Connecting the Dots: Climate Change & Biodiversity
The Florida Everglades' cypress swamps, mangrove trees and "river of grass" cover the southern 20% of the state, making it the largest freshwater wetland in the United States.
The largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in North America acts as a “shock absorber” against storm landfalls, decreasing the predicted storm surges and absorbing rainfall and runoff.
The Everglades is facing a long recovery, in part because water has accumulated since the month of June, with a record-breaking wet season presaging the worst flooding in 70 years. Marshes and tree islands are submerged too deep for birds to nest and wade.
Nearly flat and surrounded on three sides by rising seas, Everglades National Parkis already feeling the effects of a warming climate. Sea-level rise has brought significant changes that are being observed on the landscape, and more are sure to be seen in the years ahead.
Florida's Coral Reefs
The 360-mile-long Florida Reef Tract is the world’s third-largest barrier reef.
In Florida, the coral reefs are home to more than 100 coral species and more than 400 fish species. The region’s booming tourism economy relies directly on healthy reefs and fisheries, while lobster, shrimp and other marine life sustain a vibrant commercial fishing industry.
Less than 10% of the reef system is now covered with living coral. Scientists anticipate that as early as 2020, it could be in line for almost yearly bleaching events, in which heat stresses upend the metabolism of corals, in some cases killing them.
21 coral species in the Florida Reef Tract are suffering from multiple diseases, according to reef surveys by the Nature Conservancy.
7 of those species are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, among them staghorn and elkhorn corals.
Diving, snorkeling, fishing, and eating seafood are among the key tourist activities that could be harmed if the reef continues to suffer damage.
Indian River Lagoon (IRL)
Indian River Lagoon is one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in the continental United Sates.
Its abundance of natural fauna and flora is a result of its geographical positioning overlapping both temperate and sub-tropical biomes with representative species intermingling in a delicate balance.
The IRL is also a mosaic of many different types of distinguishable, yet interconnected habitats. Impacts from sea level rise could directly affect the ecology, hydrodynamics, circulation patterns, depth and salinity of this shallow, bar-built, diverse ecosystem.
Sea level rise and warmer water temperatures could decrease the number of temperate species that co-occur in the IRL along side the more sub-tropical species; Invasive and other opportunistic organisms could more easily establish themselves under stressful conditions resulting from sea level rise, displacing native flora and fauna.
Mangrove communities stabilize shorelines and provide habitat and nursery areas. Accelerated sea level rise could pose threat to these vital communities by outpacing their ability to accumulate sediments at appropriate rates.
Seagrass beds are indispensable to the overall health and water quality of the IRL. They provide sediment stabilization and oxygenate the water. They also provide food and habitats for manatees, urchins, conchs, some fish and sea turtles. Deeper waters associated with accelerated sea level rise could diminish sunlight levels and adversely impact the photosynthetic capacities of seagrasses leading to substantial decreases in seagrass acreage.
Increased warming temperatures are compounding many problems for the critically endangered Florida panthers . Much of their low-lying habitat could be flooded and destroyed by salt water if sea levels continue to rise. Not only is the panther literally running out of space given how much of their historic habitat has already been lost to development, but further flooding would also hurt the white-tailed deer population, a critical source of food for this rare cat.
The fresh waters of the Big Cypress Swamp, essential to the health of the neighboring Everglades, support the rich marine estuaries along Florida's southwest coast. Protecting over 729,000 acres of this vast swamp, Big Cypress
National Preserve contains a mixture of tropical and temperate plant communities that are home to a diversity of wildlife, including the elusive Florida panther.
Florida’s manatees are on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species because “the population is estimated to decline by at least 20% over the next two generations due to anticipated future changes in warm-water habitat and threats from increasing watercraft traffic over the next several decades.”
Runoff from lawn fertilizer, agriculture, and bauxite mining and pollution – is destroying their seagrass beds.
Red Tide & Algal Blooms
A red tide, or harmful algal bloom, is the rapid growth of microscopic algae. Some produce toxins that have harmful effects on people, fish, marine mammals, and birds.
In Florida, this is primarily caused by the species, Karenia brevis. The blooms cause large fish kills and discolored water along the coast.
Higher water temperatures combined with increased storm water runoff of nutrients can result in conditions favorable for algal blooms that hurt aquatic life by blocking out sunlight and clogging fish gills.
Harmful algal blooms can also create “dead zones,” areas in water with little or no oxygen where life cannot survive.
In southwest Florida, red tide used to be an “unusual mortality event.” Now it’s a “recurring mortality event.” Last year, it killed a record number of 276 manatees in the region.
Red tide does form naturally offshore, but the increase in runoff and warmer waters help it occur more often, in more fresh or marine waterbodies, and can be more intense.