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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Florida: Climate Change and the People Factor

A deer reaches upwards to eat fruit

Florida is a unique ecosystem where subtropical wildlife and habitats mix with their cooler-counterparts. Where else could one find an endangered Key deer eating a red mangrove? Accelerating climate change is expected to throw off the delicate balance. Photo: USFWS

Video iconVideo: Scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discuss the effects climate change will have on the state of Florida, stressing the need to develop our science and methods of addressing this massive change.

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.

A key deer stands in burnt woods

A Key deer walked through an area that had been intentionally burned the day before on the National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge on Big Pine Key in Florida. Prescribed burns are critical tools in maintaining the pine rockland forest, a fire-dependent habitat that is home to several endemic species including the big pine partridge pea and the Florida leafwing butterfly. As temperatures rise and droughts lengthen, it become more difficult to use prescribed burning as a management tool. Credit: Chad Anderson, USFWS

Steve Traxler, a senior biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s South Florida Ecological Services Office in Vero Beach, said it’s simple enough to look at the prevailing science on sea-level rise and warming temperatures, for example, and predict the best places for wildlife over the next century. But those models don’t take into account secondary impacts, such as people moving further inland, or decreased public funding to conserve land.

All those factors – sea-level rise, warmer temperatures, development and conservation funding – will determine where south Florida’s 67 threatened and endangered species are able to live in the future.

To help decision makers see into the future for south Florida’s wildlife, Mike Flaxman and Juan Carlos Vargas of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are combining climate forecasts with various stakeholder-based scenarios for population growth, land-use planning, and financial resources. The scenarios provide visualizations of future development and impacts on species through 2060. The research project is called “Addressing the Challenge of Climate Change in the Greater Everglades Landscape.”

“We often don’t consider the human side of the equation,” Traxler said. “This project combines socio-economic factors with ecological outcomes.”

MIT’s unprecedented research “will help us figure out the best bang for our buck for conservation funding,” Traxler said. “We should not decide what land to conserve in today’s world. We need to look 20 and 50 years down the road to see where migratory birds, the Florida panther and other wildlife can survive.”

The project started in 2008 with $380,000 from the Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, and has included input from state and local officials to best gauge future development scenarios.


Climate Change Focus: Adaptation, Engagement

Author: Stacy Shelton


  • Stacy Shelton, USFWS, 404-679-7290, stacy_shelton@fws.gov
  • Steve Traxler, USFWS, 772-469-4265, steve_traxler@fws.gov

The endangered Key deer is a smaller cousin of the white-tailed deer. It’s habitat in the Florida Keys is threatened by sea level rise and other impacts of accelerated climate change. Photo: Garry Tucker, USFWS

Spring and Fall flooding in Miami is attributed to the nine-inch sea level rise over the last 75 years.

MIT’s research confirms that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has targeted the right area for the proposed Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. The general area under consideration is in the Kissimmee River Valley, between Orlando and Lake Okeechobee, which is higher in elevation than most of Florida.

Sea level rise in Florida

A sea level rise study by The Nature Conservancy estimates the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge will lose between one-third and three-quarters of its land base. Pine rockland habitat for the Key deer, an endangered smaller cousin of the mainland white-tailed deer, would be under water by 2100 under the worst-case scenario.

The science

According to “A State of Knowledge Report” from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, south Florida will spend more than half the year sweating through temperatures of 90 degrees or hotter by the end of this century. Between 1901 and 2007, less rain fell in the spring, summer and fall seasons, and more rain in the winter.

Finding solutions

South Florida and the Florida Keys make up the Peninsular Florida Landscape Conservation Cooperative, a collaborative and science-based approach to addressing our biggest conservation challenges, including climate change. Government, academic and private partners are focusing on down-scaled climate models that can identify future land conservation opportunities and at-risk species, as well as long-term biological monitoring to answer lingering questions about the impact of specific conservation measures.

The picture of the cars sitting in water was taken by Paul Krashefski, Broward County Natural Resources Planning and Management Division. Please add the photo credit and correctly identify this photo from Fort Lauderdale and not Miami.
# Posted By | 7/19/11 3:03 PM
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