Nowhere else, with the possible exception of Alaska, is climate change expected to be as dramatic as in Florida. The signs are already here.
- In the Florida Keys, just a half-foot rise in sea level over the last 100 years reduced the pine rockland forest on one island by two-thirds. The globally imperiled habitat is home to many plants and animals that exist nowhere else, including the endangered Key deer, a smaller cousin of the white-tailed deer.
- Along the coasts, beaches are eroding from a combination of sea-level rise and storms, reducing the sea turtles’ nesting habitat.
- Fifty years ago, sooty terns would arrive in April on Bush Key in the Dry Tortugas National Park, the largest U.S. nesting colony for the seabird. Now they arrive starting in late January.
Florida’s low elevation makes it especially susceptible to sea-level rise, and its fragile ecosystems are sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation. Climate change is also expected to compound multiple threats already facing south Florida’s wildlife and habitat: habitat loss, droughts and competition with exotic species.
For the human population, sea-level rise could drastically affect drinking water supplies and flood protection. Sea water is already creeping into groundwater sources, and flooding is a regular occurrence in some coastal areas.
But as biologists and conservationists begin to grapple with how to safeguard wildlife as climate change accelerates, they need new tools. Most computer models and forecasts won’t do the job. That’s because people play a deciding role, altering ecosystems with new roads, buildings and other infrastructure.
People have to be factored in to future climate scenarios.