Aerial view of a drying region of Florida's coastal everglades, 13 February 2017. The Everglades may be in trouble, wilted by decades of flood control and facing growing risk from sea rise driven by climate change. If freshwater is not restored soon, there is a fear the region will begin a self-replicating cycle of decline. Photo: Jenny Staletovich / Miami Herald

By Jenny Staletovich
13 February 2017

SHARK RIVER (Miami Herald) – At the bottom of the Everglades along the mouth of the Shark River, a towering mangrove forest stands in a place few people outside anglers and researchers ever see: at the edge of a vast shallow bay where the salty sea and freshwater marshes conspired to erect a cathedral of trees.

In the current fight over restoration, this isolated region often gets overlooked. While Lake Okeechobee pollution to the north grabs headlines and gets the attention of Florida lawmakers, it’s actually here where damage may be most profound.

For the last 16 years, nearly 80 scientists and their students from 29 organizations — including all the state’s major universities, the National Park Service and the South Florida Water Management District — have embarked on one of the longest and largest studies ever conducted on South Florida’s coastal Everglades. They now fear the system may be at what lead investigator Evelyn Gaiser calls a “tipping point,” where change is happening faster than scientists expected and spinning into a self-perpetuating cycle of decline.

The mangroves ringing the coast are moving inland, overtaking vital freshwater marshes. Growing swathes of peat, the rich mucky soil that formed over a few thousand years, are collapsing. And periphyton, the spongy brown mats of native algae that form the foundation of the food chain, is shrinking.

Aside from losing one of the planet’s rarest ecosystems, changes happening in the system could also have global consequences, damaging one of the region’s main defenses against climate change fueled by greenhouse gases.

“The threat here is we’re changing the system from one that is very good at sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” said Gaiser, a Florida International University aquatic ecologist, “to one that’s very rapidly losing it.”

Two forces are likely driving the change in the southern Glades: decades of flood control that altered historic water flow and rising sea levels. Both cause different problems, but can be partly solved in the short-term with a fairly straight-forward solution: more freshwater flowing south. [more]

Coastal Everglades, deprived of fresh water, near unhealthy ‘tipping point’

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