The Everglades are in trouble. Well, we sort of knew that already, but it looks like they’re in even more trouble than previously suspected. The fragile wetlands have been threatened by everything from urban development to invasive species to water pollution, and now scientists are concerned about the effects of rising sea levels.
You may remember some of the basics of Florida’s weird geology from middle school science class. Our state sits on top of layers of porous limestone, which houses big underground aquifers filled with fresh water. The various plants that grow in the Everglades use their intricate root systems to absorb the fresh water from the aquifers, which is also the same water that we drink.
Fresh water used to flow into the Everglades through rivers and tributaries, but much of that flow has been diverted for other agricultural and industrial uses, like feeding South Florida’s massive sugarcane crops. Now the primary source of fresh water for the miles of grasses and trees across Southwestern Florida comes from the aquifer below. As millions of people slowly drain this supply, the slowly rising sea water is beginning to seep in and mix with the fresh water. Plants don’t do so well in salty water, and their roots will start to pull right out of the ground if they get too much of it. Researchers are already starting to find evidence of the destructive effects of the salt, and it can only get worse from here if nothing is done.
If sea levels continue to rise and salt contaminates the aquifers, it will affect us in many ways, directly and indirectly. In a worst case scenario, the unique plants that thrive in the Everglades will die off, taking most of the wildlife with them. This can mess up the entire ecosystem of Florida and cripple the huge tourism industry that relies on people coming to ride airboats and take selfies with alligators. This will also bring devastating effects to the people that live in and around the fringes of the Everglades who rely on the delicate waterways for transportation, food and jobs. Obviously the most widespread problem is that people all over Southern Florida need that fresh water to drink, wash dishes, water their lawns, flush their toilets and a million other things.
Luckily, the problem has been caught pretty early and there are a lot of brilliant minds working on finding solutions. The hope is that if more fresh water can be put back into the spongy aquifer beneath the Everglades, the pressure of all that water will keep the sea water out, even if the levels start to rise even more. It all sounds very theoretical now, but this situation is evidence of Florida’s particular vulnerability from the effects of a changing climate.