‘Bowl’ of Pensacola an exception to much of Panhandle

Tom McLaughlin, tmclaughlin@nwfdailynews.com

Published Sep 21, 2017

Tim Day, the senior manager of Escambia County’s Natural Resources Management Department, describes his county seat of Pensacola as being “built in a bowl.”

In a world of rising seas, that feature makes the city’s future uncertain, and the need to prepare for what’s coming vital.

Geologically speaking, Northwest Florida — the region between the Alabama state line and Apalachicola — is different from other areas of the state, according to Thomas Doyle, the deputy director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Wetland and Aquatic Research Center in Louisiana.

Whereas on the Florida Peninsula miles and miles of flat land will offer little resistance to rising seas, here, barrier islands protect the mainland, and the land rises from the coastal regions quickly to higher ground.

“With a sea level rise of one meter, a lot of places will be underwater,” Doyle said. “In places like Northwest Florida, that are higher, it will be awhile longer before you’ll need an adaptation.”

An exception is downtown Pensacola, a port city and regional hub built on a plain sandwiched between bluffs to the north and Pensacola Bay on the south.

“Two feet of sea level rise in the greater Escambia area would not be as dramatic as in other areas of the state ... if you take out our barrier islands and the city of Pensacola,” Day said.

Mid-range projections produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate the sea level at Pensacola will rise between six inches to a foot by 2030, 10 inches to 23 inches by 2050, and 14 inches to more than three feet by 2070.

A study conducted in 2008 by two Florida State University scientists foresaw “significant property value at risk of inundation, as well as the potential for much increased storm damage from storm surge” for Pensacola.

City public works officials have already had to take steps in two city locations to beat back storm surge.

At a place known as Soldier’s Creek in the east, and another known as Washer Woman’s Creek in the west, pipes were installed many years ago to carry storm water out of the city and drop it into the bay.

Keith Wilkins, an assistant city manager in Pensacola, said work crews have installed valves in the pipes to prevent bay water at the two locations from backing up into the streets.

“The pipes were designed to allow the water to flow out, but if the pressure is reversed because the bay water is higher than the water in the pipes, the water is flowing backwards,” Wilkins said. “The valves are designed so that as the water tries to come in the valve closes and doesn’t allow it.”

At the urging of City Councilwoman Sherri Myer, Pensacola’s governing board voted recently to create a Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Task Force to address sea level rise, climate change and controlling the emission of greenhouse gases.

Myer said she’d watched for too long as nothing was done to address climate issues.

“Why wouldn’t a coastal city be worried about sea level rise?” she asked.

Escambia County has been aided in its efforts to monitor rising seas by a tidal gauge installed in 1923 by a division of NOAA. That gauge continues to collect data today.

The gauge, used in conjunction with others strategically placed around the state, has been helpful to scientists charting sea level rise. Escambia County has been a focal point of studies and county officials have access to information about what scientists think the future might hold.

Day and his cohorts are actively collecting and analyzing data about existing infrastructure and the potential impacts historic flooding and storm surge will have upon it.

Information obtained will be used in future comprehensive development planning, he said. “We’re looking at starting to build sea level rise into our long-range planning based on these studies.”