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Here comes the sea, faster than we thought

The Wildlife Forecast

Monday, February 01, 2010

Media contact: Patricia Behnke

My love affair with water began when I walked on my first Florida beach at Bahia Honda State Park in 1975. I stood in the shallow water at the park, small waves lapping at my ankles, and watched the most spectacular sunset of my life. The next day I snorkeled in those same waters and met the beautiful fish that make Florida famous.

My first trip through the Everglades brought me a deeper appreciation of water and Florida's wildlife, from the alligators sunning themselves on the edge of canals to the white ibis poking for bugs in the muck.

And now, that could all become something known only from the writers and artists and photographers who will leave the records of a once-upon time. I've heard it over and over again in talking to the people who study such things: Florida is one of the most vulnerable states when it comes to climate change. Mostly they mean we are vulnerable to "sea level rise."

Here's my simple view of what's happening and will continue to happen: when water heats, it expands, and the water temperatures are rising. Adding to the vulnerability of Florida is its very shape, surrounded on three sides by the water that has reached a figurative boiling point.

And that's one way climate change causes sea level rise; of course, there is the melting polar ice that will contribute as well. Most of us envision that happening sometime in the nebulous future, but the news that came out of a conference held in Florida in January tells us otherwise.

"Since 1930, the sea has risen 10 inches in Florida," said Reed Noss, a biology professor from the University of Central Florida and organizer of the event. "And 80 percent of southeastern Florida's flood-control structures are failing because of sea level rise, according to the South Florida Water Management District."

Harold Wanless of the University of Miami suggested to the participants that "a rise of four or five feet by the year 2100 is more likely, with higher levels possible," according to a press release from UCF.

The conference, sponsored by the Florida Institute for Conservation Science, marked Florida's first interdisciplinary meeting on the impacts of sea level rise. The event brought together geologists, oceanographers, ecologists, biologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, engineers and planners.
"It is crucial to bring these experts together because they all hold a piece of the puzzle," Noss said. "Florida stands to lose more economically and biologically than any other state in the country; yet it has done the least to prepare than any other coastal state."

A report released in December in Nature warns about the speed of the Earth's shifting climatic zones. This impacts wildlife because the ecosystems where they live are changing, forcing wildlife to change their habits now. Shrinkage of habitat in the Keys already is having an impact on the endangered Florida key deer and other plants found only in that part of the world, according to Noss.

Wildlife and habitat managers may have to rethink where they put their efforts sooner than thought. Why spend millions of dollars on habitat that might not be here in 100 years? Money and resources might be better spent elsewhere. That's why it's crucial that land planners at all levels of government start now to plan for what appears to be an uncertain future.

Dr. Thomas Eason with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission presented information at the conference on what wildlife managers must consider as climate changes and human populations shift and grow. Eason warned that sea level rise will put increased pressure on public lands to be used for human needs.

"This means wildlife will not only face direct impacts from sea level rise, but they also will have to contend with indirect impacts from how people respond as well," Eason said. "Imagine the last wild panther captured, with zoos the only remaining refuge for the homeless cats."

So what do we do? We let the managers manage and the scientists research and monitor.

Individually, we become careful stewards of the environment through our actions to slow down the process. For me, this means buying an alternative-fuel vehicle when I purchase my next car. Using less energy and becoming less dependent upon foreign oil sources is good for our economy, our air and our wildlife. Then we all can continue our love affair with Florida and its natural resources for a little while longer.



FWC Facts:
Horseshoe crabs do not bite or sting. Despite the ferocious look of the tail, it is not used as a weapon, but to right themselves if they are flipped over by a wave.

Learn More at AskFWC