Conserving the coast in the face of climate change

10/26/09 Matthew Cimitile
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A panel discussion addressing climate change’s impacts to Florida’s coastal ecosystems and strategies to adapt to warmer conditions and rising seas was hosted by the Audubon Society in St. Petersburg on Friday.

Though scientists have reached a consensus over the causes and likely effects of climate change, how to adapt to a warmer world remains fuzzy. That’s especially the case in areas where some of the greatest changes will occur, the coast. For many scientists and environmentalists at the “Dialogue on Climate Change and Coastal Conservation”, climate adaptation will require, more than anything, conservation.

The dialogue addressed how society can make sure Florida’s coast - faced with climate change - is adaptable for both people and wildlife.

Gordon Hamilton, a research associate professor in polar glaciology at the University of Maine, explained how recent rapid melting of the Arctic needs to be considered when estimating for sea-level rise.

“If you’re trying to plan and adapt for a sea level rise in the coming century, you shouldn’t be dealing with the IPCC estimates anymore, we should be looking at the most recent science. The most recent science from the polar regions is telling us that a rise of at least 1 m or 3.3 feet is by far the most realistic scenario to deal with.”

A panel discussion followed between scientists, resource managers and environmentalists about the consequences of climate change on coastal ecosystems and ways to adapt to a warmer world and changing coastline.

Michael Sole is Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “When you look at the models, we are going to see more severe wet weather conditions and more severe drought.”

Many coastal areas are likely to be inundated more frequently and some even permanently by rising seas. Powerful Atlantic hurricanes are strengthening due to increasing sea surface temperature. And average annual temperatures are expected to rise by 4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit in the coming century, according to the United States Global Climate Change Research Program’s 2009 report.

Desalinization plants and erection of sea walls have been proposed as solutions to the problems caused by climate change, but many on the panel cited conservation as the best strategy. David Moore is executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

“I think the nearest thing to a silver bullet at least a bronze bullet is conservation. If it’s our footprint causing the problem with sea level substantially, nothing works better, nothing less expensive, nothing more readily available than a strong conservation ethic. Here in Pinellas County, is using less portable water today than they did 30 years ago. They did that through right pricing signals, they did that through reclaimed water.”

But it will take communicating with the public on such important issues like climate change and coastal conservation to fully engage them in preserving valuable resources, said Ellen Prager, Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Aquarius Reef Base.

“We need to find ways to reach out to the mass public, to engage them in these issues and make them realize the ocean and the environment are critical to their lives. They need to not only play a role in finding the solutions but they need to support the politicians who are doing that. They need to invest in strategies. People have huge power and I think as a community we need to get them more engaged.”

Other adaptation strategies discussed included preserving coastal habitat for migration routes for wildlife and mangroves, addressing issues on a regional rather than local scale, and passing and funding environmental legislation that preserves land and sustainably manages resources.

On this last strategy, Florida state senator Paula Dockery closed out the discussion. She said in the last decade the Florida legislature passed sweeping conservation programs like the Rural and Family Lands bill, the Florida Forever Bill and Senate Bill 444 that provided $100 million for funding of alternative water supply, water reuse development and other water conservation measures.

“$100 million dollars in recurring funds. That would be matched by water management districts, local partners. Every dollar turned into $5 dollars. That $100 million turned into $500 million.”

But recent budget cuts have eliminated all or most of the funding for these programs.

“Cut, cut, cut, that $100 million down to $2 million dollars. When money gets tight in the state legislature what gets cut first, conservation. Priority number 1 is to get these good programs back on the book.”

The Dialogue held on Friday launched the Florida’s Audubon annual assembly that took place this past weekend.

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