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
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
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
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
"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.