Everglades Restoration and Climate Change
7:02 am
Wed April 3, 2013

Why Everglades Restoration Really Needs To Be About Adapting To Climate Change

When the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was approved in 2000, it was a historic move to "restore, protect and preserve" water resources in central and south Florida. The 30-year framework was designed with the ultimate goal of restoring historic water-flows to a "dying ecosystem." Project leaders and scientists are now focused on incorporating climate change adaptation into the plans and acknowledging that the Everglades will likely never look the way it once did. 

Robert Johnson, with the Department of Interior, talks to members of the National Academies about how projected sea level rise will impact the Everglades.
Credit Tricia Woolfenden / WLRN

"We were looking back, now we need to look forward," said Eric Bush who is with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one of the partners in CERP and other Everglades restoration efforts. 

Bush said when CERP was created, it didn't take climate change into account. Sea level rise and fluctuations in precipitation and temperature will alter Florida's landscape, making it necessary to morph Everglades restoration plans into an "adaptation plan" for climate change.

"I don't think the public really understands the implications of climate change (on South Florida)," Bush said. He said while authorities don't yet know how serious the effects will be, adaptation needs to begin "now, or it will be too late," given the many years it takes to put any significant plan into place.

Bush's sentiments were echoed -- to one degree or another -- by numerous speakers at last week's meeting of the Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress (CISRERP) in Miami. The committee is part of the National Academies, a nonprofit organization that provides government and public institutions with independent analysis and recommendations on public policy.

The CISRERP is composed of professors, scholars, and professionals in a variety of fields and from around the country. The Congressionally-mandated committee is charged with reviewing and evaluating the progress of CERP. They meet four times annually to receive briefings from experts on CERP projects and other relevant scientific and engineering concerns.

The most recent meeting included a focus on climate change, as well as invasive species and the relatively new Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP). Two days of speaker sessions were preceded by a day-long field trip to visit relevant CERP sites around South Florida, including Biscayne National Park, the Everglades National Park, and the new Tamiami Trail bridge.

Speaking to committee members on climate change's predicted impacts on coastal ecosystems, David Rudnick (science coordinator with the National Park Services' South Florida Natural Resources Center), said "it will be a different Everglades landscape" in the face of climate change.  

Among the climate change factors that could re-shape the Everglades are: a 10 percent decrease or increase in annual rainfall, hotter and longer summers, fewer but stronger tropical storms and a projected sea level rise of 1.5 feet by 2060. "Scenario uncertainty," "model uncertainty" and climate variables have hampered scientists' and authorities' abilities to more accurately predict climate change impacts in South Florida. (Read the South Florida Water Management District's report "Climate Change and Water Management In South Florida" for more details on current projections.)

Even as scientists work to provide more definitive answers to climate change questions, scientists like Rudnick are calling for "adaptive management frameworks." He said while the Everglades landscape and seascape will be shaped by oceanic energy, restoration and ecological responses to sea level rise will help to modify the impacts. 

As Everglades restoration continues, projects and goals likely will shift and adjust to accommodate new understandings (and real-world evidence) of climate change.  

Shannon Estenoz with the Department of Interior, spoke of the uncertainty of climate change's full impact and said there is a need to "move forward with restoration -- if anything, move faster." Estenoz said while climate change will shape the ecology, it also is important to consider its impacts across the board, including on agriculture, development, and human water consumption and use. 

"It's not going to happen overnight," Estenoz said, calling for a need to put "a nose to the grindstone" in Everglades restoration and to "push the limits of what science can tell us."

The CISRERP will spend the coming months analyzing the latest studies and project updates and meet later this year to continue work on its upcoming report on Everglades restoration.