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A freshwater, saltwater tug-of-war is eating away at the Everglades

Scientists wrestle with how to fight the effects of sea level rise and years of redirecting freshwater flow

ON THE EDGE Rising seas and sinking soil could turn this iconic wetland ecosystem into open water.


The boardwalk at Pa-hay-okee Overlook is a brief, winding path into a dreamworld in Everglades National Park. Beyond the wooden slats, an expanse of gently waving saw grass stretches to the horizon, where it meets an iron-gray sky. Hardwood tree islands - patches of higher, drier ground called hammocks - rise up from the prairie like surfacing swimmers. The rhythmic singing of cricket frogs is occasionally punctuated by the sharp call of an anhinga or a great egret. And through this ecosystem, a vast sheet of water flows slowly southward toward the ocean. The Everglades, nicknamed the river of grass, has endured its share of threats. Decades of human tinkering to make South Florida an oasis for residents and a profitable place for farmers and businesses has redirected water away from the wetlands. Runoff from agricultural fields bordering the national park causes perennial toxic algal blooms in Florida's coastal estuaries.

But now, the Everglades - home to alligators and crocodiles, deer, bobcats and the Florida panther, plus a dizzying array of more than 300 bird species - is facing a far more relentless foe: rising seas. South Florida is ground zero when it comes to sea level rise in the United States. By 2100, waters near Key West are projected to be as much as two meters above current mean sea level. Daily high tides are expected to flood many of Miami's streets. The steady encroachment of saltwater is already changing the landscape, killing off saw grass and exposing the land to erosion. Against this looming threat, Everglades ecologists and hydrogeologists are racing to find ways to mitigate the damage before the land is reclaimed by the ocean, irrevocably lost.

Sea level rise is a global problem, but coastal water management in South Florida faces some particular challenges, as a 2014 National Climate Assessment report noted. Growing urban centers need access to freshwater, flat topography encourages ponds of water to linger, and porous limestone aquifers are particularly vulnerable to encroaching saltwater. Storm surges occasionally drive seawater far inland, compounding the problem. "We can't ignore it anymore," says Shimelis Dessu, a hydrogeologist at Florida International University in Miami. When it comes to water management needs in South Florida, ecological conservation has tended to be low on the list, compared with human and agricultural needs, Dessu says. Now, sea level rise is forcing people to think differently. "The ocean is no longer an external thing," he says. "It's already in the house."

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