Wednesday, August 24, 2016

This is How South Florida Ends

[Gizmodo] It’s a scorching midsummer day, and the sawgrass is still under a pale blue sky. Waist-deep in water and sinking slowly into the muck, I fend off mosquitos as a man from South Florida’s Water Management District mixes a bag of salt into a hot tub-sized bucket on the side of the road. Thirty feet away in the marsh, another city official wearing waders and a bug hat stands on a narrow steel walkway, dangling the end of a long hose over a plexiglass chamber.
The experiment seems innocuous enough. Seawater is being added to a freshwater wetland, and scientists are observing what happens. The grim subtext is that this same experiment is about to play out in real life and on an enormous scale, from here in the southern Everglades, to Miami forty miles east, to the Florida Keys due south. If scientists are correct, much of South Florida will be underwater by the end of the century.
Standing next to me, pulling strands of what looks like a moss-covered scarf out of the water, is Viviana Mazzei, an ecology PhD student at Florida International University. It’s a periphyton mat, she explains, a unique symbiosis of algae, bacteria, and other microorganisms that forms the base of the Everglades’ food chain. When the saltwater comes, it’s expected to die, with profound ecological consequences.
“The urgency for doing this work has never been greater,” Tiffany Troxler, the FIU ecologist leading the experiment, told me later that week over the phone. “The Everglades is a world treasure, and we’d like for people to continue coming here to enjoy it for a long time.”
Today, the Everglades is fighting a war. Its adversary—rising sea levels brought on by man-made climate change—is relentless and merciless. It’s coming faster than we think. And unlike an earlier war between man and the so-called river of grass, this fight will have no winners.
The first war on the Everglades began over a century ago, when European colonists arrived in South Florida intending to grow crops and build cities, and instead found themselves wading through a mosquito-infested swamp. It was a dreary, dismal, abominable place, “suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin, or the resort of pestilential reptiles” according to an early government report.
In other words, it was America’s last frontier, and man’s God-given right to conquer it. And so, men conquered, or at least they tried. For decades, efforts to tame the wetlands proved futile. The tides turned in 1928, when a devastating hurricane flooded Lake Okeechobee—the enormous freshwater reservoir that fed wetlands to south—sending nearly three thousand Everglades pioneers to a watery grave. That disaster prompted the US Army Corps of Engineers to erect an enormous dike around the lake, cutting off the Everglades’ lifeblood and draining hundreds of thousands of acres for agriculture. East, west, and south of Lake Okeechobee, the Army Corps dug thousands of miles of levees and canals to move water around in a more orderly fashion. Read More