Ospreys, or fish hawks, build their nests from sticks atop dead trees. Photo credit: UF IFAS Extension
Big hurricanes like Dorian (Bahamas) and 2018’s Michael (central Florida Panhandle) were devastating to the communities they landed in. Flooding, wind, rain, loss of power and communications eventually made way for ad hoc clearing and cleanup, temporary shelters, and a slow walk to recovery. Among the most striking visual impacts of a hurricane are the tree losses, as there are unnatural openings in the canopy and light suddenly shines on areas that had been shaded for years. In northwest Florida, pines are particularly vulnerable. After any hurricane in the Panhandle, you can drive down Interstate 10 for miles and see endless pines blown to the ground or broken off at the top. During Hurricane Ivan 15 years ago, the coastal areas in Escambia and Santa Rosa lost thousands of trees not only due to wind, but also to tree roots inundated by saltwater for long periods.
Dead trees left by hurricanes serve as ideal nesting ground for large birds like ospreys. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Nature always finds a way, though. Because of all those dead (but still-standing) pines, our osprey (Pandion haliaetus) population is in great shape in the Pensacola area. How are these two things related? Well, ospreys build large stick nests in the tall branches/crooks of dead trees, known as snags. They particularly prefer those near the water bodies where they fish. When I first moved here 20 years ago, I rarely saw ospreys. Now, it’s uncommon not to see them near the bayous and bays, or to hear their high-pitched calls as they swoop and dive for fish.
If you are not familiar with ospreys, they can be distinguished by their call and their size (up to six foot wingspan). It is common to see them in their large nests atop those snags, flying, or diving for fish. I usually see them with mullet in their talons, although they also prey on catfish, spotted trout, and other smaller species. They have white underbellies, brown backs, and are smaller than eagles but larger than your average hawk. One of their more interesting physical adaptations (and identifying characteristics) is their ability to grip fish parallel to their bodies, making it more aerodynamic than the perpendicular method most birds use.
Ospreys mate for life, and cooperate to build nests and care for young. The species has overcome many complex threats—including DDT damage to eggs and habitat loss—but the sight of them flying is always inspiring to me. They are a living embodiment of resilience amidst adversity.
The indigenous people of Alaska have long adapted to freezing winters by relying on local wildlife for warm clothing. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Human beings are an incredibly adaptable species. For countless generations, our ancestors have migrated to the far reaches of the planet to find food and territory. The Inuit people of Alaska adapted to months of freezing weather and darkness by developing techniques for harvesting fish through the ice and making furs from local wildlife. Meanwhile in the remote Andaman Islands, tribal people still subsist on fruit from the prolific rain forest and spearfishing in the Bay of Bengal.
Wildlife have behaved similarly throughout history. Before much of the United States was developed and crisscrossed with roads, large herds of bison grazed the entire mid and mountain west. Until the mid 1960’s, the upper Midwest and east coast experienced a tree-based squirrel migration of millions. Overhunting also impacted both of these species. According to the National Wildlife Foundation, monarch butterflies migrating for the winter from the United States to Mexico were down 15% last year due to hurricanes, warmer fall temperatures, and a lack of food sources along their routes. Overall, monarch numbers are down 90% from a peak population 20 years ago.
Worldwide, mangrove trees are moving from warmer climates into temperate habitats as climate changes. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Recent changes in climate are also becoming a factor for human and wildlife behavior. I find myself “migrating” into the air conditioning more often in these dog days of August as 110°+ heat indices bear down. The European heat wave this summer resulted in record-breaking temperatures and at least 8 deaths. Many European countries have never needed air conditioning, so homes, public transportation, and vehicles provide no relief from the sweltering heat. Wildlife, by contrast, cannot move indoors. As the planet warms, some wildlife living in temperate regions may move because their homelands slowly turn subtropical. When this happens, history shows us that humans either “persecute, protect, or ignore” new species, which may result in great success or the downfall of species seeking new habitat. In addition, biologists have been observing and expecting many tropical species of plants and animals to expand into new, warmer territories, as formerly cold climates heat up and become more suitable for particular species to thrive. Mangroves, for example, are migrating beyond the equator worldwide, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Arctic report card has shown that the melting of polar ice caps has literally broken up polar bear habitat, along with reducing populations of grazing herds of caribou and reindeer.
Keep in mind that neither one hot summer nor one cold winter define the pace of climate change. The issue at hand is the long-term change. We find ourselves, in August 2019, having just experienced the hottest July (globally) on record since worldwide recordkeeping began in 1880. Some may see this as a fluke, until we consider that NOAA and NASA data show that 17 of the 18 warmest years have occurred since 2001. The patterns are changing—and as always, we humans must adapt. It is important that our adaptation includes mitigation measures, which can range from reducing energy use to planting more trees. To learn more about changes in worldwide climate and what you can do to make a difference, visit the NOAA site https://www.climate.gov/
Aluminum shutters are one of the many preventative measures panhandle homeowners can include in their hurricane preparedness.
Photo: Carrie Stevenson
Hurricane Season in the Gulf and Atlantic begins June 1. For those of us who have lived in hurricane territory for some time, we all have our war stories of days without electricity and water, of being stuck in evacuation traffic, and of neighborhood camaraderie in the aftermath. Whether a newcomer or a native, it is always important to plan ahead and not be complacent about storm readiness. The last few summers have borne out the climate predictions of stronger storms, with many of our neighbors still struggling to dig out of the immense damage done by Category 5 Hurricane Michael last fall.
In this article, I will be paraphrasing a section from the well-done Homeowners Handbook to Prepare for Natural Hazards. A new version of this guide will be coming out soon, but I highly recommend the handbook (hard copies available at many Extension offices) for anyone living in Florida.
Tip #1: Gather your emergency supplies. Do this sooner than later—when a storm is in the Gulf with a trajectory towards your city is not the time to go shopping. Lines will be long, people will be stressed, and shelves will start to empty. Gather emergency supplies like water, canned goods, batteries, and flashlights (full list here) now, and restock monthly throughout the summer and fall.
Tip #2: Create a separate evacuation plan for natural events, such as hurricanes/tropical storms, tornadoes, floods, and wildfires. Northwest Florida is prone to all of these natural phenomena, and the plan required for each is different. For a tornado or tropical storm you will most likely shelter in place (unless your home is not secure in this situation), while fires, flooding, and strong hurricanes may require securing your home and leaving town.
Tip #3: Know you property and take appropriate action. Look at your location—if the land floods during a rain, consider flood insurance. If trees overhang your house, consider trimming or cutting branches that might damage your house in a storm. If the property has a high structural profile, it could be especially susceptible to wind damage in a hurricane.
Tip #4: Know your house and take appropriate action. When was your house built? Does it have connectors to tie the roof to the wall or the wall to the foundation? When will you need to reroof? Look at your blueprints—if you don’t have a copy, your homebuilder or local building department may have copies.
Tip #5: Strengthen your house. A house built after the early to mid-1990’s should have hurricane clips tying the roof to the wall and strong connectors from the wall to the foundation. If your house was built before then, you can still retrofit at a reasonable cost. Wind-rated garage doors, precut shutters, and replacing windows with impact-resistant glass can all protect your home. In the western Panhandle, 75% of retrofit costs can be covered through the Rebuild Northwest Florida wind mitigation program.
Tip #6: Utilize the State of Florida’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. This program can be used for a number of home improvements, including construction of a safe room for tornado shelter.
Tip #7: Insurance. Don’t gamble with your house. Obtain adequate wind, flood, and home insurance. Remember—if there is a hurricane in the Gulf, insurance companies will not issue windstorm policies.
Tip #8: Take advantage of potential discounts for your hurricane insurance premiums. Coverage may vary among insurance companies, so call you insurance agent to find out about discounts that may be available. Significant discounts may be provided for reducing the risk to your house with window protection, roof-to-wall tie downs, and wall-to-foundation tie downs.
Tip #9: Finance creatively. Consider efforts to strengthen your house as an important home improvement project. Most projects are not that expensive. For the most costly ones, a small home improvement loan and potential discounts from hurricane insurance premiums may make these projects within reach. It is a great investment to strengthen your house and provide more protection to your family.
Tip #10: Seek the assistance of a qualified, license architect, structural engineer, or contractor. There are some improvements that can be done yourself, but if you cannot do the work, seek qualified assistance through trusted references from friends and family and professional associations.
For more information, reach out to your county Emergency Management department or visit these IFAS Extension Hurricane Preparedness and Recovery resources.
Large trees can cause serious damage in a storm, but it is important to salvage as many as surviving trees as possible. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson
It has been more than two weeks since devastating Hurricane Michael landed hard on the coast of Florida. Central-Panhandle counties from the Gulf to the Alabama line are in full recovery mode, struggling to return to normal after many days without power and clean water. A strong category 4 hurricane, Michael brought sustained winds of 155 mph, with gusts likely much higher—many instruments that measured wind speed failed and blew away with the onslaught of the storm.
Unfortunately, with winds this strong, trees of every shape and description blew down, bringing with them serious damage to homes, vehicles, and power lines. In the immediate aftermath of a storm, it is important to perform “tree triage” using the same method as emergency room personnel as they decide which patients to treat first, based on urgency.
Hazard trees causing or leading to unsafe conditions should be given priority. These would be limbs and trunks on top of houses, power lines, blocking roads, or leaning in precarious situations that could blow down on people or property. Once roads are cleared and dangerous trees and limbs are removed, homeowners can move their attention to downed trees that are lying out of harm’s way or leaning away from property.
It is important to remember that many injuries from hurricanes happen after a storm—often when physically and emotionally exhausted storm victims are using heavy machinery at elevated heights. Always be willing to ask for help, whether from volunteers, neighbors, or landscape professionals. Use proper safety precautions when utilizing chainsaws, ladders, tractors, and other machinery.
On a more positive note, many trees can be salvaged after a storm. In particular, younger, newly planted trees can often be righted or pruned and still grow to maturity. Don’t fall into the trap of clearing every tree from your property—healthy or not—out of fear. Trees are extraordinarily valuable, and particularly with all of the tree loss it is more important than ever to save as many trees as you can. These trees will provide much-needed shade, oxygen, air and stormwater filtration, and wildlife habitat. Learn the names of your trees that survived or had less damage, and plant more of those after recovery. Many long-lived species like magnolia, live oak, and cypress can weather storms better than other species.
It is important to continue monitoring any surviving trees for damage. Many trees, particularly pines, can be susceptible to disease, insect damage, and fungus after a storm and it may be several months before the damage is fully evident. After Hurricane Ivan, many pine forests and individual trees that survived the storm were lost to pine bark beetles within the following year.
For detailed information on tree assessment and making wise decisions, the IFAS Trees and Hurricanes publication has great photos and examples. Be sure to check it out and contact your local county Extension office if you have questions.
Local estuaries are a beautiful place to explore with your family. Credit: Matthew Deitch, UF IFAS Extension
Florida’s rivers, springs, wetlands, and estuaries are central features to the identity of northwest Florida. They provide a wide range of services that benefit peoples’ health and well-being in our region. They create recreational opportunities for swimmers, canoers, and kayakers; support diverse wildlife for birders and plant enthusiasts; sustain a vibrant commercial and recreational fishery and shellfishery; serve as corridors for shipping and transportation; and support ecosystems that help to improve water quality. Maintaining these aquatic ecosystem services requires a low level of chemical inputs from the upstream areas that comprise their watersheds.
Aquatic ecosystems are especially sensitive to nitrogen and phosphorus, which are key nutrients for the growth of plants, algae, and bacteria that live in these waters. High levels of these nutrients combined with our sunny weather and warm summer temperatures create conditions that can lead to rapid growth of aquatic plants and algae, which can cover these water bodies and make them no longer enjoyable for people and wildlife. It can also cause dissolved oxygen levels to fall, as plants respire (especially at night, when they are not photosynthesizing) and as bacteria consume oxygen to break down dead plant material. Low dissolved oxygen can create conditions that are deadly for fish and shellfish.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) lists more than 1,400 water bodies (including rivers, springs, wetlands, and estuaries) as impaired by pollutants. Many of these are impaired by excessive nitrogen or phosphorus. It is a daunting challenge to reduce pollutants in these water bodies because their inputs frequently come from all over the landscape, rather than a specific point—nutrients can come from agricultural fields, residential landscapes, septic tanks, atmospheric deposition, and livestock throughout the watershed.
In Florida, FDEP has begun a program to reduce nutrient concentrations in impaired watersheds by collaborating with landowners and other stakeholders to develop management programs to reduce pollutants entering the state’s waters. This pollutant reduction program is currently focused on Florida’s spring systems, including Jackson Blue Spring and Merritt’s Mill Pond in Jackson County. Merritt’s Mill Pond is a 4-mile long, 270-acre pond located near Marianna, and it is a popular regional destination for swimming, boating, kayaking, and fishing in the Panhandle. Its main source is Jackson Blue Spring, which produces, on average, more than 70 million gallons of water each day. Excessive growth of aquatic plants and algae in the pond during summer reduces the area available for swimming and boating. In 2014, FDEP began working with agricultural producers, residents, developers, local government officials, and other stakeholders to identify nutrient contributions in the Merritt’s Mill Pond watershed and develop an action plan to reduce nutrients entering the pond in the coming decades. Collaborations with stakeholders help to improve the accuracy of pollutant estimates, and to ensure the plan is designed appropriately to achieve desired ecological outcomes.
This Action Plan for reducing nutrients into Merritt’s Mill Pond provides an opportunity for land managers to implement their own plans to reduce nutrient contributions without FDEP imposing rigid regulations or mandating particular actions. People can choose from an array of Best Management Practices designed to reduce nutrient contributions, and the state has made funds available for people to help implement these plans. Implementing this Action Plan will restore the wonders of Merritt’s Mill through the 21st Century.
This article was written by: Matthew J Deitch, PhD, Assistant Professor, Watershed Management with the UF IFAS Soil and Water Sciences Department at the West Florida Research and Education Center. For more information, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-377-2592.