Sea Level Rise

Explore More

The Bob Graham Center launched a new partnership in fall 2016 with UF's Explore research magazine — Explore More. The forum presents UF scientists and scholars featured in the Office of Research’s Explore magazine. Andrea Dutton, an assistant professor in UF’s Department of Geological Sciences, and Kathryn Frank, an assistant professor in UF’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning, kicked off the new series with a presentation about sea level rise past, present and future.

This is an excerpt from a recorded interview with Andrea Dutton. Dutton is the co-leader of an international working group investigating the geological record of changes in sea levels. Dutton’s research focuses on reconstructing sea level over periods spanning thousands of years, with the purpose of identifying established behaviors of sea level rise and during previous warm periods.

What can the past tell us about earth's future rising sea levels?

Sea level has risen before, even while humans have inhabited the earth. It may seem like a new concept to us because in recent human history, as modern civilization took hold and people built cities along the coastlines, sea levels have been quite stable. However, about 20,000 years ago when there were large ice sheets covering the continents and there were mastodons roaming across Florida, the sea level was much lower than it is today. Much of the water that is now in the ocean was trapped up in these ice sheets. As the ice sheets melted away, they filled the ocean and Native Americans who were living on the coastlines had to retreat. But then it stabilized for quite some time.

I visited islands in the western Indian Ocean, in the Seychelles, and looked at a time in the earth's history when the climate was warm, like it is today, to see how high the sea level rose during that time period. I wanted to gauge where we might be headed in the future. What we found astounded to me. We measured coral that sat more than 25 feet above present-day sea level. What that suggests is that sea level rose a great deal with only slightly elevated temperatures.

Source: University of Florida Office of Research

What does this mean for Florida?

Now that we can see what happened in the past, the question becomes what does that mean for us in the future? We have a very extensive coastline in Florida and so much of what we do in this state is connected to our coastline. Understanding the future, with regard to how sea level rise is going to impact our landscape and our access to the coast is critical. If you look at the tide gauges that are now situated along the coastline, they are recording sea level rise at a rate about 20 percent faster than the global average. That's not good news.

The typography in the state of Florida is very low. Even a little bit of sea rise can cause the coastline to retreat a long way. Even before there is impact on the coastline, you will have salt water intruding into the aquifers we rely on for our freshwater supply. This is really going to cause a large disruption. What happens with all of the activities occurring at or near the coast—airports, energy facilities, the ports where we get our goods and services. And, what happens to the people that get displaced?

Where do we go from here in light of this information?

A lot of times when people imagine the future of Florida and sea level rise they focus on all the uncertainty. Admittedly, there is a lot of uncertainty with regard to how quickly the sea level rise will occur. But there is one thing that is certain—sea level is rising and research shows that it's going to continue to do so for quite some time. We know with certainty that this is pathway we are on and we need to start thinking about how we are going to adapt that. The sea level rise we see today is the first step in a very long journey for our coastlines.

To learn more about the work of Dutton, Frank and other UF climate change scientists and scholars, visit