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‘Ground zero’ for climate change, Florida works to preserve Everglades

sea levels rising
Posted at 12:21 PM, Mar 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-29 14:21:16-04

An unparalleled landscape of exceptional beauty, the Florida Everglades are an international treasure, but they have also become ground zero for the fight to combat climate change in America.

For the last 30 years, Katt Britt has worked as a tour guide in the Everglades. She guides her airboats through the channels here, stopping whenever she gets a glimpse of an alligator nearby. Tourists flock from all over the world to experience this diverse ecosystem that is primarily a freshwater habitat.

It is not the alligators lurking just below the surface here that's keeping Britt up at night.

She has weathered plenty of South Florida hurricanes in her lifetime. It’s the constant threat of climate change, though, that is threatening her way of life. Rising sea levels are threatening the concentration of saltwater that must stay in near perfect balance across the Everglades to preserve these tropical wetlands.

"You don’t want the saltwater encroaching on the freshwater; you don’t want freshwater encroaching on the saltwater," Britt said about the impact climate change is already having on the Everglades.

At 1.5 million acres, the Everglades is primarily a fresh-water habitat, but rising sea levels are changing that. Saltwater is slowly invading this ecosystem.

As a researcher at Florida International University, Evelyn Gaiser has committed most of her life studying the Everglades. Research that, these days, is more critical than ever.

"This is not just a Florida problem, it’s wetlands all over the world, Gaiser explained about the tropical wetlands.

"It is absolutely is the front lines of climate change here in the Everglades.”

For thousands of years, sea levels across the globe have remained relatively stable. But now, Earth’s seas are rising because of global warming. In the last 20 years, sea levels have risen more than two inches. What that means is water from the Atlantic Ocean and nearby Miami isn’t just invading the Everglades through the proverbial front door.

In a sense, it’s sneaking in through the back.

"The main effect in the Everglades is actually happening below ground," Gaiser said about the impacts of rising sea levels.

Beneath the earth’s surface, saltwater is seeping into the aquafer here. For centuries, that was freshwater. Salt concentration levels though are now exponentially higher than they were 20 years ago. It's essentially trapped animal and plant life which has retreated as far inland as possible and no longer has any place else to go.

"We are ground zero for the effects of climate change. We have been thinking about it and trying to address it in novel ways," Gaiser explained.

Humans are also feeling the impacts of rising sea levels. Nine million Floridians depend on the Everglades for their drinking water. Recognizing the dire need to preserve the freshwater here for drinking, the state has spent more than $23 billion on Everglade's restoration projects. It includes everything from elevating roadways to making freshwater move around more freely to regulating how much water flows back into the ocean through a complex set of canals.

The techniques they’re using to manage climate change in South Florida are being used as blueprints for other cities and states across the country. An estimated 96 million Americans live near coastlines in this country.

"I believe people should pay attention to it because it may be an example of how to address a global problem as it’s occurring, from a local or regional engineering standpoint,” said Gaiser.

Over the coming decades, the hope is to increase freshwater storage, improve water quality, and re-establish natural water flow. Florida can’t afford to wait any longer to manage the effects of climate change.

Living and working in the Everglades every day, Britt has seen the impacts of climate change firsthand. Her hope is that it’s not too late to preserve this place she calls home.

"Everything is balanced and if you upset that balance, something has gotta give,” she said.