As we plan for the impacts of sea level rise and the changes it will bring to coastlines such as those in Levy County, additional focus must be turned to preserving the natural environment. Florida’s coastline is made up of multiple ecosystems that feature significant biodiversity, protect land and water in the interior, act as centers for ecotourism and commercial operations, and provide recreational enjoyment for many. To understand the critical region that coastlines represent within the natural environment, project researchers have looked to data involving strategies to protect these areas at both the larger landscape scale as well as work with individual focal species.
At its core, natural system adaptation strategies are concerned with ecosystem health. An ecosystem can be broadly defined by the balance of flora and fauna with the nonliving components around them (such as water and minerals in the soil). Changes within the system, even subtle ones, can have long-lasting and sometimes devastating effects on many species. Sea level rise has already begun to put pressure upon coastal ecosystems and future projections show many areas to be vulnerable to further habitat loss. Scientific efforts have been made to establish a baseline for existing ecological conditions along Florida’s coastline and river systems so that critical regions under threat can be identified and strategies to increase their resilience can be put into action. Examples of resiliency efforts can take the form of managing species populations, mitigating wildfires, limiting development, and combating invasive species.
The USGS is just one example of a science-based organization utilizing historical data (such as the Suwanee River Basin map above) along with current ecological trends to plan for environmental health initiatives. The tidal wetlands along the Big Bend of Florida have been part of such historic impact studies.
In addition to some of the approaches highlighted above, the threat of sea level rise often requires a number of specific adaptation strategies to be considered. Coastal restoration involves rebuilding and stabilizing shorelines that have already deteriorated, most often because of human interference. Traditionally, built solutions such as seawalls and bulkheads have been used but these can often prevent coastlines from shifting naturally thereby exacerbating problems of erosion and habitat loss. Instead, “soft” solutions can be utilized in many cases which allow for the accumulation of sediment in a more natural manner. Options such as beach re-nourishment, oyster reef enhancement, sediment control, pollution reduction, and the restoration of wetlands that have been dredged can bring back naturally occurring ecosystems which buffer inland areas from storm surge and general erosion.
Beginning in 2010, the U.S. EPA was tasked specifically with developing a Gulf Coast Restoration Plan which addresses climate change and many other environmental stresses which Florida faces (http://www.epa.gov/gcertf/).
Habitat migration corridors address the threat of fragmenting ecosystems which leave migratory species, such as terns, black bears, and sea turtles, at serious risk. Additionally, such corridors allow salt marshes and wetland forests to gradually shift inland as sea level rises. Migratory corridors are key for the adaptive capacity of many intertidal and coastal ecosystems to function. Prohibiting new development is often central to this strategy and conservation easements can be an effective method of protection. More information on migration corridors and how they are identified can be found on our additional project website for Matanzas Basin at http://planningmatanzas.org/faqs/.
The National Geographic Society, along with various conservation partners, recently published a documentary regarding Florida’s natural ecosystems and migration corridors. The Florida Wildlife Corridor highlights the relationship and interdependence that coastal and inland ecosystems have on one another (http://www.floridawildlifecorridor.org/about/).
Where a population is unable to migrate and adapt fast enough to sea level rise species translocation is an option whereby the focal species is relocated to a similar, protected environment. Typically a last resort in conservation, species can be relocated from areas that have suffered significant habitat loss where restoration is physically or financially improbable to conserved areas where they can rebound. This is a delicate process that requires considerable justification, planning, and oversight. In extreme circumstances, the option to establish seed/gene banks for a species on the verge of extinction is a sad but viable option.
The Florida scrub-jay is an example of a species where habitat loss has placed it under significant threat. Successful translocation efforts have been conducted by the Brevard Zoo for example and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines highlight the considerations and complexity involved in such a task.
The Center for Landscape Conservation Planning at the University of Florida has multiple projects underway that inform adaptation strategies in the natural environment – including involvement in the Florida Wildlife Corridor Project highlighted earlier. Other examples include the CLIP project which is assisting planners by identifying conservation and land use priorities. This information can, in turn, be overlapped with areas most at risk for sea level so that planners are better informed on areas where the fastest and most important actions are needed. Furthermore, forecast models for population growth in Florida and future land use assist in planning for integrated strategies for sea level rise that combine efforts in both the natural and built environment.
Click on an images above to enlarge. While the CLIP project is an ongoing effort, important data results are already informing planners. Notice, for example, how biodiversity and landscape resource ‘hotspots’ overlap in the images above. The waterfront of Levy County is among one of many coastal locations found to be a high priority landscape by CLIP data. (http://www.fnai.org/pdf/CLIP2_Executive_Summary.pdf).