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:
This page contains the following sections:
- Hurricane Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida on September 26 as a strong Category 4 storm. Officials have confirmed that the storm has killed at least 76 people in the state, with the search for survivors still ongoing. The wind and floodwaters left more than 2 million people without power and many under boil water notices. Hurricane Ian has been named one of the five worst hurricanes in America’s history, and scientists say the storm is part of a larger pattern of more intense storms fueled by climate change.
- For the past few years, large mats of sargassum seaweed have been washing up on Palm Beach County beaches with more frequency and in higher volumes than previously reported. While sargassum can be beneficial, too much can be a bad thing. Large blooms can block sunlight and kill the seagrass growing below. When the sargassum dies and decomposes, the decaying organic matter removes the oxygen from the water, which can cause fish kills. In Palm Beach County, nesting sea turtles and hatchlings have gotten smothered by the large mats of sargassum, prompting officials to consider both short and long-term solutions for cleanup.
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently proposed a new speed restriction on boats 35-65 feet in length to help prevent right whale collisions during calving season. Boat collisions are one of the top causes of death for this endangered species, and since right whales reproduce rarely, experts say each death pushes it closer to extinction. NOAA has extended its comment period on the proposal until October 31.
- A study by researchers at the University of Florida, along with the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, has found that nutrient-rich freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Gulf of Mexico over the past decade have been intensifying red tide blooms. This connection has long been under speculation by scientists and fishermen, but this is the first strong evidence in support of this theory.
- For the last several years, the Florida citrus industry has struggled with citrus greening, hurricane damage, increased labor costs, and competition from foreign imports. According to a report from the US. Department of Agriculture, these factors have contributed to an 8% fall in the acreage used for citrus production compared to last year, and a 53% decrease from the 2001-2002 season. This most recent citrus growing season may have been the least productive in eight decades. Of the 24 counties included in the report, only Brevard County showed an increase in acreage.
- In a state rife with natural hazards and claims fraud, property insurers are leaving the state in droves, requiring Floridians to find coverage elsewhere. This has led to a rapid increase in policies with Citizens Insurance, a state-backed insurance company that was developed in 2002 as a “company of last resort” for those who could not obtain coverage in the private market. Since 2020, Citizens has seen a nearly 50% increase in policyholders, and that number could double again by 2023. Insurance experts say that one bad hurricane could wipe out Citizens reserves to pay out claims. In most Florida counties, Citizens does not cover homes valued more than $700,000, but with rising property values and little competition in the private insurance market, state regulators are looking to raise that cap in certain places. Hurricane Ian made landfall as a Category 4 storm on September 26 and some insurance analysts predict most of the damage will be from flood waters. This would place most of the financial burden on the National Flood Insurance Program, and on individual property owners, rather than on Florida insurers.
- A study by researchers with Climate Central found that in U.S. coastal counties, rising sea levels are projected to significantly shift private property boundaries, which will result in a loss of tax revenue in some places. Over 140,000 properties in Florida will be impacted by 2050, more than any other state. Experts say the need to spend public dollars on flood prevention and mitigation exacerbates the loss in tax revenue. The Tampa Bay area is expected to take the biggest hit, with a tax revenue loss of $2.19 billion.
- Florida provides 100% of the nation’s spiny lobster landings, making it one of the state’s most valuable fisheries. But as housing prices are on the rise in Key West, the Florida Keys spiny lobster industry is experiencing a labor shortage. Crew members looking to avoid increasing prices in Key West now have to commute from cities up to two hours away. As boats struggle to gather a full staff, an influx of younger fishermen is raising concerns around experience and knowledge. Additionally, Florida harvesters may soon have to compete with fishermen in North Carolina as they look to develop a commercial spiny lobster industry in their region.
- Like many waterways in Florida, Miami’s picturesque Biscayne Bay has experienced water quality issues in recent years due to nutrient pollution. The Biscayne Bay Watershed Management Advisory Board is developing what it calls a reasonable assurance plan to reduce bay nutrient pollution in an area where fish kills, algae blooms, and seagrass die-offs are common. This plan includes initiatives to improve education and infrastructure, implement a fertilizer ordinance and launch an initiative called Plastic Free 305 to recognize businesses committed to reducing single-use plastics.
- The White House is making $71.5 million available for Florida’s Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Deployment Plan. The money will fund the state’s initiative to establish a network of 6,772 charging ports along its highways. In a prepared statement, the U.S. Secretary of Energy outlined the importance of making electric vehicle charging accessible to all and lowering dependence on fossil fuels like oil and gas that drive climate change.
- Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials are considering a rule that would establish a seasonal no-entry zone in some Brevard County waters. The no entry-zone would prohibit watercraft and human recreation in the waters near the Florida Power and Light Cape Canaveral Energy Center, a popular wintering spot for manatees, from Nov. 15 to March 31 each year. Officials hope this move will add an extra layer of protection for Florida’s manatees after recent record die-offs.
- The U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers of Florida wants the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to approve a new proposal that would legalize captive commercial breeding of the diamondback terrapin. Though none of the seven subspecies of the turtle in Florida are endangered, all are designated by the state as Species of Greatest Conservation Need, and three are endemic to Florida. The proposal has sparked controversy over potential ramifications it may have on terrapin poaching. An FWC report states that because of the high domestic and global demand for terrapins, poaching could increase with legalization. But a spokesperson for the Reptile Keepers association says this could actually help the problem, as profits from selling the turtles are high due to their artificially inflated value.
The Good News
- Brevard County commissioners recently approved 10 grants totaling nearly $1 million to support restoration projects in the ailing Indian River Lagoon. The lagoon is known as one of the most diverse estuaries in North America, but it has suffered from degraded water quality and has lost 58% of its seagrass in the last decade. Projects will work to restore important seagrass, oyster, and mangrove habitats, which are vital to improving water quality and maintaining equilibrium in the lagoon.
- After an emergency effort by wildlife agencies to breed Florida grasshopper sparrows in captivity, the near-extinct species has rebounded. After being released into the wild, the captive-raised birds mated with their wild counterparts and successfully produced offspring. Prior to the release, there were fewer than 80 Florida grasshopper sparrows in the wild. Now, officials estimate there are more than 120 individuals. Known as the continent’s most imperiled bird, the Florida grasshopper sparrow — or its absence — is a good indicator of the health of the overall ecosystem.
- From 1937 – 1959, the Atala butterfly was thought to be extinct. Though still rare, today it is making a comeback. The butterfly can increasingly be found in gardens and landscapes that house its host plant, the coontie. According to a Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Native Landscapes & Garden Center staff member, the coontie can be grown easily and does well in full sun or shade, even in sandy soil.
Florida Research News
- A researcher from Florida International University has received a $1.35 million National Science Foundation Grant to send robots deep into the sea to study the mysterious shrimp that call the ocean’s underwater volcanoes home. Discovered in the 1980s, researchers still have a lot of questions surrounding these shrimps, including whether they are blind. Scientists say that a better understanding of this shrimp’s vision could serve as a model for low-light camera systems, similar to how x-ray telescopes were inspired by lobster eyes.
- A study led by a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Florida has found that over the past 20 years, lakes across the pan-Arctic – a region spanning the northern parts of Canada, Russia, Greenland, Scandinavia, and Alaska – have shrunk or completely dried up. This finding has surprised researchers, who thought melting ground ice would initially expand lakes across the region. The study author says this finding suggests that permafrost, the frozen soil that covers the land, is thawing more quickly than anticipated, which is leading to the draining of the lakes.
- Researchers at the University of South Florida received a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop equitable and easily replicable nature-based solutions to coastal hazards. The researchers will focus on the Biscayne Bay region in Miami due to its susceptibility to storm surge and sea level rise as well as it being home to coral reef and mangrove habitats.
- Florida is home to nearly 70,000 stormwater ponds that help capture stormwater runoff and prevent flooding. These ponds are engineered in a way that makes them overflow into a chain of consecutive ponds. The goal is for each pond to clean the water a bit more before the water ends up in a natural waterway. Researchers from the University of Florida have been granted $1.6 million from the National Science Foundation to study how homeowners interact with stormwater ponds and how these interactions might impact water quality. The researchers will collect data from two communities in Manatee and St. Lucie counties, with the hope that their findings can be applied to other regions of the country.
- A Florida State University study has found that forest canopy temperatures are higher than previously estimated, which could impact the roles forests play in mitigating climate change. Scientists had theorized that by giving off vapor, tree leaves are able to self-cool in high air temperatures. But this study shows that this is not happening. At the right temperature, leaves capture climate-aggravating carbon from the atmosphere. But, with rising temperatures, trees won’t be able to cool as much as previously thought, meaning they may sequester less carbon from the atmosphere.
- Shellfish populations have been on a steady decline due to pollution, overharvesting, and changing ocean conditions. A recent study by marine biologists at the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory conducted an inventory of multiple oyster restoration projects across the Gulf of Mexico. The study found that taller reefs proved to be more durable and provided better habitat for the oysters. The study also showed that projects that relied on computer models to evaluate environmental conditions had a higher success rate. Results of the study will help inform Gulf of Mexico leaders as they plan to spend more than $4 million on projects to rebuild oyster reefs in Florida and Louisiana.
- The University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science conducted a study to explore whether artificially cooling the ocean could lead to less severe hurricanes. The goal of the study was to investigate how much cooler surface water would need to be to cause changes in hurricane intensity. Results of the study show that massive amounts of cooler water would be needed to achieve just a modest decrease in intensification, and the technology to cool that much water remains to be seen. A hurricane’s constantly changing path adds to this challenge.
- The Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation is helping the state better plan for floods through improved forecasting. In the near term, the Flood Hub will work closely with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as it conducts its statewide vulnerability assessment and provides data to counties and municipalities to inform their planning efforts. Longer-term goals include engaging citizens through community-based monitoring programs, offering workforce development opportunities, and developing data visualization tools to better depict the impact of climate-related hazards.
- A study by researchers at Florida State University estimates that sugarcane burning in South Florida emits particles associated with asthma and lung cancer at quantities comparable to motor vehicles. Many sugarcane farmers conduct pre-harvest burns to clear out dead leaf matter ahead of harvest. The ash that results is known by some as “black snow.” Residents living next to sugar cane fields have a mortality rate of almost 10 times higher than those outside the area. The authors of the study highlight that green harvesting techniques could reduce mortality resulting from the air pollution, but growers worry about how the change could affect profits and crop yields.
- Publicly available data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency showing that hundreds of thousands of Americans have dropped their flood insurance policies in recent months has been removed from the agency’s website. The agency said reporting inaccuracies were the reason for the removal, though it did acknowledge that the National Flood Insurance Program has seen a drop in policyholders. According to E&E news, the drop began when FEMA launched a broad restructuring program, known as Risk 2.0, which was aimed at providing a more precise picture of flood risk. The program resulted in rate hikes for some property owners and decreases for others. The data that was removed is regularly used by researchers, journalists, and lawmakers. According to the FEMA website, the data should be made available again in the coming weeks.
- Although heat waves get more frequent and intense with climate change, disaster experts say the country’s heat warning system does not capture the full extent of the dangers of excessive heat waves. New research shows that the heat index may be underestimating the effect of high temperatures on the human body. Since it only captures what temperatures feel like in the shade, the heat index isn’t applicable to individuals who spend prolonged periods of time in direct sunlight.
- The U.S Environmental Protection Agency wants to tackle PFAS chemicals using its Superfund authority. Otherwise known as “forever chemicals,” these highly stable manmade chemicals do not naturally degrade, causing them to accumulate in the environment and in living organisms. The chemicals have been linked to infertility, thyroid problems, and certain types of cancer. The EPA has moved to designate the two most common toxic forever chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund Act, a move the agency says would increase transparency around these chemicals and hold polluters responsible for cleanup. If successful, companies would be prompted to clean up PFAS-contaminated sites nationwide, including military bases where the highest levels of contamination have been found.
- The Biden administration plans to add an emerging technology – deep-water offshore wind energy – to its mix of renewable energy resources. According to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, offshore wind energy could reach double the existing U.S. electricity demand. $50 million has been allocated to the Department of Energy for the project. Currently, areas off the coast of Oregon and California and in the Gulf of Maine on the East Coast are being targeted for implementation.
- A study by researchers at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Würzburg in Germany estimates that for every human on Earth, there are estimated to be about 2.5 million ants. This means that the total mass of ants exceeds that of all birds and mammals combined. Even as small creatures, ants play a vital role in the ecosystem by serving as both predators and prey, spreading plant seeds, and speeding up decomposition. The study authors say although the number of estimated ants on Earth is large – 20 quadrillion – their populations are in peril due to climate change, invasive species, and habitat loss.
- A new online atlas of bird migration draws from several sets of scientific and community data to illustrate the migration routes of about 450 bird species in the Americas. The bird migration explorer mapping tool is an ongoing collaboration between 11 groups that collect and analyze bird movement data. The tool, free to the public, will help track bird movements and patterns as populations decline due to habitat loss and climate change.
- When a side effect of global warming is considered irreversible, scientists call it a “climate tipping point.” A study of 16 tipping points by an international team of scientists determined that four of them may be unavoidable. Should the Earth’s temperature increase by only three-tenths of a degree Celsius, Earth is likely to experience effects including a more immediate loss of tropical coral reefs and the irreversible collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. The outlook is bleak, but according to climate scientist Zeke Hausfather, “not world ending.” There is still time for steps to be taken that could help to mitigate these effects and prevent further tipping points.
- In 2010, the Gulf of Mexico was inundated with nearly 200 million gallons of oil following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Twelve years later, bottlenose dolphins are still feeling the effects. Scientists have found that only one-fifth of dolphin pregnancies are successful in the affected population, compared to a two-thirds success rate in healthy dolphin populations. This could be a result of weakened lungs, immune systems, and stress responses.
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