To pair with the rest of our educational content in each Earth to Florida newsletter, we bring you monthly updates on statewide environmental news. Read on below to see what we found for the month of September:
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Hurricane Idalia made landfall on the west coast of Florida as a Category 3 storm on August 30. The impacts are still being assessed, but some smaller coastal towns in rural Florida are dealing with extensive damage.
- In the small fishing town of Steinhatchee, residents have been devastated by flooding, and repairs are climbing to the millions. Despite making landfall in the Big Bend area of Florida, the storm surges of Idalia were felt as far south as Naples. A preliminary report by the University of Florida estimated up to $370.9 million in agricultural losses. The Florida Department of Emergency Management is encouraging individuals in 14 counties to apply for FEMA assistance.
- In Pinellas County, every beach suffered severe erosion from Idalia amidst a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pause on beach renourishment projects. Additionally, only a few sea turtle nests in Pinellas County were damaged from Idalia because the record heat of this summer helped sea turtles hatch earlier and make it to sea before the hurricane. However, rising heat also increases the proportion of female turtles in the nest and causes birth defects in baby turtles.
- Flamingos sighted in the Tampa Bay and Clearwater area were likely displaced by Hurricane Idalia’s winds. One particular flamingo, rescued off of St. Pete Beach on September 1, is now recovering from exhaustion at the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary.
- Idalia temporarily cooled waters in parts of the Gulf of Mexico by around 1 degree Celsius by bringing deeper, colder water to the surface in a process called upwelling. Idalia had minimal impact on Lake Okeechobee water levels, as most of the rain was absorbed by the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes before it reached Lake O.
Other Stories to Watch
- Over a dozen trails have been added to the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, a network of more than 500 sites for nature enthusiasts, wildlife photographers, hikers, and bird watchers to view Florida’s natural scenery and wildlife. The trail system contributes over a billion dollars to Florida’s economy every year and also offers opportunities for visitors to learn about conservation efforts.
- SeaPort Manatee, located in the Gulf of Mexico at the entrance to Tampa Bay, is recovering from an unexplained oil spill that resulted in the release of 20,500 gallons of contaminated water into its basin. The port crew, U.S. Coast Guard, and other pollution responders removed about 99% of the oil on the surface of the water as well as debris and oil on sea walls and ship hulls. The Coast Guard is investigating the cause of the spill.
- A program for funding home improvements, known as PACE (Property Assessment Clean Energy) is under scrutiny for lack of regulation and customer complaints about bad business deals. Originally intended to help people finance “green” improvements to their homes, Florida’s largest PACE provider, Ygrene, faces expulsion from Miami-Dade County because of its difficult business history.
- A new study by University of Florida researchers has found nutrients from stormwater ponds and reclaimed water are exacerbating red tide algae blooms. The study authors say this information can help managers target these nutrient sources and prevent them from entering bloom-impacted waters.
- To help restore Florida’s coral reefs, Mote Marine Laboratory has opened a hatchery solely focused on producing 250,000 baby Caribbean king crabs annually. The crabs eat algae off the coral which aids in the growth, survival, and recruitment of corals. The plan is to release the crabs onto restoration sites along Florida’s Reef Tract.
- University of Central Florida researchers have logged an increase in local frog die-offs due to a microbe called amphibian Perkinsea. When Perkinsea spores reach the frog’s liver and other organs, they eat the tissue from the inside out and kill the frog. The microbe has been responsible for frog die-offs before, including some places in Florida. These die-offs concern the scientists because frogs are ecologically important and can reduce insect-borne disease in humans by eating bugs. Floridians can help prevent the spread of this microbe to frogs by cleaning boating, hiking, and fishing gear.
- A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the 2013 dredging project to deepen PortMiami killed 278 acres of corals — 80 times more than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers originally estimated for the project. Now, PortMiami is looking to begin the next phase of dredging while Port Everglades has begun its own dredging project. There is no current estimate for the number of corals that could die in the next phase of the PortMiami project, but the Port Everglades project is estimated to kill 26 acres of coral directly and somewhere between 124 to 177 acres indirectly. The Corps said it would need 498,000 to 720,000 corals to repair the damage, but the biggest grower of corals in South Florida only produces 45,000 to 50,000 corals a year.
- During the 2023 legislative session, Florida lawmakers approved a bill that would allow pilot projects to test the use of radioactive phosphogypsum, a byproduct of phosphate manufacturing, in road construction. Thirty-one Florida government officials recently signed a letter urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to deny an application by phosphate mining company Mosaic for one of these pilot projects.
- To curb planet-warming methane gas emissions from cows, a dairy farmer just north of Lake Okeechobee has partnered with California-based Brightmark to turn cow poop into biogas that can power homes. While better than leaving the waste in the environment, scientists say it’s not a silver bullet for reducing global emissions. Only 12% of methane emissions from cows come from their excrement; 95% come from burps and farts. They also worry an increased demand in biogas might result in an increased demand for cows.
The Good News
- During the first six months of 2023, Florida ranked above every other U.S. state for solar energy installations. This is a 52% increase from 2022 and a one-year record for the country as a whole.
- The U.S. Forest Service has awarded millions of dollars in federal funding to communities across Florida to plant new trees. The goal of the project is to improve air quality and reduce temperatures in urban areas. Tampa and Orlando will each receive $1 million dollars.
- Following several years of record-breaking manatee deaths, this year’s total has been significantly lower than the five-year average. Scientists say seagrass recovery has resulted in fewer starvation-related deaths.
Florida Research News
- A team of researchers at the University of North Florida was awarded a grant to study the formation of biomineralized materials. Biomineralization is the process by which living organisms produce minerals to harden existing tissues such as teeth, bones, shells, and corals. But scientists say the formation mechanisms of these minerals are poorly understood since natural conditions are hard to replicate in a lab. Study authors say the research could lead to the production of technology that would help create more resilient corals.
- Rising temperatures are lowering the odds of baby sea turtles making it out of their nests and into the ocean. In a study looking at 12 leatherback nests on Juno Beach, even an increase of 5 degrees Fahrenheit was shown to decrease the survival rate of the baby turtles significantly. Even if the hatchlings survive the higher temperatures, they may not be perfectly healthy and could experience birth defects. Researchers found that the leatherbacks that endured the hotter nests had shorter flippers, reduced ability to flip over when on their backs, and a short incubation period, meaning the embryos took less time to develop.
- The Tampa Bay Estuary Program has launched a five-year study to determine whether hot temperatures can slow seagrass recovery. The program will be launched in Old Tampa Bay, the northwestern section of the estuary where at least 38% of seagrasses disappeared between 2018 and 2020. From July through October each year, researchers will monitor water temperatures and collect data that will help identify what percentage of seagrass loss can be attributed to temperature changes.
Things You Can Do
- Join the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences for an award-winning urban food production class on October 16. The course covers topics including Introduction to Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Regulations, Urban Food Production Sytems, Best Management Practices, and more. Those who want to participate can do so virtually or in person in Davie, Florida.
- Earth is operating outside six of the nine key metrics used to determine what is livable and safe for humanity, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.
- Three environmental groups are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for delaying a decision to add the ghost orchid to the endangered species list. The suit alleges that ghost orchid populations have declined by up to 50% in Florida and seeks to force the USFWS to decide on adding the species to the endangered species within 12 months.
- The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General has said in a new report that the agency needs to do a better job at managing cancer-causing benzene emissions from oil refineries. The report found that 25 of the 118 reviewed refineries had average benzene concentrations that exceeded the “action level.”
- A report from the International Energy Agency predicts that the demand for fossil fuels will peak by the end of the decade, with the estimated decline beginning in 2030. This decline in demand for oil, gas, and coal is attributed to the increase in clean energy. Researchers say this shift may not be enough to curb the effects of climate change, as clean energy needs to replace fossil fuels completely.
- To help meet a goal of eliminating carbon emissions by 2030, the U.S. Climate Alliance and the Biden administration have recently pledged to quadruple the number of heat pumps in American homes by 2030. Heat pumps use little electricity but are able to effectively cool and heat homes by capturing and moving heat from outside to inside and vice versa. While heat pumps are more sustainable than furnaces or air conditioners, scientists say they may not be as efficient in colder regions, use refrigerants that can warm the atmosphere when they leak, and rely on the same electrical grids, which may be powered by fossil fuels. The Inflation Reduction Act offers a 30% tax credit on new heat pump installations.
- The Biden administration has announced a new American Climate Corps that will employ 20,000 young adults to work on projects related to land restoration, natural disaster resilience, and clean energy. The program will work with at least ten states and six federal agencies to provide job training opportunities for untrained workers. The vision for the corps appeared in early drafts of last year’s historic climate bill. Though some compare the effort to the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, others point out that the scale for this program is significantly smaller. However, environmentalists hope that this might be a first step to building a larger climate workforce in the future.
- A new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research suggests that after this summer’s dangerous heat conditions, storms, and wildfires, more Americans say they’ve felt the impact of climate change. Eighty-seven percent of Americans say that in the past five years, they have experienced at least one instance of extreme weather, compared to only 79% in April of this year. Of these respondents, 64% believe that climate change is a factor. However, public opinion is heavily split along party lines, with nine in 10 Democrats responding that climate change is happening compared to 49% of Republicans.
The More You Know
- Scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, UC Berkeley and the University of Hawaii at Manoa are working to protect vulnerable coral reefs from devastating heat waves by cryogenically freezing them in an onshore coral library. They say the key to moving forward will be to maintain the health of the corals once they thaw.
- A new study by the First Street Foundation predicts an upcoming “climate insurance bubble” caused by rising insurance rates along with increasing risks due to climate disasters. Should the bubble burst, insurance will become too expensive for home buyers and mortgage providers in climate-vulnerable areas. The study suggests about 39 million homes across the country could lose value as a result, and Florida is one of the hot spots.