At a glance, South Florida may simply appear to be home to crystal blue beaches, beautiful homes and a multitude of unique wildlife. However, dig a little deeper and one will find toxic algal blooms that threaten the lives of both plants and animals, rising sea levels that have the potential to flood local communities, invasive species who intimidate native wildlife and a continuous urban development, resulting in a loss of habitat for numerous species.
Bloom and Bust
Algae are aquatic plants that make up a vital part of Florida’s ecosystem. They are foundational in the aquatic food chain and provide people with oxygen to breathe. However, when an algae population rapidly increases in a body of water, also known as an algal bloom, the once ecologically beneficial aspects of algae turn harmful.
Algal blooms can arise from a variety of factors, including warmer temperatures, increased light intensity, stable water conditions with low flows and high turbidity in the water column. However, increased nutrient levels greatly exacerbate the process of simple algae morphing into a dangerous algal bloom. When an excess of nutrients—particularly phosphorus and nitrogen—enter a waterway, algae absorbs the nutrients, resulting in them growing and dividing quickly and creating an imbalance in the aquatic habitat.
The overproduction of algae that coats the surface of a body of water has many negative consequences. Besides creating a thick layer of discolored scum and having the potential to be toxic to humans and aquatic animals, one of the most prominent concerns is an algal bloom’s ability to form dead zones.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, a dead zone can occur when “the overgrowth of algae consumes oxygen and blocks sunlight from underwater plants. When the algae eventually dies, the oxygen in the water is consumed [during decomposition]. The lack of oxygen makes it impossible for aquatic life to survive.”
One of the most well known dead zones in the U.S. is the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, which forms each spring, when nutrient-rich runoff flows down from the Mississippi River. However, numerous similar algal blooms are found throughout the state of Florida.
According to the Florida Sea Grant, a university-based program that promotes conservation through research and education, massive algal blooms have been seen in the St. Lucie Estuary, Lake Okeechobee and Biscayne Bay, among many other locations. Some of these blooms are referred to as “red tides” when K. brevis, a specific type of algae, accumulates.
Red tides are particularly harmful because they produce toxins, which can kill aquatic animals and marine birds. Also, due to their neurotoxic brevetoxins, red tides serve as a public health risk because they can cause irritation to residents in coastal areas and serious illness to those who already suffer from chronic respiratory issues. Some students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have seen the effects of red tide first-hand.
“One [thing that] definitely kept me from surfing was red tide,” senior Rachel Catania said. “The upwelling of aquatic microorganisms makes it really hard to spend time in the ocean. I remember one day I was really excited to go surfing because of the huge surf that was out, but the moment I arrived at the beach, my surf coach made me turn around and go home. It was very windy that day, and red tide can be very harmful if it gets in your eyes. It also kills a ton of wildlife [and] a ton were washed up on shore. No matter how good the surf, it was simply not safe.”
Additionally, all kinds of algal blooms have economic drawbacks in sectors such as tourism, fisheries, recreation and management. Due to these algal blooms, Florida’s active tourism is expected to face some harsh losses. For example, red tides alone are “estimated to cause more than $20 million in tourism-related losses in Florida each year,” according to the Florida Sea Grant.
“We are fighting to make sure that the environment is a priority in everything that we do,” Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine said. “A lot of what we do in South Florida revolves around tourism; tourists are coming down, and they want clean beaches.”
The costs of clean-up are expensive as well, with $17.3 million being spent in 2018 to alleviate issues caused by algal blooms. Although algal blooms often occur naturally, humans can prevent an increased outbreak of them by reducing our activities which lead to a warmer climate and warmer waters, and by preventing nutrient-rich runoff by using more sustainable methods of agriculture.
According to Sea Level Rise.Org, an organization dedicated to implementing solutions to combat sea level rise, Florida’s sea level “is up to eight inches higher than it was in 1950.” Due to the effects of increased global temperatures, more land ice is melting into the oceans, and the thermal expansion of water is occurring. The results of this phenomenon can be dangerous, as floods can interrupt daily life and saltwater intrusion can contaminate the freshwater supply.
“The overriding theme is sea level rise,” Udine said. “We are seeing more and more flooding throughout low line levels throughout the county. Couple that with the king tides that we have seen over the last few years and I think that sea level rise and flooding is becoming a big issue.”
Both ice melting and a slowing gulf stream contribute to sea level rise, especially during the fall season, when the gravitational pull enables water to move inland and the Gulf Stream becomes slower. During this season, South Florida experiences king tides, which can be about a foot taller than normal tides.
A well understood effect of sea level rise is flooding, which has both positive and negative consequences. While floods can enrich soils and promote healthy wetlands, excessive flooding can “cause destructive erosion, wetland flooding, aquifer and agricultural soil contamination with salt, and lost habitat for fish, birds, and plants,” according to National Geographic. Flood water can also invade low-lying roads and add pressure to local sewer systems, which can have costly and potentially hazardous outcomes.
Additionally, an increasing sea level rise, coupled with drought and excessive groundwater pumping, can induce saltwater intrusion in underground aquifers, which can lead to the contamination of fresh drinking water sources. This is especially alarming in Florida, where underground aquifers supply approximately 90% of drinking water needs. However, this saltwater intrusion not only affects humans, but also local plants and animals.
“As we’ve reduced the freshwater delivery down to the coastal environments as a result of flood control, we’ve exacerbated the inland movement of salt water into the Everglades,” Associate Professor at the Southeast Environmental Research Center and the Department of Biological Sciences at Florida International University Tiffany Troxler said. “Some of our research is illustrating that in marshes that were previously fresh waters and not exposed to salt water conditions and because those plants are not adapted to a rapid increase in salt water concentrations, their growth can reduce. The growth of the plants is what forms the soils on which they persist, and so if the growth of the plants reduce, then their ability to produce the soils that they’re on also declines. We also call that peat collapse.”
Unfortunately, in South Florida, preventing the effects of an increasing sea level is not a simple task. The porous limestone Floridians live on is not an ideal foundation for preventing sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, as the bedrock can permit the saltwater to seep through the holes. In order to keep up with the increase in sea level rise, sea walls must also increase in height. Locally, Fort Lauderdale has implemented a $1 billion stormwater plan and Broward County has created a $250 million plan to protect sewage systems from flooding.
“We are talking about in different cities trying to raise sea level walls to make sure that they can hold some of the water out,” Udine said. “We are trying to build a more sustainable infrastructure as we go forward with different projects and recognizing the fact that sea level rise is a real issue and planning for it accordingly. Everything that we are doing on the county commission, we are trying to do with an eye towards the environment. Even our fleet, we are trying to convert over to an electric fleet to do what we can to combat the global warming that’s leading towards sea level rise.”
However, sea level rise is not just a local problem. In just the last 20 years, there has been a 233% increase on average in tidal flooding across the nation, according to Sea Level Rise.Org.
However, many scientists believe that although the sea level is increasing, it is not too late to alleviate some of the prevalent issues that persist, by focusing on both short and long term solutions.
“There are two aspects of addressing sea level rise. There’s mitigation, which is to reduce the carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere, so that we can lessen the long term interchange in sea level, and then there’s the adaptation, which is things that you do in our environment right now,” Troxler said. “We want to be very intentional about what we expect the outcome of the changes to be, so that’s why we try to bring together faculty and external community partners from engineers, economists, ecologists, social scientists, people that study public health, people that study law, to try to understand what sort of outcomes we can help to design with different types of information. And so if you take a sort of a holistic view toward trying to integrate different types of information to get a broader picture of what the outcomes could be, then you can avoid unintended consequences.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines invasive species as “animals or plants from another region of the world that don’t belong in their new environment.” Although they may just seem like friendly visitors, they have tremendous potential to threaten biodiversity, push native species towards extinction and dramatically change the outlook of a habitat.
The Burmese python, which originates from South and Southeast Asia, is one of the most well-known and threatening invasive species found in the Florida Everglades. During the 1980s, the pythons were likely introduced to Florida in the exotic pet trade and then released into the wild by irresponsible pet owners.
“Obviously, Burmese pythons are in the news a lot because they’re big scary snakes, and they have contributed to the decline of the rodent population in the Everglades by a significant amount,” AP Environmental Science teacher Tammy Orilio said. “That’s having a huge impact on biodiversity in Florida.
The Burmese python has already done great damage to the biodiversity found within the Everglades. According to a 2012 study conducted by Michael Dorcas of Davidson College and John “J.D.” Willson of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, in the southernmost regions of the Everglades, populations of raccoons dropped 99.3 percent, opossums 98.9 percent, and bobcats 87.5 percent, while foxes, cottontail and marsh rabbits were not found in observance.
“When you have the sort of the overarching impact of climate change, the natural organisms are going to be susceptible to changes in temperature,” Troxler said. “And when they also are being affected by other species that are introduced to their food webs, like top level predators that are fighting it out with them, that has a big impact on the food chain.”
Additional invasive species include feral swine hogs, who induce significant crop losses due to their plentiful eating habits; lionfish, who threaten the health of coral reefs by decimating reef fish; bullseye snakehead, which feed on a wide variety of prey; and Old World climbing fern infests new habitats and dominates native vegetation. Florida contends with more than 500 other non-native species.
“South Florida has a large number of invasive species,” Orilio said. “Lionfish in our oceans are causing problems because they’re eating a lot of the small reef fish, and the small reef fish keep algae in check,” Orilio said. “And so now the algae is growing on top of coral reefs, killing the coral and infecting the other surrounding corals.”
Unfortunately, getting rid of invasive species is not a simple task either, as species often reproduce and spread rapidly. Due to this, attempting to get rid of invasive species is pricey and labor intensive.
According to a fact sheet from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a 2005 study reported that invasive species cost the U.S. over $120 billion annually, and in 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service spent more than $100 million to control invasives.
Additionally, eradication efforts targeting specific populations are not completely guaranteed, as sometimes proposed solutions have negative effects. For example, take the small Indian mongoose arising from South and Southeast Asia, which was brought to the New World by sailors who intended to control invasive snake and rodent populations during the colonization age. However, due to the mongoose’s plentiful eating habits, it did more damage than good, as it is blamed for leading to the extinction of nearly 12 species throughout the world.
In Florida, more efforts are being implemented to control invasives. On Aug. 7, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his plan to direct the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the South Florida Water Management District to increase collaboration in research, training programs, education campaigns and incentives for veterans to capture Burmese pythons. Already through this program, more than 3,600 pythons have been removed from the Everglades.
On a more local scale, Broward County is helping to make an effort in controlling non-native species.
“Some of the municipalities have done it, and there’s been things where we’ve gone in and cleaned up parks in the county that had invasive species,” Udine said. “It’s very labor and cost intensive, and you need to go in and make sure that you do it right so that the invasives don’t come back, but it’s important for the ecological infrastructure of the community to make sure that we are dealing properly with those species.”
In attempts to alleviate some of the issues invasives cause, some students at MSD see the value of killing invasive species in their free time, for the sake of personal benefit and environmental protection.
“I learned about it through my dad. He’s killed invasives for all of his life, and I grew up in Florida so I decided to do that as well,” senior Ryan Palen said. “I kill snakeheads mostly, and I have killed Burmese pythons. I kill these invasive species to protect what I enjoy doing, which is fishing. Instead of going fishing for let’s say largemouth bass, you’d just catch snakeheads because they killed all of the bass.”
Although invasive species are dangerous and plentiful, especially in the South Florida region, statewide, local and individualized initiatives are taking place to help combat negative consequences.
Build it up, Break it Down
If one takes a drive throughout South Florida, they will certainly observe new construction. Whether it be homes, schools or new shopping centers, South Florida appears to be changing into a more urban landscape, driven by the increasing population. Unfortunately, as an area becomes urbanized, it can have significant blows to the environment.
According to a 2005 study conducted by Stanley K. Smith of the University of Florida entitled, “Florida Population Growth: Past, Present and Future,” since the 1900s, South Florida has seen tremendous growth in their population. It states, “Fueled by agricultural and industrial growth, tourism, retiree migration, and an expanding transportation system, populations of central and south Florida mushroomed… Between 1900 and 1980, growth rates averaged 90% per decade in the Southeast, 66% in the Southwest, 52% in the Central region and only 24% in the North.”
If these population trends continue, Florida’s population is predicted to increase to nearly 26 million by 2030, according to the Florida Chamber of Commerce. When there’s population growth and more densely populated cities, it has significant effects on biodiversity.
Oftentimes new development invades pristine wetlands, which leads to habitat fragmentation and the loss of habitat for both plant and animal species. For example, the manatee and the Florida panther were added to the endangered species list during times of rapid population growth, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“Habitat fragmentation [occurs] as we are building more and more roads, diverting water flow from the Everglades out into Florida Bay by diverting that towards the coastlines, which are not natural and having huge impacts in Florida Bay. Obviously, with urban development, [comes] the destruction of natural habitat and pollution,” Orilio said.
However, the layout of the landscape is being affected as well. Due to the urban and agricultural development that has occurred for over a century in Florida, wetlands, such as the Everglades, have been reduced to half their size and nutrient pollution has become rampant.
Interest in draining the Everglades for agriculture and urban development began as early as 1881, a process that continued in various stages until 1954 when the C-38, a 100-mile long levee, was built between the eastern Everglades and the suburbs from Palm Beach south to Homestead. The levee, which runs along the eastern edge of the Everglades and the western edge of both Parkland and Coral Springs, blocks the flow of water into the populated areas.
In 1948, Congress authorized the Central and South Florida Project, which essentially assigned the Army Corps of Engineers to drain the Everglades. The project entailed constructing new roads, levees, canals and water-control structures for the purpose of urban and agricultural development. While the project was successful in carrying out its intended purpose, it has significantly degraded the health of the Everglades.
According to the Everglades Foundation, “1,800 miles of canals and dams currently break up the natural system, with water control points and pump stations diverting the natural flow of water to coastal towns and cities. Water must be released to estuaries to prevent flooding and Florida finds itself in a situation where there is often too much water in the wet years, and not enough in the dry ones.”
Around the Everglades, urban development has created shopping centers, houes and schools, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Cities like Parkland and Coral Springs and others that reside along the C-38 levee owe their existence to over 100 years of efforts to drain the Everglades. Many students at MSD find attending a school named after an Everglades conservationist ironic, due to the notion that it contributes to the negative effects of urban development.
“We preach about how we want the Everglades to be restored, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a major influence on the project of restoration, yet we built the school in spite of that,” junior Nicole Alexiou said.
Additionally, urban development creates more impervious surfaces, leading to flooding, runoff and pollution.
“When you have more impervious surface and you have more of surface water runoff that goes into storm drains, less of that is being infiltrated into the land,” Troxler said. “Storm water essentially picks up whatever contaminants might be on the street or on a sidewalk and goes out to our near shore water bodies. It has sort of a direct path to open water bodies, which are quite sensitive to nutrient and carbon pollution.”
Although the population in South Florida is predicted to increase and new development is expected to occur, local counties are becoming more conscious of their actions. Recently, they have been focused on runoff and transportation issues in terms of urban development.
“We’re changing the way we think about development so that we are friendlier and more resilient to the environment,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said. “So for instance, we are creating areas that absorb water; we are trying to moderate our intensity of use in certain areas because of transportation challenges; and we’re trying to make sure that our communities are walkable or bicycleable and not necessarily requiring people to use cars all of the time. The counties in South Florida have created a whole group that works together to share best practices to environmental challenges.”
Jennifer Jurado, the Chief Resilience Officer of Broward County, is also focused on individualized goals relating to transportation. When there is a higher population, more vehicles are added into the area, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions being released into Earth’s atmosphere.
“The longer term plan is aiding people to get out of single passenger occupant vehicles so that we can get more people into transit,” Jurado said. “Also to support development where you don’t necessarily need a vehicle to get to work because ideally, you’re able to live and work in the same geographic area and supporting alternative modes of transportation such as bicycling and shared vehicle programs.”
Although South Florida is expected to increase their participation in the urban development process and thus exacerbate issues such as habitat fragmentation, nutrient pollution and flooding, local counties are working together to find more eco-friendly ways to urbanize.
In essence, the numerous environmental issues prominent in South Florida tie into one another and create additional problems in the sectors of economy, biodiversity and public health. These problems have the potential to get worse over time, but local counties and the Florida state government are hoping to alleviate some of the effects by implementing new sustainable policies and planning for the future.
This story was originally published in the December 2019 Eagle Eye print edition.