Southeast Florida’s natural ecosystems exist within specific climate, water and salinity regimes. Coral reefs and sea grasses grow in clear, shallow seawater with abundant sunlight and stable temperatures whereas mangroves thrive in the often brackish areas between the low and high tide lines. Freshwater-dependent hardwood hammocks and pine rockland forests support an abundance and diversity of rare plants and animals unrivaled in the United States. Similarly, Everglades tree islands depend upon wet and dry seasonal rainfall patterns that have existed for centuries. Climate change threatens many of the native plants and animals important to Southeast Florida’s culture, economy and distinctive sense of place. Changing weather patterns are not new to the native flora and fauna of Southeast Florida. Plants and animals are always living and competing on the edge of their limits. Wetland plants gain ground, moving up the slope in wet years and perhaps losing that same ground in dry years. But in many climate change scenarios, the speed and direction of such changes are unprecedented. Climate change may exceed the capacity of native species to keep pace. By taking specific action now, we may be able to manage our native flora and fauna without losing species diversity and without introducing potentially harmful species.
Coral reefs are vital to local fisheries and the economy. Healthy oceans provide most of the oxygen in the air we breathe. Extensive research is underway regarding the impact of climate change on the world’s oceans. Locally, strategies are being developed to maintain our ocean in the face of climate change. In estuarine systems, mangroves and seagrasses are primary converters of sunlight energy to food energy. However, they are both limited by water depth. As seas rise, they may not survive in their current locations. It will be incumbent on us to ensure that newly inundated areas are available for them to colonize. The fate of freshwater wetlands is currently harder to predict. Tide water may reach further inland and some freshwater sources may become more brackish. These ‘lightly salty’ estuaries can
be biologically healthy habitats but we must ensure that other land uses, including drinking water supplies, are not threatened.
Most of the regions’ freshwater wetlands and native uplands are supplied with rainwater. At this time, no one knows exactly what changes in rainfall patterns are in store for us. What we do know is that storage of freshwater is an important mitigation option whether rainfall is too much or too little – or both. Having fresh- water storage options allows us to collect flood waters and hold them for later release during drought.
Given the opportunity, some species can adapt, migrate or transition. Adaptation and migration or transition, necessary for sustaining natural plant and animal communities, will require careful and thoughtful planning. Land use planning and land acquisition programs will have to allow for such transitions. Hardened shorelines may be transformed to living shorelines. Open lands or vacant parcels may be suitable locations for habitat restoration.
As new tool for comprehensive planning is to designate “Adaptation Action Areas” which can focus technical assistance and funding to areas most vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise and coastal flooding. In 2O11, the Florida Legislature amended state law to provide for Adaptation Action Areas as an optional designation in local comprehensive plans for those identified areas experiencing coastal flooding due to extreme high tides and storm surge and the related impacts of sea level rise. The law also provides for the development of adaptation policies and will maximize funding opportunities for infrastructure needs associated with Adaptation Action
Areas. Members of Congress have since suggested adding the definition of Adaptation Action Areas into federal law to provide for appropriations for adaptation planning and infrastructure needs in designated areas. It is realistic to believe that future funding opportunities will become available through federal and state appropriations and grants for these areas or areas similarly designated for adaptation planning.