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As Florida Keys residents confront rising sea levels, what lessons?

Waters around the Florida Keys are nine inches higher than a century ago. Efforts to battle rising sea levels make the Keys 'a canary in the coal mine,' an indicator of what other areas might need to prepare for.

Chris Bergh, a scientist with the Nature Conservancy, examines a dead tree with son, Nate, near their home on Big Pine Key, Fla. Rising sea levels in the Florida Keys are swamping fresh ground water with salt-laden flood waters, killing local flora.

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On many mornings over the past 22 years, the Rev. Tony Mullane has pulled back his bedroom curtains and watched endangered Key deer roaming the grounds of St. Peter Catholic Church. He considers the free nature show one of the bonuses of his ministry in the Florida Keys.

On other days, however, there are no deer to be seen – only water from the Straits of Florida lapping perilously near to the church buildings.

"It does come close to the church in a high tide," says Father Tony, as he's known. "There's a gravel pit behind us that's supposed to be a natural buffer from the water of Coupon Bight, but it fills, and sometimes laps over into, the church grounds."

What is happening at St. Peter is being repeated across the length of the 125-mile, low-lying island chain off Florida's south coast. Average sea levels on the islands are already nine inches higher than a century ago, according to environmental studies. Flooding has become much more common, which has prompted local officials and others to explore remedies. But in some cases, just how the islanders should proceed is still being figured out. (Read here to learn how the Netherlands have fought rising sea levels.)

"High tides are higher today, reaching farther inland than they did in the past. And the frequency of tides high enough to flood streets and salt-sensitive natural areas is greater," says Chris Bergh, director of the Nature Conservancy's Florida Keys program, who cites both his own observations and data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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