Climate change threatens the Everglades, Florida’s jewel

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A hovering airboat is seen in Everglades National Park, Florida – the largest wetland area in the United States – September 30, 2021

MIAMI – Umberto Gimenez loves alligators. He gives them nicknames like “Smile” and “Momma Gator” and laughs when he thinks about their antics.

Gimenez, an airboat captain, found his paradise in Florida Everglades National Park, a natural gem in the southeastern US state that is threatened by climate change.

“It’s an amazing place and there is only one in the world,” he says.

The largest wetland in the United States is under threat and has become a battlefield for one of the world’s most comprehensive environmental conservation efforts.

Gimenez hopes the effort will help preserve the park.

But time is pressing and global warming is sabotaging a subtropical wilderness that is home to more than 2,000 animal and plant species.

The main threat comes from the sea.

The Everglades, like all of South Florida, are almost flat, making the ecosystem extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels, one of the biggest consequences of rising temperatures.

The passage of salt water into the freshwater wetlands can be catastrophic.

The region stores and filters the water on which nine million of Florida’s nearly 21 million residents depend.

As soon as salt penetrates underground aquifers, they can be destroyed.

In addition, there is a risk that the salt water will destroy the habitat for much of the rare fauna and flora in the region.

Also of concern are increasing droughts and lower rainfall, further consequences of climate change.

“As a vast peatland that builds up organic soils over time, this ecosystem has captured huge amounts of carbon that is trapped in the soil and contributes to the formation of habitats,” said Steve Davis, chief science officer of the Everglades Foundation, a non – Government organization.

A lack of fresh water not only stops carbon sequestration, but also causes substances stored in the soil to be released into the air.

A double climate catastrophe.

– Multi-billion dollar project –

Gimenez puts on sunglasses, ties a headscarf around his head and jumps barefoot into his airboat with Davis.

The boat takes off and speeds through a green carpet, the water of which is hidden under the vegetation.

It feels like floating on grass.

Over millennia, water collected north of the Everglades in the rainy season and shaped the landscape by moving very slowly as it followed the gentle slope of the terrain.

However, in the last century, the natural flow was diverted to allow for urban and agricultural growth in South Florida.

In doing so, it changed the ecosystem of the 1.5 million acres (607,000 hectares) of wetlands and weakened it in the face of climate change.

In 2000, Congress approved a Florida-federal government-funded project to protect the area, which UNESCO declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1976.

The initial cost was $ 7.8 billion.

The goal was “to store water, to purify it and to return it to the national park in the most natural way,” said Davis.

To achieve this, scientists developed a complex system of canals, dykes, dams and pumps.

They also designed artificial swamps to filter the water and clear it of nutrients that damage the wetland.

At the same time, sections of the road that blocked the flow of water to the park were raised.

“Everglades restoration is the model for other ecosystem restoration efforts, be it wetlands like the Pantanal (in South America) or estuaries like Chesapeake Bay,” says Davis.

“We have the same problems here,” he adds. “It’s about making sure the right amount of clean water is flowing through the ecosystem.”

– delays –

The effects of rehabilitation can already be felt. Davis gets out of the boat, dips his hands into the clear water, and scoops a dark lump from the bottom.

It is periphyton, a mixture of algae, bacteria and microbes, the presence of which indicates healthy water quality.

Despite some progress, only one of the 68 major projects in the original 2000 plan was fully completed.

The delays are mainly due to a lack of federal funding.

According to the Everglades Foundation, between $ 4 billion and $ 5 billion has been spent on the restoration project so far, with Florida contributing 70 percent and Washington just 30 percent.

However, the urgency caused by climate change could give a boost to the conservation plan.

President Joe Biden has earmarked $ 350 million for the Everglades in his 2022 budget, up $ 100 million from 2021.

In April Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed an agreement with the US Army Corps of Engineers to build a reservoir west of Palm Beach, which will cost $ 3.4 billion.

Given the size of Manhattan Island, it will “store a lot of water flowing south, rehydrate those wetlands, recharge the aquifer and push against rising sea levels,” says Davis.

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