How might climate change affect Florida?

Average Temperature Plot

Sun and surf, palm trees and beaches, theme parks and National Parks. From the Panhandle to the Keys, from the Atlantic coast to the Gulf coast, Florida has something for everyone.

Talk to a Floridian and they'll name a plethora of great reasons to spend time in the Sunshine State. They'll tell you about the wonderful warm temperatures, the beauty of the oceans, and relaxing at their local beaches. They'll mention the Everglades and the orange groves, Apalachicola Bay, and world-famous locations like Miami and Key West. The beautiful environment Florida has offered so many for so long is, however, changing in unanticipated ways. And some of the environmental characteristics that make Florida a great place to live, work, and play, also happen to be creating environmental challenges for the state that many didn't expect.

The great blue-green ocean that surrounds the Florida peninsula has experienced sea level rise of 7 to 8 inches in the 20th century and levels are projected to rise another 1-3 feet by the year 2100. Why the rise? As it turns out, sea surface temperatures are increasing ever so slightly. Around Florida, the temperatures have gone up between 0.4 and 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 160 years. That may not sound like much, but then consider that when sea surface temperatures increase, the sea also starts to expand. This phenomenon is called "thermal ocean expansion". Add to that melting glaciers in northern parts of the globe and pretty soon the water along Florida's coasts really starts to encroach on the land. As sea levels rise, they also bring with them and take with them more than just water. Those beautiful beaches Floridians and tourists enjoy? They start to erode away more readily as more water comes in. Replenishing those beaches to the satisfaction of those who use them takes money and lots of it. Since 1964, Florida has spent $600 million on enrichment, erosion control, and hurricane recovery activities for beaches (beach enrichment is a process by which sand from somewhere else is brought in to replenish the sand that eroded away).

Bald Eagle Chicks

Encroaching sea water also means encroaching salt water. In southern Florida and places like the Everglades, where coastal wetlands are abundant, that can mean big challenges. Coastal wetlands are important breeding grounds and habitat for mangroves, fish, birds, alligators, and more. These plants and animals rely on coastal wetlands that have a certain ratio of freshwater and saltwater. When that ratio changes, some of those plants and animals are put in jeopardy. Rising sea levels wash more saltwater into these systems and disrupt the environment these organisms live in. Not all of the species are resilient enough to adapt to the changes.

The warming of ocean water can cause additional challenges. Coral reefs found among the Florida Keys and other parts of the coast are sensitive to increasing temperatures and are experiencing "coral bleaching" due to the warming waters. Corals are an important part of the food chain in the Keys and when they die, negative effects are felt throughout the oceanic food chain, including the fish that many people depend on catching to make their living. Tourism and those that depend on it for their livelihood are also negatively affected when coral reefs degrade.

In addition to warming and rising oceans, Floridians will continue to experience changes in climate patterns. Florida has always been known for its warm temperatures, but the way in which Floridians experience those warm temperatures is shifting. In more recent decades, Floridians have experienced fairly steady warm temperatures with infrequent days of excessive heat. As the climate continues to warm, however, temperature increases in Florida are likely to come in heat waves that are longer and more frequent than before. These heat waves are generally more difficult for most people to adapt to, especially the youngest and oldest sectors of society. These heat waves will create additional stress for those without air conditioning and will make it more difficult for Floridians to enjoy the outdoor environment that so many appreciate. Changing climatic patterns are also likely to bring with them more extreme weather events, such as periods of severe drought followed by periods of torrential rains. It doesn't take much to imagine the challenges that will bring to the land. Imagine trying to grow crops or raise cattle in an environment where one day the land is parched and the next it is drowned.

What does this mean for National Key Deer Refuge?

Doe at Key Deer

Land managers at National Key Deer NWR have their work cut out for them as the climate changes. Given the low elevation of the Refuge and the fact that it is surrounded by great blue ocean, issues like thermal expansion and rising sea levels are an obvious concern. Protecting important wildlife populations, such as the Key deer after which the Refuge is named, will be difficult if the ocean starts to overtake the land. Warming temperatures may have unanticipated consequences on the plants and animals that make up the Refuge as well. Managers at National Key Deer NWR will continue to work hard to monitor the status of the populations they manage and adapt their strategies to the changing conditions. You can help managers track changes in the plant community by participating in Project BudBurst at the National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge and monitoring selected plants throughout the seasons.


Photo: Bald eagle chicks (middle), Courtesy of the USFWS and Key deer doe (bottom), Courtesy of Chad Anderson

Union of Concerned Scientists, NRDC, and Florida Climate Alliance. 2002. Florida - Saving Energy, the Environment, and Money. Local governments in Action: Some Best Practices to Address Global Warming. Accessed Nov 2011.

Center for Climate Strategies. 2008. Florida's Energy and Climate Change Action Plan. Accessed Nov 2011.

Florida Atlantic University and the National Commission on Energy Policy. Florida's Resilient Coasts: A state policy framework for adaptation to climate change. Accessed Nov 2011.

Climatograph data from The Weather Channel website. Accessed Dec 2011.