The surveillance camera video is horrifying. In about 13 seconds, the center of a beachfront Florida condo complex simply drops out of sight. Then what's left of its ocean-facing front wobbles and collapses into a mountain of rubble sending aloft an enormous boil of dust. At least 10 people are dead and more than 150 people — most of whom had probably just gone to sleep — are still missing, including former Chattanoogan Judy Spiegel.
More than two years before, a consultant found alarming evidence of "major structural damage" to the concrete slab below the pool deck and "abundant" cracking and crumbling of the columns, beams and walls, along with rusting rebar in the underground parking garage beneath the 13-story building. The garage regularly flooded.
But in America, minus an earthquake or a bomb, buildings don't just collapse on otherwise unremarkable nights — even buildings with damage such as what the consultant reported.
Yet another study, made in 2020, found that the area where the building collapsed was showing signs of land subsidence — in other words, it was sinking.
It begs the question: Did we just see a 13-second screamer of climate change claiming scores of people — not polar bears — in the blink of an eye?
The 40-year-old Champlain Towers South that crashed down at about 1:30 in the morning Thursday in Surfside, Florida, was built on reclaimed wetlands in 1981. And that reclaimed wetlands — which has been sinking since the 1990s, according to the 2020 study — is perched on a barrier island facing an ocean that has risen about a foot in the past century because of climate change.
Underneath the foundation of the condo was sand and organic fill — over a plateau of porous limestone — brought in from mangroves that were deforested, according to The Washington Post.
The fill sinks naturally, and the gradual subsidence worsens as the water table rises.
The problems of this building might have been OK for years more under normal circumstances. The rebar and concrete repairs were scheduled to begin soon.
But we're not in normal circumstances. Half of that foot of sea rise has happened just since the 1990s.
South Florida has been and will be front and center of climate change-induced sea-level rise. And the effects of climate change on the infrastructure of the region — no, wait, every Earth region — from septic systems to aquifers to shoreline erosion to grid failures and even the mounting needs and costs of national security — will be a management problem for years.
In Key West, water is rising up through the streets on a regular basis — literally coming right through the pavement.
After a recent grueling seven-hour public meeting in one Keys city, Marathon, county commissioners there agreed to push ahead with a plan to elevate streets to keep them from perpetual flooding, despite no funding. If the funding isn't found, they acknowledged, the Keys will become one of the first places in the U.S. – but certainly not the last – to inform residents that certain areas will have to be surrendered to the oncoming tides.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist told those in that Keys meeting that the accelerating melts of the vast ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica mean an extra 17-inches of sea level rise by 2040.
The elevation of Marathon is 3 feet, according to elevation.maplogs.com. The elevation of Surfside, Florida, is the same. Miami's elevation is 6 feet.
Of course, melting ice and rising oceans aren't the only killer problems of climate change.
Experts warn that the massive heat wave engulfing the West Coast and an accompanying drought puts the West at risk for more devastating wildfires like those last year that killed 47 people directly and hundreds more from the adverse effects of smoke inhalation, along with incinerating about 4.4 million acres and 17,700 structures.
Texas officials in February confirmed that 151 deaths were related to a weeklong freeze and electrical grid failure, but the death toll could actually be four or five times higher, according to several examinations of mortality data. One such analysis by BuzzFeed News suggested the truer number of Texas storm fatalities was between 426 and 978.
Closer to home, 2020's record $22 billion climate disasters — as defined by NOAA — included Tennessee's March and Easter tornadoes that killed 25 people. We also saw flooding rains in early February and storms in mid-May that fit the billion-dollar disaster definition.
Nationally, the climate disaster statistics of 2020 were part of an alarming pattern: The year became the sixth consecutive one with 10 or more separate billion-dollar climate disasters.
Last year also was a record year for tropical cyclone activity, with 30 named tropical storms and hurricanes. A dozen made landfalls and six were deemed "major."
Weather batters us. It always has. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do what we can to head off the worst of climate change and prepare as best we can to survive it. To be sure, a 40-year-old building is not that old and shouldn't be collapsing.
Most of us learned in Sunday School to build our house on the rock, not the sand. That said, it stands to reason that we shouldn't continue to build this earth's power systems on fossil fuels that continue to warm our atmosphere and cause the seas to rise on our oh-so-valuable land — land that no one is making anymore.