The Florida Everglades is one of the most unique natural resources in the world, with an abundance of wildlife found nowhere else. It also soaks up carbon dioxide from the air better than major rainforests around the world, researchers say.
But it is slowly disappearing, and has been for more than a century. Today, the Everglades is about the size of New Jersey — half the size it once was.
Much of the damage has been caused by humans through water diversion, population pressures, and agricultural run-off. But there are more subtle forces at work, including the growing effects of climate change.
Fusion met with the scientists whose research may save the River of Grass; got a rare view of the Everglades at night to try to find out why the alligators here are shrinking; and tackled the tricky politics that may hold the key to keeping this vulnerable ecosystem alive.
Lifeline to Everglades
Nick Schulte has the dirty job of picking at the brownish-green algae that grows on the top layer of soil here.
“There’s actually a big party going on that we can’t see...so we collect all of it,” said Schulte, who was covered in dirt and stuffing a plastic container with samples.
Schulte, a 23-year-old master’s graduate student at Florida International University, is out in the middle of Everglades National Park with a group of researchers who are testing water quality and taking samples to understand how this sensitive ecosystem is being affected by climate change.
“It’s a new rate of exposure that we don’t understand how the Everglades ecosystem is going to adapt to,” explained Evelyn Gaiser, an FIU professor who has the impressive title of lead principal investigator with the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research Program with funding from the National Science Foundation.
The fear is that salt water is moving through Florida’s porous limestone underneath the Glades and into the aquifers where the region gets its fresh water.
At stake: 67 threatened or endangered species, and the drinking water for some seven million Florida residents. The Everglades also soaks up carbon dioxide from the air better than major rainforests around the world, according to experts.
Southern Florida is famous for its alligators, and they serve as one of the top indicators of the health of the glades.
“Alligators are top predators,” said Michiko Squires, a wildlife biologist who goes by the nickname Momo. “So if they’re doing well, if their body condition is good, then we know that everything else in the food chain below them is doing well.”
Which is why it’s so worrisome that the gators are shrinking.
They now weigh 20 percent less than their counterparts in the rest of the state, according to the Croc Docs, a group of wildlife biologists that includes Momo. (The Everglades is the only place in the world where both alligators and crocodiles live.)
One of the top threats: water. Less water means less food for the gators to eat.
“You need the water to have the food they need to survive,” said the 27-year-old Momo.
The group’s research includes a survey to estimate overall what the population looks like and capturing gators to a quick check up: drawing blood, taking measurements and other data before releasing it back into the water.
We are out in the middle of nowhere—there’s no cell phone reception—when we meet up with Steve Markley.
“To you, we’re in the middle of nowhere. To me, we’re in the middle of heaven,” said Markley, better known as Captain Steve.
He gave us a personal swamp buggy tour in an area between Miami and the city of Naples, on the west coast of Florida, where he and his family has lived for generations.
This is all he knows.
“The stuff that I’ve learned, I’ve learned from years and years and years of being around it,” he told us on one of our stops between centuries-old cypress trees.
Sea-level rise is already showing its effects on the environment here, he said. He can tell the difference by what grows and what doesn’t. But he remains optimistic of restoration efforts, he said.
“The area that they’re working on is going to come back...me and you are not gonna see it. Grandkids maybe will see some of it. Whatever it is...it’s moving in the right direction now.”
Everglades: Before & After
before 1900, the Everglades carried a steady flow of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Bay. However, due to urban development much of that fresh water is now channeled to the eastern coast of Florida. Already cut in half, modern drought and global warming threaten to consume the already fragile ecosystem.
Just Another Day in the Everglades
The Incredible Shrinking Gator
in most places across the U.S., a ten-year-old alligator can easily be six feet long. But not in the Everglades-- where they only reach four or five feet. Additionally, gators caught in the Everglades are weighing about 80% of what they should. Researchers believe the decline in gator size is linked to a 2001 drought.
Future of Everglades
congress authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000, allocating $7.8 million to try to keep pace with the slowly disappearing Everglades.
Those plans, though, remain far behind schedule -- stuck in a financial and political limbo in a state where Republican Gov. Rick Scott reportedly banned the terms “climate change,” “global warming,” and “sea level rise.” His office told Fusion he was not available for further comment.
And an important piece of land south of Lake Okeechobee remains in a tug of war between conservationists and the one of largest sugar company in the state.
The land deal would use some of the land to store water and help reroute more water south to help the Everglades. The deal is set to expire at the end of October.
“This is not for the sake to buy land or take out of sugar production,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, director of Everglades Policy with Audubon Florida. “It’s really the next step in the right direction.”
Once those efforts restore what man has done to this ecosystem, “it’s sending a global message,” said Evelyn Gaiser, the lead researcher for long-term restoration efforts.
Despite any setbacks financially and politically, the race to save the Everglades and restore its natural water flow continues.