Dr. Ruscena Wiederholt
Climate change, associated with hurricanes and heated debates, is an all too familiar term. The basics, including warmer temperatures, more intense hurricanes, melting ice caps and rising seas are probably well known to most. But what happens to the animals? An image of horrifyingly thin polar bears likely comes to mind, but will species in subtropical regions like Southern Florida have the same fate? While global warming is amplified up north, animals will have their fair share of problems to grapple with here, too.
Understanding the impacts of climate change on the ecosystem is like spilling a glass of water on your laptop and, after a few expletives, wondering if it mattered. Did that irreversibly ruin things or once things dry out, will it resume functioning? Or will everything seem until you discover the s key infuriatingly sticks, making it impossible to type? The Everglades ecosystem is quite a bit different from a computer, but individual species are likely to respond differently to global warming, and we may get a few surprises along the way. One thing we do know, though, is that Everglades
restoration should benefit many species, and help them grapple with the effects of
climate change. In today’s warming world, species are on the move, shifting farther towards the poles, farther upslope and into deeper waters, escaping habitat that is no longer optimal, suitable, or available. Spring events such as flowering, tree bud bursts or the arrival of birds are happening sooner. This is happening to hundreds of species,
and it’s been underway since the 1960s.
Compared to the ominously rising seas, these changes may seem less critical. But if
you’re one of the species involved, or learn that global warming may dramatically
shrink coffee habitat in the future, this quickly becomes cataclysmic. For starters,
a different set of species in an area is not always a benevolent shuffling of cards.
New species coming into an area may be predators, or species leaving an area
may have provided food or shelter for the residents of their former habitat.
Competition might also increase. Take for example, the fact that English sparkling
wine recently beat French champagne in a blind tasting. English wine? Yes,
winegrowers have shifted according to climate change, too.
The Everglades is seeing the same type of changes. Modeling results show many
charismatic species shifting northwards by 2060, like the Florida panther, the Everglades snail kite, and the American crocodile. A restored environment may help these changes take place if need be, and assist Everglades residents in dealing with
any new species in their surroundings. But we don’t need to wait 40 years, because some species have begun moving already. Roseate spoonbills, the beloved, pink-plumed wading birds, have been creeping up the state for decades. These pink beauties are found along the Gulf Coast and Florida in the U.S. Once they only nested in Florida Bay in the Sunshine State, but by the 1980s spoonbills could be found in mid-state Florida. In 2010, they reached Georgia, and in 2013, South Carolina — a shift that is much faster than was predicted. Hopefully, this movement north into more suitable habitats will hopefully help their populations adapt.
Where does that leave us? Unfortunately it’s too late to get off this train. Even if
humans stopped emitting carbon dioxide, global warming would continue because of the levels of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. So it’s a safe bet to say that the Everglades in the future will not be the same as it was in the past.
On the bright side, the Everglades restoration work planned and underway should help increase the resilience of this unique ecosystem. By providing a better environment for the inhabitants of the Everglades, we give them a better chance of coping with the tidal wave of climate change headed their way.