Mangroves and Manatees… man what a year

Mangroves and Manatees… man what a year

2017 began as most years do, the Bermuda high slid east across the Atlantic Ocean and the cold fronts began to reach the Gulf Coast. However, this past winter was milder than normal.  Either the high did not slide as far east as it typically does, or the fronts did not pack the punch they normally do – but we did not have as many deep freezes in 2017.  That’s how it began.

The Bermuda High influences both our weather and climate in the Florida panhandle.
Image: Goddard Media NASA

As spring approached the Bermuda High made its’ annual move westward, bringing us the clockwise winds from the southeast and moisture from the Gulf. It was time for rain… and rain it did.  It rained and rained and rained.  It rained so much that the salinities in the local bayous in Pensacola, which typically run between 10-15 parts per thousands, were below 1 ppt – freshwater.  These heavy rains triggered high bacteria counts in the water column, which triggered health advisories – increasing 139% this year.









Late spring and summer is the season of afternoon thunderstorms – and Sea Grants’ estuary monitoring programs in Pensacola Bay. This year we observed many things:

  • Numerous bald eagles, more than we had seen before
  • Communities calling about snake encounters – this is not unusual when it rains, but this year there were more venomous snakes than we typically see.
  • We began to get calls concerning Cuban Anoles (an invasive lizard) all along the coast from Perdido Key to Gulf Breeze. As more people searched, more anoles were found. I saw the first two at my house this year.
  • We were searching for horseshoe crabs, and found them! In several locations in the lower bay, but never found where they were nesting – we will continue to search in 2018.
  • Our terrapin surveys extended to Walton County. We found two new terrapin nesting beaches in Escambia and the sea turtle nests reached record numbers across the state.
  • Our scallop surveys in Santa Rosa Sound and Big Lagoon were a complete bust due to the rain. Either it was raining, or the visibility was so poor you could not see. An algal bloom occurred in St. Joe Bay that closed scalloping for most of the season.
  • We began a seagrass monitoring project with the University of West Florida. This was a tough year to begin due to the poor visibility, but we will continue in 2018.
  • Manatee sightings were reported in Big Lagoon and Santa Rosa Sound. Again, this is not that unusual but the number of sightings, the number of manatees together, and the length of time they remained in the bay were.
  • And then the mangroves – nine red mangroves were reported in Big Lagoon. Sea Grant will be working with Dauphin Island Sea Lab and resource managers from NERRS in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi to search for more mangroves in the northern Gulf in 2018.
  • And the rain continued…

Rain storms are common when the Bermuda High is in the western Atlantic.
Photo: Stuart Health, NOAA

As summer moves into fall the Bermuda High typically begins to slide eastward, taking with it the “protection” from summer hurricanes – and the hurricanes came. First, it was Harvey, then Irma, then Maria, and then Nate.  All had their impacts on the area.

  • First were the flamingos in Pensacola, three of them, photographed in different locations around the bay – then they were gone.
  • Numerous flocks of white pelicans. They typically fly through the area but there appeared to be more than we normally see and reports of them landing across the area increased.
  • We received calls about “invasive” plants growing in the bayou – which turned out to be freshwater plants that had taken advantage of the freshwater conditions in our bayous from the heavy rains.
  • The snake encounters did not decrease
  • The mangroves continued to grow
  • The manatee sightings continued into the fall
  • And the rain continued

How did this season fare with local seafood (Escambia County only)?

  • There was a 17% decrease in the number of species harvested – from 59 to 49
  • And an 11% decrease in the price/lb. fishers received for their seafood – from $2.20/lb. to $1.95/lb.
  • But there was a 33% increase in the pounds of seafood reported – from 839,673 to 1,121,225 lbs.
  • A 38% increase in the number of trips reported – from 2,658 to 3,664 trips
  • And a 25% increase in the estimated value of the local seafood harvest – from $1,589,518 to $1,991,286 – vermillion snapper, red snapper, and striped mullet remain our top three target species.

Manatee swimming in Big Lagoon near Pensacola.
Photo: Marsha Stanton

We are now moving into winter. The Bermuda High has moved across the Atlantic.  This typically begins a dry season – and it has been dry for several weeks.  It also allows cold fronts to reach the coast – and they did.  On December 9, it snowed in Pensacola.  Who knows what 2018 will bring but we will continue to be in the field monitoring and observing.  There are opportunities for locals to volunteer for some of our monitoring projects, and there are other agencies and NGOs in the area seeking volunteers for monitoring and restoration projects.  Join us if you like, and have a very happy holiday season.

Finding Common Ground on Climate Change

Finding Common Ground on Climate Change

This solar-powered bicycle rental facility provides a healthy alternative to driving around a large city. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Climate change is one of those topics that most people don’t want to think much about. It can be overwhelming, it can be controversial, and it can be downright frightening. A year ago, Yale and George Mason University completed the most recent surveys in the “Six Americas” study, which determined levels of belief and concern in global warming. The “Six Americas” range from people who are alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive when asked about climate change. Interestingly enough, 34% of Americans consider themselves concerned while 23% were cautious. Ranking third were 11% who are doubtful about climate change.

When you start to drill down into the individual questions asked on the survey, you see more agreement. For example, when Escambia County citizens were asked whether global warming is caused by human activities, somewhere between 45%-50% said yes. However, when asked whether they think global warming is actually happening (regardless of cause), the percentage went up to 65%-70%. When asked if they support funding research into renewable energy sources, Escambia County residents jumped up to an 80%-85% agreement. That, to me, is nothing short of a miracle, having lived in Escambia County long enough to know there’s rarely that much agreement on anything!

The takeaway message from that survey, to me, is that regardless of where people stand on climate change/global warming, there are some starting points that can be common ground. If the majority of a community believe climate change is happening and that supporting renewable energy research is a good thing, then they can work towards those outcomes to the mutual benefit of all.

An example of one small but significant step towards sustainable energy use includes bicycle share/rental facilities. On a recent trip to Salt Lake City, solar-powered bike stations were strategically placed around the downtown area. For a small fee, the bicycles could be checked out (for 30 minutes at a time) up to 24 hours. This ensures there are plenty of bicycles available for other users, and stations are close enough to one another that it’s easy to check bikes in and out if you need more time. The benefits of encouraging bicycles are numerous; reduced traffic and burning of fossil fuels, reduced need for parking in high-value real estate, and health benefits for riders. The other investment necessary to make biking more prevalent and successful are bike lanes, which were plentiful in Salt Lake City to keep riders and drivers safe. Once safe bike lanes are in place, those who live in the area with their own bikes are more likely to use them on a regular basis, further decreasing vehicular traffic.

There are many great organizations and publications around the country dedicated to increasing bicycle use and safety. For more information, check out Trail Link, Momentum Magazine, or the Burlington Bikeway.

What is the El Niño?

What is the El Niño?

In our last article about the red tides we discussed how the strange weather of 2015 caused some changes in the natural world around Pensacola Beach – mainly, it got warmer. Though climate change is happening, and we just had a major summit on the topic in Paris, the warming of 2015 was most directly impacted by one of the strongest El Niño’s on record.

What is an El Niño?
It is a term most of us have heard and know it has something to do with the climate – that it is associated with warming – but little else about it. It is a climatic phenomena that has been occurring for centuries. It was first reported by Peruvian fishermen around Christmas time – hence the name El Niño (“the child”).

The red indicates warm water temperatures. Notice the warm temps in the eastern Pacific - not normal. Graphic: NOAA

The red indicates warm water temperatures. Notice the warm temps in the eastern Pacific – not normal.
Graphic: NOAA

The ocean currents off the coast of Peru, and California, are quite cold – in the 55 F range. These cold currents move from the poles towards the equator along the coast. These cold currents keep the precipitation low and the air dry – “it never rains in Southern California”. Mountains and deserts are associated with these regions as well. The cool air at the top of the mountains flows down and across the landscape towards the ocean – causing the surface waters along shore to move offshore – thus creating a current from the ocean floor to rise to the surface called an upwelling. These upwellings bring with them an abundance of nutrients and, mixed with the high oxygen content of the colder water, provide a soup for plankton growth which is food for an abundance of fish – these are some of the richest fishing grounds in the world.

Every so many years the fishermen noticed the fish would disappear. It usually began around Christmas time and they would have to find another means to make a living until they returned – which they always did. They would note this in their log books and we know now that the El Niño would occupier every 7-11 years. Marine and climate scientists noticed that during these El Niño years other species would suffer and the climate would change – the El Niño was not just about fishing. Measurements showed that the current temperatures off of California and Peru warmed during El Niño years from 50 to 80 degrees! The upwelling would stop, the fish would leave, the seals could not feed their young, it rained in places where it normally does not rain, and drought would occur in other parts of the world. Coral reefs would suffer and other global climate changes would occur.

Warm water in the eastern Pacific indicates an El Nino season. Graphic: NOAA

Warm water in the eastern Pacific indicates an El Nino season.
Graphic: NOAA

What they have discovered is that the cold ocean currents from the poles that pass California and Peru typically reach the equator and flow westward towards Indonesia and Australia. As the water moved along the equator it would warm producing the tropical reef world of Southeast Asia and the Great Barrier Reef. But during El Niño years this warm water begins to move eastward – back towards California and Peru. The cause is not fully understood yet. But the dry air of California becomes moist, rain falls, which effects the climate all across the country. One notable event locally is that most of the hurricanes are pushed upwards into the Atlantic and miss the Gulf of Mexico. The El Niño usually last a year. One other note here also. El Niño is typically followed by a year of drastic cooling – the La Niña.

How are the El Niño’s effected by climate change?
Some scientist believe the frequency of El Niño will not change but that the frequency of “super” El Niño’s will – they will increase. “Super” El Niño’s occurred twice in the last 20 years and the impacts on fishing, agriculture, and other human actives have been significant. The over all warming of the oceans will fuel a stronger warming event during an El Niño year. W are currently having the strongest “super” El Niño on record.

We will see what 2016 brings, it will be interesting. I know it is 70 degrees right now (December 28) and there are butterflies in my yard.