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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

April 22, 2009

By Jim Robbins

Illustration by Tim O’Brien

When NOAA published its latest climate change research in January, it might have been tempting to file it away as just another dire prediction. The researchers found that, if CO2 emissions continue to rise throughout this century, the consequences will include dramatic increases in sea level, diminished drinking-water supplies, and conditions that rival those of the 1930s Dust Bowl. These days, it’s easy for findings like these to get lost in the seemingly constant stream of grim forecasts, but it would be a mistake to overlook how one of the paper’s key conclusions encapsulates a profound challenge to the environmental community.

The researchers found that, even if global emissions were halted at century’s end, the CO2 concentrations would lock in rising sea levels (among other things) for at least a thousand years. This poses a stark question to conservationists and environmentalists, who have stubbornly argued that reducing emissions is the only appropriate response to climate change—adapting to a changing planet has been seen as tantamount as surrender. But like it or not, the NOAA study underscores that the world is irrevocably changing. The question is, can environmental thinking change along with it?

Although it’s too early to know the answer, some conservationists are starting to accept that it’s time to stop resisting and start adapting. It’s a controversial view, in part because putting adaptation into practice means abandoning long-standing conservation projects in favor of forward-thinking strategies that may or may not work. One of the first places this philosophical shift is playing out is in Florida, where, in an illustration of dilemmas the entire world may soon face, sea-level rise is expected to strike early and often.

Even the most conservative climate models predict sea levels will rise one meter by 2100, which would swamp Florida’s barrier islands and much of its southern tip. A three-meter rise would put much of South Florida, including Miami and Fort Lauderdale, under water. Either scenario means rising waters will force the rapid displacement of people living along Florida’s coast, not to mention many of the state’s endemic species. Similar changes will be seen worldwide; rising waters will likely force millions of people to move inland while inundating millions of hectares of wetlands, islands, and coastal marshes. If current projections are to be believed, this will happen not in some distant future but within a human generation.

That has led Reed Noss, a Central Florida University professor, to position himself at the leading edge of the shift away from traditional conservation. Noss and his colleague, Tom Hoctor, have started sketching out a large-scale plan to preserve much of Florida’s biodiversity, even in the face of massive population shifts. In what he dubs “managed retreat” from the sea, Noss is calling for the surrender of coastal zones to the ocean, for the preservation of areas that would provide habitat to species once they’ve fled inland, and for the development of new property easements based not on where people live today but on where they will live once climate change reworks the landscape.

Such innovative proposals deliver an early glimpse of not only what adaptation strategies might look like but also of the painful tradeoffs that will accompany them. Noss’s ideas, for instance, run headlong into a multibillion-dollar plan to restore the Everglades, even though a huge swath of the swampy land could soon be under water.

On a geologic time scale, sea-level rise is not a new phenomenon, and species have retreated and adapted in the past. The problem this time around, Noss says, is that the rise will happen so fast that plants and animals will not have time to adapt on their own and will have their migrations blocked by roads, buildings, and other human barriers. Further complicating matters, the species that do make it inland will face intense competition for habitat as humans also back away from the coasts. A one-meter sea- level rise would displace almost half of Florida’s population, sending nearly 8 million people dashing to higher ground.

It would also swamp roughly 20 percent of the state’s conservation lands and inundate the habitat at least 26 animal species, placing many of them in danger of extinction. Other species would be forced into a shrinking footprint; the Florida panther, for example, would lose about 23 percent of its habitat. In anticipation of this upheaval, Noss’s plan calls for government and nonprofit agencies to spend the next five to ten years buying upland habitat, where species can find a safe home, and establishing corridors between those reserves and the coasts. He and other researchers have already identified high spots in south Florida and other areas likely to be inundated. Given the state’s low elevation, “there won’t be many of these places,” says Hoctor, of the University of Florida, “but they are the future Florida Keys.”

This is where Noss and Hoctor’s plan rests on another controversial strategy: assisted migration. Unable to move themselves, many species would need to be picked up by people and carried to higher ground. Trapping and moving animals happens all the time; Florida biologists, for example, have been capturing the Key Largo woodrat to breed in captivity. What sets Noss’s plan apart is scale—thousands of animals across a myriad of species would have to be translocated.

Of course, humans will also be on the move, and when push comes to shove, people whose homes are submerged may not have much sympathy for the Atlantic salt marsh snake and other dislodged species. The only way to ensure an orderly retreat, Noss believes, is to plan for this exodus in advance, then slowly execute it over the next 50 to 100 years. That’s where “rolling easements” come in. These would maintain public ownership of the coast and stop property owners from building new seawalls. As the water rolls in and populations move inland, this measure would ensure that a band of coastal ecosystems and habitat remain between human populations and the water’s edge.

Bill Stanley, a climate change expert at The Nature Conservancy, believes radical approaches like Noss’s are exactly what conservationists need to take when the ground could literally be shifting beneath their feet. “If we don’t adapt,” Stanley says, “we’ll be in a heap of trouble.”

There are, to say the least, formidable hurdles to such a plan, the biggest of which may be scientific uncertainty. Despite scientists’ reliance on computer models, it’s simply impossible for those models to factor in enough variables to be completely reliable. For example, a recent paper in Science details how current sea-level projections may be off-base because they don’t factor in the gravitational pull of the ice sheets. In other words, no one knows exactly which lands will be flooded or when those floods will occur. It’s equally difficult to predict how species will fare once they’ve been moved to their new homes; they could get gobbled up by current residents upset at their arrival or run rampant over established species.

And then there’s politics. Many people still don’t accept the reality of global warming, let alone the need for a plan to abandon the coasts and start moving wildlife. Coupled with the uncertainty of predictions, it’s a tall order to expect government to commit the vast funding needed to kick-start comprehensive adaptation planning.

Making matters worse, investing billions of dollars in future-minded adaptation plans means forgoing present-day conservation projects, some of which represent decades of planning. One of the biggest projects is taking place in Noss’s backyard, where a multibillion-dollar restoration of the Everglades is already under way.

There’s a simple sign marking a high point in Everglades National Park. It reads “Rock Reef Pass—3 feet.” It’s not meant to be chilling, but given sea-level projections, it’s a reminder of the bleak future the park could face, says Superintendent Dan Kimball.

Kimball is an apt administrator for the Everglades—his professional life has been all about water. A hydrologist and former head of the National Park Service’s Water Resources Division, he has spent years working to protect water resources. In his current position, he is one of the leading advocates of restoring the park. As such, he stands at the crossroads of what could be one of the early litmus tests of conservationists’ willingness to adapt to a changing planet.

Restoring the 600,000 square-kilometer Everglades National Park has been the dream of biologists, Native Americans, state officials, and conservationists in Florida for decades. Once an incredibly fertile freshwater ecosystem covering roughly 2,850 hectares, it was nourished by a sheet of flowing water emanating from the swamps upstream. Those were drained in the early 1900s, creating Miami, Fort Lauderdale and, for the Everglades, an ecological tragedy. Deprived of their freshwater lifeline, roughly 90 percent of the egrets, ibises, and other wading birds that once populated the area have disappeared while 69 other species, including the Florida panther, are listed as threatened or endangered by the state and federal government.

After years of lobbying and battling, Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, embarking on what amounts to the largest ecological restoration in the history of the world. The heart of the project is to restore the flow of fresh water and rebuild the complex set of ecosystems that include cypress swamps, sawgrass marshes, and mangrove forests. That would return natural habitat for imperiled species, for a hefty price.

The project is expected to cost upwards of $15 billion and take 35 years. It will cover 45,000 square kilometers and create 180 square kilometers of man-made marshes. It will also build a vast freshwater-distribution system: 300 new wells will store the water, which will then be released at a rate of 5.7 billion liters per day to mimic nature’s freshwater flow. The plan, however, has a major wrinkle: much of the 160-kilometer-long, 80-kilometer-wide Everglades is less than three feet above sea level, which means most of the expensive restoration could soon lie beneath the ocean. This has kicked off a debate about whether the Everglades money could be better spent preparing for the future. Instead of spending vast sums on helping species survive within the park’s boundaries, “We need to facilitate species movement out of the Everglades,” Noss says. “It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars . . . when it’s going to be inundated.”

However, in a position that highlights the scientific uncertainties surrounding adaptation, Kimball and others believe restoring the Everglades could actually help thwart sea-level rise, in part because it would strengthen the “freshwater head,” or flow of water that pushes back against the ocean, keeping saltwater from rising into the park. “The best thing we can do to stave off climate change is do everything we can to restore a natural landscape,” says Kimball.

His opinions are backed by the National Research Council. Every two years the Everglades Committee on Independent Scientific Review, an NRC research group, takes a fresh look at the restoration issue. Their conclusion last September was that the uncertainty surrounding sea-level rise actually makes restoration more important.

Virginia Burkett, Chief Scientist for Global Change Research for the USGS agrees. She believes that “eliminating other stressors that would increase resiliency is a win-win situation.” While she doesn’t disagree with Noss, she stresses the situation’s uncertainty, leaving her in the unlikely position of an environmental advocate who thinks current climate projections might be overblown. “We’re not sure we’re going to see three feet of sea-level rise in the next century,” she says. The best thing to do is monitor, she says, and change plans only if sea-level rise accelerates.

The Everglades controversy is a sign of what’s to come as adaptation goes mainstream. In the U.S. and abroad, conservationists are zeroing in on new adaptation strategies that, like those advocated by Noss, depart from traditional approaches for both development and conservation. In the process, they’re delivering an early look at a paradigm that includes a dramatic willingness to re-engineer some ecosystems in order to save others.

From a human development standpoint, the conventional strategy used to combat sea-level rise has been coastal hardening—building sea walls, nourishing or expanding beaches, and creating a solid, static shoreline. In the U.K., officials are abandoning that strategy and methodically preparing to surrender parts of the coastline to the sea. Much of the U.K. coast is lined with grazing marshes created long ago, when estuaries were drained to make more room for agriculture. Those grazing lands will become more and more difficult to protect as sea levels rise, leading planners to divide the entire coast of Britain and Wales into 40 sub-cells. These planners are now deciding which parts of the coast to protect with seawalls and which to surrender, thereby allowing the land to return to salt marsh. The sea has already been allowed to reclaim some small areas, including Cley, a top birding area. “If the land behind the dikes is not valuable, they’ll let [the dikes] fail,” said R.J. Nicholls, professor of coastal engineering at the University of Southampton.

On the conservation front, a more expansive effort is getting under way in North Carolina, where expectations that sea-level rise will gradually obliterate the Outer Banks are leading The Nature Conservancy to consider the sort of intervention that has long been anathema to environmental conversation. Right now, the Outer Banks protect the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds from intense waves and storm surges, allowing them to flourish as one of the world’s largest and healthiest estuaries. If that shelter disappears, it will jeopardize critical habitats for 300 species of plants and 200 species of animals, including the threatened red wolf. To replace this protective function, Conservancy teams are taking the first steps toward what could become an audacious attempt to re-engineer huge sections of the Carolina coastline.

They are using concrete and oyster shells to construct a network of artificial reefs. The project is small-scale right now, but the Environmental Defense Fund’s Sam Pearsall, who helped plan the reefs when he was director of science at TNC’s North Carolina chapter, says the number of planned reefs needs to be increased as soon as possible. He envisions hundreds of reefs offshore, as well as planting thousands of hectares of bald cypress and establishing salt marshes along the coast “so these areas can make the transition from above-water to below-water.”

It’s all a step, Pearsall hopes, toward helping natural systems adapt to radical change. But the gulf between him and traditional conservationists remains large—many environmentalists are slow to come around, even though time is short. “I brought up the subject at one meeting, and it was like bringing up Satanism,” Pearsall says. “They did not want to talk about it.” ❧

Illustration by Tim O’Brien

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