FLAMINGO, Florida (AP) – Grabbing a clump of vegetation to steady herself, Tiffany Troxler gingerly slides her feet along the makeshift boardwalk as she ventures out into the marsh. The boards sag, dipping her up to her knees in the tea-coloured water.
“This is the treacherous part,” the Florida International University researcher said. “The water levels are up.”
To a layman, this patch of brown-green saw grass and button mangrove deep inside Everglades National Park looks healthy enough, but Troxler knows trouble lurks just beneath the murky surface. She points to a clump of grass: Beneath the water line, the soil has retreated about a foot, leaving the root mass exposed. It is evidence that the thick mat of peat supporting this ecosystem is collapsing – and research suggests encroaching sea water is to blame.
“You can think about these soils as your bank account,” said Associate Director of FIU’s Sea Level Solutions Centre Troxler. “In the condition that this marsh is right now, the outlook is not good.”
Formed roughly 5,000 years ago, during a time of sea level rise, the Everglades once comprised an area twice the size of New Jersey.
“The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida,” journalist and activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas famously wrote in 1947. “It is a river of grass.”
But over the course of just the last century, about half of the Everglades’ original footprint has been lost – plowed under or paved over, never to be recovered, so long as South Florida’s eight million human inhabitants claim it for their homes, livelihoods and recreation.
The glades have been sapped by canals and dams that remapped the landscape and altered animal habitats, polluted by upstream agricultural areas, transformed by invasive species. And now, rising sea levels – this time, caused by man – threaten to undo what it took nature millennia to build.
What survives is not so much a natural ecosystem, but a remnant, heavily dependent on – and at the mercy of – a network of more than 2,100 miles of canals, 2,000 miles of levees and hundreds of floodgates, pump stations and other water-control structures.
What the Army Corps of Engineers calls a “highly managed system”, others have sardonically labelled a “Disney Everglades”.
Nearly two decades and USD4 billion into the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, an ambitious federal-state programme adopted in 2000, new data about the pace of climate change have called into question how much of the Everglades can ever be salvaged – and what that even means.
“I tend to think that everything can be saved,” said Fred Sklar of the South Florida Water Management District, which monitors and runs much of the Everglades’ infrastructure. “Restored is another question.”
“Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land,” President Harry S Truman said in a 1947 address dedicating Everglades National Park. “Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water, but as the last receiver of it. To its natural abundance we owe the spectacular plant and animal life that distinguishes this place from all others in our country.”
At the centre of it all was Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades’ 730-square-mile “liquid heart”.
Today, we understand that natural systems like the untouched Everglades provide enormous benefits – water filtration, nurseries for fish and other wildlife, protection from storm surges, even carbon sequestration. But to 19th-Century Floridians, all that water – and the mosquitos and reptiles it harboured – represented an impediment to progress.
And so when Florida became a state in 1845, one of the Legislature’s first acts was to pass a resolution asking Congress to survey the “wholly valueless” Everglades “with a view to their reclamation.”
Everglades National Park is home to a stunning array of wildlife.
There are more than 360 species of birds, including the great blue heron and the diminutive green variety, purple gallinules and roseate spoonbills, the white ibis and the black skimmer. It is said to be the only place in the world where freshwater alligators and saltwater crocodiles co-exist.
And then there are the non-native species that are throwing off nature’s balance.
On a blisteringly hot late-October morning, wildlife biologist Ian Bartoszek, who heads the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s snake research and removal programme, sloshes through a cypress swamp outside Naples.
Holding an H-shaped antenna aloft in his right hand, he listens as the signal from the device in his other hand steadily increases. “As the beeps get louder, the giant snake is getting closer,” he said.
Of all the invasive species plaguing the Everglades, the Burmese python is the most high-profile and, arguably, the most intractable. No one is quite sure how a giant snake native to Southeast Asia found its way into the wilds of South Florida in the late 1970s, although many believe the first were escaped – or released – pets. Estimates of their population run into the hundreds of thousands, and they are voracious.
In 2015, Bartoszek’s team captured a 31.5-pound female in the process of digesting a 35-pound fawn. In all, the conservancy and its research partners have documented the remains of 23 species of mammal and 43 species of birds in the pythons’ bellies.
Scientists suspect the python is responsible for the disappearance of up to 99 per cent of the marsh rabbits, raccoons and other small mammals in the national park.