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 August:
- The South Florida Water Management District recently reported that farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area were able to cut nutrients in field runoff by 66% this year, which is more than twice as much as required by the 1994 Everglades Forever Act. The act requires farmers to reduce phosphorus by 25% annually. Since the law was passed, the Everglades Agricultural Area has met or exceeded the requirements every year but one.
- After much debate, the Titusville City Council voted to allow a “right to clean water” charter amendment on the November ballot. However, due to language in the 2020 Clean Waterways Act preempting this kind of measure, council members and residents worry it may be illegal. The council decided the amendment will appear, but if it is struck down in court before the ballot deadline, it will be taken off. In May, a political committee called Florida’s Right to Clean Water proposed a constitutional amendment to make clean and healthy water a fundamental right for Floridians. The measure would allow lawsuits against state agencies for any harm to the state’s waterways. To make it on the 2024 ballot, the committee needs 891,589 petition signatures by February 2023.
- According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the St. Johns River, which supplies half of the drinking water to Brevard County, was nearly three feet below average in the Cocoa area in August. Outflows of the river such as Lake Poinsett and Lake Washington were also experiencing record low water levels, increasing the risk for algal blooms and fish kills. Lake Poinsett is one of the few sources of surface water supplies for drinking water in Florida. Experts say the lower water levels are due to a dryer summer driven by a La Niña cycle and a changing climate.
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its forecast for high tide flooding days at various locations around the U.S. NOAA experts say the rate of flooding is twice as high as it was 20 years ago and is expected to grow. The forecast reports that in the year 2100, there will only be one day when high tide flooding is not an issue in the Fort Myers area, and Naples is expected to be flooded every day.
- Harmful algal blooms are making headlines this month. A new study by scientists at the University of Florida has provided the strongest evidence to date that human activities directly contribute to the severity of red tide. Additionally, research from the Sarasota Roskamp Institute has found that inhaling red tide toxins can lead to neurological problems in some people. In early August, the Florida Department of Health issued an advisory about a blue-green algal bloom in the Hillsborough River, and beach visitors in South Florida have been reporting large mats of stinky sargassum seaweed. Scientists say nonpoint sources of pollution from agricultural fertilizers, leaky septic tanks, and urban stormwater runoff feed these blooms.
- Research from the U.S. Geological Survey has found that after thousands of years of stability, much of Florida’s reef tract is now shrinking. Scientists say the decline of the only coral reef in the continental U.S. can be attributed to ocean heat waves, disease, and hurricanes. But experts say if the goals outlined in NOAA’s 20-year plan to restore reefs in the Florida Keys are met, the downward spiral could be reversed. They also note that climate change is a big cause of coral death and restoration is only one piece of the puzzle.
- According to the Florida Public Service Commission, the popularity of rooftop solar is growing in Florida. In 2021, more than 40,000 property owners had new rooftop solar panel systems installed, a 44% growth rate from 2020. Documents leaked to media outlets suggest that a consulting firm hired by Florida Power and Light recruited and promoted a ghost candidate to challenge then-democratic state Senator José Javier Rodriguez in the 2020 election. Rodriguez, who lost his election by 32 votes, proposed legislation that would have allowed property owners to install rooftop solar panels and sell the energy back to their tenants. FPL denies any wrongdoing and suggests the leaked documents were the result of a feud between the owner of the consulting firm and a former employee. U.S. Representative Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) is asking the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into the allegations. Other news outlets have reported that the consulting firm also secretly financed a Tallahassee news outlet that advocated for rate hikes, and stalked a Florida Times-Union journalist who has written critical articles about FPL.
- A nonprofit agency that handles claims after insurance companies go bankrupt has decided to borrow $150 million, a loan that will need to be repaid by policyholders. The decision comes after five insurance companies have gone insolvent since February. In a state rife with natural hazards and claims fraud, property insurers are leaving the state in droves, leaving Floridians to find coverage elsewhere at rates up to 50% higher. According to Climate Central, the Atlantic hurricane season is seeing more storms, and climate change is causing more nuisance flooding in Florida, which could result in more costly damage to homes and businesses. In May, state lawmakers convened for a special session to secure billions of dollars for a reinsurance fund to help insurers cover payouts for catastrophic events.
- During this year’s nesting season, Florida’s three most endangered sea turtle species have shown signs of rebounding. Loggerheads in particular dug a record number of nests, especially along Brevard County’s Space Coast. Despite promising trends, sea turtles face a variety of challenges, especially in the face of climate change. Should sand reach a temperature of 82 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, most hatchlings will be born female. Not only would a population made up of more females slow reproduction, but the smaller mating pool could also increase the risk of birth defects and disease.
- A year ago, there were 58,000 electric vehicles registered in Florida. Today there are close to 96,000. Florida is now working on expanding infrastructure for the vehicles, as charger access is one reason consumers might be reluctant to make the switch. Florida Power and Light plans to install over 1,000 charge ports, and the Edison Electric Institute is also working to provide fast charging stations along major U.S. travel corridors.
- The decline of the Florida manatee population has been a hot topic in the news for the last two years. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the number of living manatees today is nearly equal to the number of recorded manatee deaths over the last 12 years. Though the outlook for manatees is looking better than last year, with several months of 2022 still to go, the 661 reported deaths this year already would rank it as the fourth deadliest on record. Particularly affected is Brevard County, where 54% of this year’s manatee deaths have taken place.
- Since the passage of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act in 2021, the state has acquired land or purchased conservation easements to prevent more than 56,000 acres from being developed. And in late August, state officials agreed to preserve an additional seven properties, totaling 20,000 acres. These landscapes that include forests, ranches, citrus groves, and pasturelands help provide habitat and space to roam for the state’s endangered species as well as help limit nutrient-heavy runoff.
The Good News
- Although islands only make up five percent of the Earth’s land mass, they account for 40% of the planet’s threatened vertebrates and almost two-thirds of all extinctions. Invasive species can be a major cause of the downfall of many species. After reviewing more than a century’s worth of efforts to eradicate invasive vertebrates on islands, scientists have found that such efforts work more than 80% of the time, which they deem a conservation success story.
Florida Research News
- A study by researchers at the Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute has connected Southwest Florida’s decline in water quality to septic systems in Lee County. The scientists worked in collaboration with the Lee County Department of Natural Resources to use molecular tracking tools to determine the sources of pollution. Results show that human waste contaminant sources remained consistent over time. According to the authors, this study is one of few to connect downstream harmful algal blooms with upstream septic systems.
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is deploying seven saildrones, or “robot surfboards” in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico to help scientists better understand the rapid intensification of hurricanes. Operated remotely by pilots, the machines will collect real-time data should a hurricane approach. This is the second year the saildrones are being used in the Atlantic, and the first time in the Gulf.
- A new study led by researchers at the University of Central Florida found that almost half of the genetic mutations found recently in Florida panthers originated from Texas pumas. The pumas were introduced into Florida in the 1990s as part of a “genetic rescue” to save Florida panthers from extinction. While Florida panther populations recovered at the time, scientists say the current populations need to be closely monitored should any of the genetic mutations present themselves physically.
- More than 800 people journeyed through the Everglades earlier this month in search of the invasive Burmese python during the weeklong annual Florida Python Challenge. While these hunters usually find the giant snakes along the road or on levees, scientists with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida have a secret weapon to lead them to pythons deeper in the wilderness: male pythons. During mating season, male pythons follow the scent of a female’s pheromones. The Conservancy currently has 40 tagged “scout” males to help lead them to females and their nests. Earlier this summer, a scout male led to the capture of the heaviest Burmese python ever captured in Florida. Brought here by the exotic pet trade, Burmese pythons prey on endangered native species.
- After the Clean Water Act of 1972 was passed, experts say Tampa Bay became a prime example of its success. But today, the outlook is much more bleak. Seagrass is in decline, manatees are dying in record numbers, and algal blooms have led to worsening fish kills. In recent years, Tampa Bay has been a victim of intense pollution events like last year’s leak at the former Piney Point phosphate mine which, according to the University of South Florida researchers, caused a year’s worth of nutrient pollution in just over 10 days. The bay also is threatened by worsening storms and flooding that can carry pollution and waste from septic tanks into waterways.
- A recent study from the University of South Florida has found that some viruses can be beneficial to aquatic plants. Little is known about these viruses, but new research has shown that some viruses can help improve drought tolerance. The study also found that healthy aquatic plants can contain many viruses, and that viruses can infect invertebrates that live on or near them. The team will continue their research thanks to a new National Science Foundation grant.
- The University of Florida Center for Coastal Solutions is partnering with the data analytics software company, SAS Institute, to develop a web-based platform that will help researchers explore, analyze and visualize water quality data collected in Charlotte Harbor. The hope is that the platform will help provide better insight into effective water quality management techniques.
- The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law earlier this month, includes $369 billion in funds for climate and energy-related programs, including subsidies for electric vehicles and home energy efficiency and solar energy tax credits. Proponents say the bill is a step in the right direction for climate action.
- A study conducted by The First Street Foundation found that as the climate warms, an extreme heat belt is expected to cover a geographic area from northern Louisiana and Texas to Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin by 2053. An extreme heat belt is defined as an area in which the heat index exceeds 125 degrees Fahrenheit for at least one day per year. The study also found that Miami-Dade County will see the sharpest increase in extreme heat days of any other U.S. county over the next 30 years.
- Vice President Kamala Harris announced during a visit to Miami in early August that the White House is making $1 billion in community grants available through the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program to address flooding and extreme heat caused by climate change. Last year, the city of Jacksonville and the South Florida Water Management District in Miami-Dade County received funds through the program.
- A research method used by scientists to study the long-term impacts of climate change is coming under criticism. Scientists with the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) are releasing sulfur hexafluoride, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, into national parks and forests to help measure how quickly gases can move from the water into the air. Researchers say measuring this is important because they hypothesize that inland rivers and streams could be an important source of carbon. Scientists with the study, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, say the environmental impact is minimal due to the small amount being released. However, opponents of the practice say that over the course of the 30-year study, the amount of gas emitted would be the equivalent of burning more than a million pounds of coal. The NSF says an evaluation is now underway to determine whether phasing out the use of the gas would impact the quality of the findings.
- The Southern pine beetle, a destructive pest that can infest all species of pine trees, poses a major threat to Florida’s lucrative pine tree industry. Adult beetles may fly up to two miles to infest new trees, and infested areas can range up to several thousand acres. When stressed, the trees emit a certain aroma that attracts female beetles. The best way to prevent infestation is to keep pine trees healthy with proper watering, fertilization, and maintenance to ensure a healthy root system. A challenge can be that heavy equipment is more likely to compact the soil and cause damage to the roots. Though chemical treatments are available, they are inadvisable on a large-scale tree farm due to both environmental concerns and costs.
- Researchers from the University of Hawaii have found that nearly 60% of known pathogens that make people sick have been exacerbated by increased temperatures due to climate change. Some ways diseases can be transmitted include flood waters and mosquito bites. According to Jonathan Patz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute the finding “just amplifies the key message that the climate crisis is a human health crisis.”