecosystems removed from anthropogenic risks, using permeable pavers, storm sewers and artificial reefs as if the coast existed as a development able to “match risk” over time, instead of the vulnerability of coastal construction to continued risk.

The perspective of “preserving the shoreline” and coast offer a landlubber’s perspective on coastal properties, more than a sense of their ecotonal situation, trying to firm up the boundary between land and sea where it now lies, more than taking stock of a gamut of vulnerabilities that are at issue in the overlapping of coastal ecosystems.

We have the mapping tools to pinpoint risk levels with reassuringly unexpected precision in recent building height maps that seem almost a surfeit of on-line information–rather than presenting information about the condition of beaches as barriers to saltwater, underground percolation of saltwater into the foundations and pillars that undergird condominiums or hotels, and the sandy foundations of an area that was once wetlands, rather than the bedrock most engineers are familiar to work. But when we map risk in pinpoint maps, we privilege risk in relation to consequences of Sea-Level Rise, confining ourselves to a specific SLR as a primary proxy or metric for risk,–rather than mapping levels of danger of saltwater invasion against structural soundness undergirding buildings’ foundation, age, and current condition of buildings and the soundness of its structural exposure to the elements. The rise of sea-level rise is mapped against buildings in storymaps of risk in correlation to feet of sea-level rise. Infrastructure planning is a serious interest in Florida in particular, as the benefits of hazard miitigation have risen across the coastline with increased pounding from hurricanes, king tides, salty air, and demand increasing the resilience of buildings to extreme climate change, and indeed rising benefits of hazard mitigation–estimated to have already quadrupleded from $5 billion to $20 billion annually, illustrating an unprecedented need for imaginative infrastructure spending beyond sea-walls, drainage pumps, and a retreat of residences to artificially high elevations.

Yet might we not do well to recalibrate risk? Should we map risk by extrusions alone, but pinpoint the structural weaknesses on a microlevel, and indeed calibrate the scope of structural damages by factors like subsidence, structural soundness, and longterm exposure to flooding or saltwater incursion? We might separate risk from ea-level rise; the incursion of underground seepage of the sort seen in the videos of police and EMT responders to the collapse of Champlain Towers South, where water–presumably not entirely of marine origin, but no doubt including saltwater in some form–was seen in the closed circuit and handheld video of the garage and basement. Was saltwater incursion as dangerous to the weakening, cracking, and spalling of the forty year old concrete walls and structures that lend many coastal structures support. Might we not do well to recalibrate risk beyond the albeit terrifying impact of sea-level rise?

When the forty year old condominium’s southern tower suddenly collapsed at 1:30 am, on the Thursday morning of the week of the Summer Solstice, Ft. Lauderdale was reminded that a local psychic, Sollog, had, like the modern Nostradamus he fashions himself previously predicted a building’s sudden collapse near the solstice. Its existence among the prophecies he had issued from 1995 to 2016 seemed a sign of meaning, as Sollog had placed Miami on his famous Pentagram of Blood, before post-2016 radio silence: attention turned to the gnomic prediction as if we were without any better map of the risk of sea-level rise, and the oblique gnomic pronouncement circulated on social media that “100+ will be dead/From a BUILDING COLLAPSE/Days from the SUMMER SOLSTICE.”

Even if it lacked a year, his warning of high number seemed to match the 136 units in the Champlain condominium, even if Frank Morabito had already noted “most of the concrete deterioration needs to be repaired in a timely fashion” in an October 2018 review of the building’s structural integrity that should have received more attention as well. The inidirect prophecy of Sollog filled a need for information, piercing the apparent surfeit of ArcGIS maps that show the vulnerability of buildings to the dangers of sea-level rise, meeting the deep desires for meaning that accompany sifting through ruins that follow all devastating natural disasters, linked to climate change or not. It seems fit since residents have been warned that King Tides have risen because of astrological events in recent years, accentuated however by climate change. The astrological prediction of Sollog reached Ft. Lauderdaleans days after the disaster on social media, beside warning reports from engineers, retrieved from a frantic search for online warnings, rather than engineers or first responders, as if no warning signs warranted risk the incursion of saltwater into the unstable foundations of poured concrete and residents of the 136 units of Champlain Towers.

Yet was not the information that warranted increased risk not already present in the dashboards of risk maps long been available online? Such seems the quandary of the role of information in a society ready to nourish itself from an apparent overabundance of information, and nourishing its beaches with an inexhaustible supply of quartz, struggling to sift through or come to terms with the absence of mitigation projects able to compensate for fears of future climate-linked disasters that may emerge long before sea-level rise submerges the entire eastern seaboard. It remains far more reassuring to look at the reassuring image of the bucolic shore, dazzled by its pure white shores.

Miami Beach, FL

Should buildings being built along such fragile coasts? As local developers continue to seek to preserve the pristine beaches of these eroding shores, beach nourishment project have expanded to preserve shorelines and oceanfront properties at the cost of $1.5 billion–$90.7 million in Panama Beach alone, since 1976, as public moneys have been flowing to the restoration of beaches as a coastal engineering projects multiplied to combat climate change. The trucking in of 25,000 loads of new sand to individual beaches is not only contributing to higher emissions and a climate disaster in the making, but most likely is also creating potentially significant problems of greater erosion and rising risks of saltwater intrusion. Rather than devoting attention to engineering projects of beach emendation that preserve an image of pristine beaches, and even moving beyond pressing concerns of brackish water that results from the collapse of dune structures, peat, and marshlands, the collapse of the tower might nudge us to consider consequeces erosion and increasing exposure of saltwater incursion salty air on the buildings themselves.

As if on cue for apocalyptic tidings, with the collapse of Champlain Tower South in Seaside, the heat dome that has stubbornly parked itself and stalled over Portland WA and much of the northwest has created new untold pressures on buildings’ infrastructures, subjecting them to rising temperatures in ways feedbacks of two hot events of cascading consequence and unprecedented nature that pose unimagined threats to the infrastructure–not only to the forests and vegetation, increasing the likelihood of fires hardwired into the landscape, but as extreme heat that compresses in more low-lying areas on the buildings themselves, as buckled roads and rail services are interrupted in the geographically dispersed communities and power cables start to melt. In ways that maps have failed to remind us, we have become far more proficient creating data about the imagined consequences of climate change in sea-temperatures or -level rise than on the effects of climate change poses to our infrastructure.

The recent heat wave in the Northwest demonstrates a crucial fact about climate change: It won’t be a smooth, predictable event.

Is it that we are facing something akin to an inversion of the developmental spiral of well-being, once championed by cognitive therapy as a path of greater self-esteem rooted in finding real-world confirmations of good decisions, we are plagued by a spiral of loosening the development of confidence the reveals not competence, but rather the scope of unpreparedness–best by discovering only the scale of misdirecting attention to readying the national infrastructure for the realities of the coming crescendo of impacts of climate change. If an upward spirals of growing self-confidence and self-esteem was argued to be based on the sense of verification, over time, of evidence of the positive impact of decisions in the “Developmental Spiral” of the individual psyche’s growing self-esteem, increasingly a meme of individual and collective performance promoted by Human Resources teams as the basis for an “Upward Spiral of High-Performance Teams,” we are all now in new and unknown terrain.

If the logic of “developmental spirals” promise the inexorable logic of development to “self-ownership” and confidence as a path leading to “greater productivity and maturity” and in the end “happiness,” if not self-“ownership,” the very ideal of self-ownership that was at the heart of the condominium as a development scheme back in the 1970s, the untold confidence of such a spate of coastal construction of condominiums, which boosted the state’s population and economy considerably in the 1970s, as home building exploded and building codes have not been updated or revised in coastal communities that are vulnerable to an increased beating of hurricanes, coastal erosion, and that have lead meany to wonder why Florida has continued to build coastal communities, mapping the dangers of storms, hurricanes, saltwater incursion without altering the risk that they face, and perhaps subsidizing the under-priced levels of risks to which coasts are increasingly exposed. While building codes are rarely updated with the regularity required, lest the developers who have gained increased influence in the Florida economy be required to adopt new building codes that respond to the changing coastal environments and risk. We have no map of the rising costs of disaster, but the evacuation of coastal condominiums as increased numbers of insurers abandon the Florida coast in an insurance market so stressed that it itself is “spiraling towards collapse.” 

The retreat of coastal insurance along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic seaboard is practically an ununtold story of climate change, perhaps because it is so unpopular as stressed real estate markets seem to be “spiraling towards collapse.”  If $1 trillion worth of property in could displace 13 million Americans from coastal shores like Miami and the Florida coast, as well as Souteastern Louisiana, Texas, and South Carolina, the inundation of property from floods may be only a fraction of the challenges that coastal properties face. Perhaps the tale of concrete foundations of condominiums built on sand and wetlands are the most fragile of those that face stressors of climate change, but the maps of risk cannot rely only on a clear division of coast and sea, the collapse of Champlain South reminds us: if Miami has been seen as ground zero in the climate crisis since 2019, for the Union of Concerned Scientists, to echo the geography of terror of 9/11 yet again, there seems an urgency in bringing the ground zero underworld out of the shadows, from ocean acidification, compromised freshwater, disappearance of coral reefs, and beach and dune erosion and displacement, all of which render the anthropogenic coast more vulnerable to climate change as the coast is left bereft of natural breakwaters that cannot be easily or simply replaced.

If developers have bemoaned the immediate risks of a loss of recreational economy that the shores were long seen as generating, the untold abundance of coastal tourism will not be bearing the brunt of the impacts of chronic coastal flooding, hurricane damage, and permanent changes in weather systems with a rise of heat-trapping emissions across the state. With built landscapes of Miami exposed to chronic flooding by ocean tides upwards of twenty six times a year, the stresses on concrete foundations along the coast are forcing the city to spend upwards of $650 million in forced drainage projects that include the pumping of seawater off the mainland from low-lying neighborhoods, focussing on drainage projects–and now trying to update the system to prevent “back-flow” from overstressed systems at an additional $206 million in southern Florida, to combat sea-level rise; in Miami, the raising of roads, installations of stormwater pumps, and reengineering of sewer mains and connections budgeted at $400 to $500 million will be used to drain stormwater and tides off the roads dry in the face of sea level rise, rather than address residential housing or the displacement of residents from their homes.

Tidal Flooding in Downtown Miami, 2016 (Photo by Wikimedia user B137)

In Miami Beach alone, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimate almost a third of the city would be chronically inundated with flooding and saltwater by 2045, altering its real estate in ways we can scarcely calculate or fathom, as a full quarter of Key Biscayne would be chronically inundated–exponentially rising risks for coastal inhabitants: the rising rate of sea-level stands to accelerate due to heat-trapping gasses, and ocean-temperature shifts, that rise the incursion of ocean to the land to rates far above historic precedents.

Such projects hope to prevent roads from becoming impassible, and houses from not being flooded, but the anthropogenic coast is itself far more prone to its own collapse, as the old concrete foundations and walls of Miami condominiums and coastal properties do disintegrate, as a trillion dollars worth of properties in Miami-Dade eventually return to the sea, and as they return to the ocean turn back to silt, their foundations breaking up and breaking down, in a cyclical returning of the sand from which concrete was fabricated to the ocean, at the cost of displacing many from their homes, if they prevail in in outliving them along the new nation’s reconfigured shores.

And yet, we have settled into a logic and practice of pumping saltwater offshore, at great energy and expense, preserving the coasts until the last minute possible, as if the inland structures are not themselves vulnerable to collapse, even if the saltwater has been pumped offshore, and the structures are cracking due to exposure to saltwater breezes, and the splashplage for the collapsed condominium still offers a bucolic view of the shoreline as if it were fixed in space.

2 Comments

Filed under anthropogenic change, Climate Change, Florida coast, Global Warming, shores

2 responses to “Surfside Ecotones

  1. “Was the sudden buckling and collapse of the Surfside tower, eerily akin to the planned demolition of a neighborhood or the destruction films that were echoed by the fall of the Twin Towers in the events of 9/11?” Yes, and/but widespread ignoring of risk warnings is truly terrifying. Lemmings.

  2. Randolph R. STARN

    Hi Daniel, Really fine Surfside post that finally delves into important contexts and consequences–not just bodycounts and demolitions!

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