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What history offers for agricultural sea level rise adaptation

According to National Geographic Magazine, approximately 1500 years ago, "the Maya were innovative farmers." Dealing with high water tables and seasonal flooding in the Yucatan, these early growers raised fields and used canals for nourishment to develop crops.


Digging in swamps, ancient Maya engineers moved earth into inner fields, raising the land between two to four feet. Crops were introduced into the elevated properties. 


The mystery of how the ancient lowland Maya used swampland was long a subject of study.


Writing in the New York Times on October 6, 1981, Harold M. Schmeck, Jr., offered some clarity. Citing the research of scientists from the University of Texas, the University of Arizona and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, Mr. Schmeck wrote, "Using radar developed to scan Venus, they surveyed large areas of the Mayan lowlands from the air and found evidence they think suggests extensive man-made canals and artificial raised fields." He added, "The cumulative evidence now seems to show that Mayan farmers of the classic period-roughly A.D. 250 to A.D. 800- dug canals and built raised fields in the swamps for intensive agriculture." Citing Professor B.L. Turner 2d of Clark University in Worcester, Mass., the article continued. "There is a strong indication of massive landscape modification..." Researchers theorized that "millions of tons of earth must have been moved..."


The Maya example is not isolated. In an on-line article by, there is an explanation of how Aztecs used "Chinampas," which is "a method of farming that used small, rectangular areas to grow crops on the shallow lake beds in the Mexican valley. Chinampas were essentially "artificial islands created for the crops."


At the 6th Annual Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit, held in Miami Beach on October 1 and 2, 2014, a compelling discussion about Dutch agriculture was presented by Steven Slabbers, the Director of Bosch Slabbers Landscape and Urban Planning in The Netherlands. He discussed "farms on mounds" as an active and vibrant strategy to assist food growing in the below-sea level European nation.


These examples are compelling. History offers a solution. While the ocean will advance and someday cover Southeast Florida, the use of mound farming and elevated agricultural strategies will serve to extend the life of valuable rural properties and precious growing fields.


According to the World Resources Institute authors Forbes Tompkins and Christina Deconcini, "More than 10 percent of land in Miami-Dade sits at less than 1 foot above current sea level, nearly 20 percent at less than 2 feet, and one-fourth at less than three feet."


Peer reviewed sea level scientists project that one foot of sea level rise in Miami-Dade County will occur between 2030 and 2040. That means approximately six inches could occur as early as the second term of the next President. That's fast.

In 2014 and 2015, we have the knowledge, the tools, and the economic incentives to put into place real adaptation, not just words in reports. The thriving fields of Southeast Florida cannot, and must not, be ignored...especially as global population increases and droughts in areas such as California imperil food production.


According to the United Nations, "Each week the world loses an area larger than Manhattan to salt-degradation. That amlunts to 7.4 acres of potential farmland every minute." See United Nations University study.


What to do next? Let's elevate the discussion about sea level rise. See our "Project" page.



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