The boardwalk at Pa-hay-okee Overlook is a brief, wind- ing path into a dreamworld in Everglades National Park. Beyond the wooden slats, an expanse of gently waving saw grass stretches to the horizon, where it
meets an iron-gray sky. Hardwood tree islands — patches of
higher, drier ground called hammocks — rise up from the prairie like surfacing swimmers. The rhythmic singing of cricket
frogs is occasionally punctuated by the sharp call of an anhinga
or a great egret.
And through this ecosystem, a vast sheet of water flows
slowly southward toward the ocean.
The Everglades, nicknamed the river of grass, has endured
its share of threats. Decades of human tinkering to make
South Florida an oasis for residents and a profitable place for
farmers and businesses has redirected water away from the
wetlands. Runoff from agricultural fields bordering the
national park causes perennial toxic algal blooms in Florida’s
But now, the Everglades — home to alligators and crocodiles,
deer, bobcats and the Florida panther, plus a dizzying array of
more than 300 bird species — is facing a far more relentless
foe: rising seas.
South Florida is ground zero when it comes to sea level rise
in the United States. By 2100, waters near Key West are pro-
jected to be as much as two meters above current mean sea
level. Daily high tides are expected
to flood many of Miami’s streets. The
steady encroachment of saltwater is
already changing the landscape, kill-
ing off saw grass and exposing the land to erosion.
Against this looming threat, Everglades ecologists and
hydrogeologists are racing to find ways to mitigate the damage before the land is reclaimed by the ocean, irrevocably lost.
Sea level rise is a global problem (see Page 24), but coastal
water management in South Florida faces some particular
challenges, as a 2014 National Climate Assessment report
noted. Growing urban centers need access to freshwater, flat
topography encourages ponds of water to linger, and porous
limestone aquifers are particularly vulnerable to encroaching
saltwater. Storm surges occasionally drive seawater far inland,
compounding the problem.
“We can’t ignore it anymore,” says Shimelis Dessu, a hydrogeologist at Florida International University in Miami. When
it comes to water management needs in South Florida, ecological conservation has tended to be low on the list, compared
with human and agricultural needs, Dessu says. Now, sea level
rise is forcing people to think differently. “The ocean is no longer an external thing,” he says. “It’s already in the house.”
Draining the swamp
Florida’s tug-of-war over water has a long history.
In the 1800s, settlers first began draining the land to make
way for agriculture and communities. Water management
in the state began in earnest in 1948, when the U.S. Congress
authorized the Central and Southern Florida Project for Flood
Control and Other Purposes.
Scientists wrestle with how to
fight the effects of sea level rise
By Carolyn Gramling
Rising seas and sinking
soil could turn this iconic
wetland ecosystem into