USA: Climate change throws a wrench in Everglades restoration

Scientific American, a Division of Nature America, Inc.



Florida Bay’s fish population plummeted after a huge die-off of seagrass in 2015, taking a bite out of Florida Keys fishing businesses such as Greco’s for the better part of two years. The die-off was a symptom of the declining health of the bay, which lies between the Florida Keys and the mainland. It is part of the famed Everglades—a complex system of saw grass, mangroves and seagrass that is crucial to southern Florida’s water supplies, storm protection, fishing and tourism. Historically, fresh water flowed smoothly into the bay from the Everglades’ headwaters near present-day Orlando. But development and flood-protection canals have carved up this “river of grass,” causing drought conditions in some areas and flooding in others and contributing to repeated seagrass die-offs in the bay.

To address this and other environmental concerns, in 2000 Congress and Florida’s state government launched the multibillion-dollar, multidecade Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which includes dozens of projects to improve water flow. It recently received a $2.5-billion cash infusion in an executive order from Florida’s new governor, Ron DeSantis.

But the restoration—which is far from complete and years behind schedule—faces growing threats from climate change: sea-level rise is pushing saltwater farther inland, and rainfall and temperatures are deviating from the historical patterns the initial plan was based on. The same challenge has emerged for other restoration projects around the world, from wetland preservation in Louisiana to river management and flood control in the Netherlands. 


Projects like this are critical not only because they preserve what is left of the Everglades but because they increase the ecosystem’s future resilience in the face of hotter temperatures, rising seas and other climate change impacts, wrote the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee that oversees Everglades restoration in its most recent report last year. But even as climate change makes restoration more urgent, it also makes it more difficult to achieve.


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