Climate Change and Future Hurricanes

Climate Change and Future Hurricanes

A living shoreline project was implemented on this bay in Santa Rosa County to try and prevent further erosion. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

We have reached that time of year when the Atlantic starts cranking out storms, and they will continue to roll out as the dog days of summer progress. Over the last decade, many experts have speculated on how climate change and sea level rise might impact hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Two big issues are coastal erosion and flooding from storm surge and rainfall.

Those who live on the water or frequently visit area shorelines have probably noticed coastal erosion. While a natural part of a coastal ecosystem–and often exacerbated by heavy boat traffic–rising seas can also cause erosion. Sea level rise moves water slowly inland and washes away the roots of grasses and trees that once held the shoreline in place. Buildings and roads close to the water are impacted as well, with “sunny day flooding” on the roads and under pilings in many south Florida cities where water has moved in to stay. Large scale beach renourishment projects, living shorelines, and even road relocations (like the one at Ft. Pickens on Pensacola Beach) are all ways that local officials and property owners can respond to rising seas. However, these efforts always come with a big price tag. When that “line in the sand” is drawn beyond government and household budgets, there will come a point when we can no longer support protection of highly vulnerable coastal infrastructure. The closer a building is physically located to the water (whether built there intentionally or reached by rising seas), the greater the likelihood a hurricane will cause flooding damage from dangerous storm surge. Storm surge and heavy flooding cause 75% of the deaths in any given hurricane.

During a recent webinar, the appropriately named Dr. Chris Landsea of the National Hurricane Center answered several frequently asked questions on the impacts of global warming on hurricanes. Some of the predictions are surprising based on assumptions that have been put out in the media. He made a disclaimer that these are his predictions based on years of expertise and data analysis, and not an official proclamation by the National Hurricane Center. Following are a few of the points he made during his talk.

Dr. Chris Landsea of the National Hurricane Center recently met with floodplain managers around the Gulf Coast to discuss hurricanes.

Question: Will hurricanes get stronger based on increased temperatures?

Answer: The world average temperature has gone up 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 100 years. Based on data and computer modeling from the NOAA Geophysics Lab, typical hurricane wind intensity will increase slightly, by 3%. In this example, a storm with 100 mph average winds would be 103 mph by the end of the 21st century.

Question: Will we experience more tropical storms as the climate changes?

Answer: Dr. Landsea does not expect more tropical storms as the temperature increases. In fact, frequency may drop very slightly. While there may be more heat energy for hurricanes to feed on, the surrounding conditions will make it tougher for a storm to form. Those conditions may be atmospheric or include a vertical wind shear that tears up the storm.

Question: How will global warming affect rainfall during hurricanes?

Answer: Models and recent experience show that rainfall will increase by 10-20% during tropical storms. Global warming increases the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, and a hurricane can recycle this water into a constant loop of rainfall. Hurricane Harvey in Texas was one example of this situation, during which nearly 8 feet of rainfall fell, flooding neighborhoods. One of the aphorisms of climate change is “wet places get wetter, and dry places get drier.”

Dr. Landsea’s full presentation can be found online here, if you are interested in learning more. Keep in mind that these predictions can change based on land use, atmospheric carbon levels, and human practice change. For more on the work UF IFAS is doing on climate, visit this Florida Sea Grant Climate page.

“Doing Something” in Dog Days

“Doing Something” in Dog Days

Canis major constallation

Dog Star nights Astro Bob

The “Dog Days” are the hottest, muggiest days of summer.  In the northern hemisphere, they usually fall between early July and early September. The actual dates vary greatly from region to region, depending on latitude and climate. In Northwest Florida, the first weeks of August are usually the worst.  So, get out before it gets hotter.

In ancient times, when the night sky was not obscured by artificial lights, the Romans used the stars to keep track of the seasons. The brightest constellation, Canis Major (Large Dog), includes the “dog star”, Sirius. In the summer, Sirius used to rise and set with the sun, leading the ancient Romans to believe that it added heat to the sun. Although the period between July 3 and August 11 is typically the warmest period of the summer, the heat is not due to the added radiation from a far-away star, regardless of its brightness. The heat of summer is a direct result of the earth’s tilt.

Life is so uncertain right now, so, most people are spending less time doing group recreation outside.  But, many people are looking to get outside  Spending time outdoors this time of year is uncomfortable, potentially dangerous, due to the intense heat. So, limit the time you spend in nature and always take water with you. But, if you are looking for some outdoor options that will still allow you to social distance,

try local trails and parks. Some of them even allow your dog.  Here are a few websites to review the options: https://floridahikes.com/northwest-florida  and https://www.waltonoutdoors.com/all-the-parks-in-walton-county-florida/northwest-florida-area-parks/  Be sure to check if they are allowing visits, especially those that are connected to enclosed spaces.

Other options may include zoos and aquariums: www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g1438845-Activities-c48-Florida_Panhandle_Florida.html

Or maybe just wander around some local plant nurseries:

Migration, Adaptation, and Mitigation

Migration, Adaptation, and Mitigation

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/

Two Words, Six Americas: Finding common ground on climate change

Two Words, Six Americas: Finding common ground on climate change

Climate change. Those two simple words have the power to bring about a strong reaction in people. For many, the term is fraught with emotion—with worry, anger, and fear of the unknown. For others, these two words might elicit doubt or frustration. According to a multi-year, nationwide study conducted by George Mason and Yale Universities, as a country we react to the science of climate change along a spectrum of responses. On one end of the spectrum, people are “alarmed” (see a change in climate as a reality and taking action about it) and “concerned” (believe it is a serious issue but have not taken action). In the middle are those in different stages of understanding or awareness of climate issues, and characterized as “cautious”, “disengaged”, or “doubtful.” At the opposite end of the spectrum are the “dismissive”, which are that group of people who are actively opposed to action on climate change and may feel it is a conspiracy. These six categories were based on the responses of a large, in-depth survey conducted in 2008. Ten years later, researchers conducted the study again to see if attitudes had changed. Interestingly, they had—with the most noticeable shift out of the “disengaged” category, as people seemed to cast their lot with one side or the other.

2008/2009 Yale/George Mason Study Results 2018
18% Alarmed (+3) 21%
33% Concerned (-3) 30%
19% Cautious (+2) 21%
12% Disengaged (-5) 7%
11% Doubtful (+1) 12%
7% Dismissive (+2) 9%

Table 1. 10-year comparison of “Global Warming’s Six Americas” Study. Source: http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/about/projects/global-warmings-six-americas/

Looking at the data, respondents left the “disengaged” group and moved either towards doubtful and dismissive or towards the cautious category. It is likely that the 3% change out of “concerned” moved directly into “alarmed”, as extreme weather events and record temperatures over the last 10 years brought the impacts of a changing climate closer to home.

Data from a national study shows the level of agreement/disagreement on climate-based issues. Source: Yale/George Mason University

When the study is broken down by region, a minority of northwest Floridians believed human activities such as carbon emissions caused climate change. However ~65% of the same group believed climate change was happening (regardless of cause), and 80% responded that our country should fund research looking into renewable energy. The good news here is that while many of us do not agree on the cause of climate change, the majority of us agree on positive steps forward that may relieve some of its results.

For me, the take-home message of this study is that scientific understanding—on many issues, not just climate—is often along a spectrum based on exposure to research, personal interest/relevance, and cultural influences. When explaining any science-based concepts, it is important to know where your listener is coming from and start from there. It is unfortunate that we are in a time when many principles of science are taken as political positions and not products of unbiased scientific method. That being said, great thinkers from Galileo to Hawking have had their run-ins with popular opinion.

As the summer heat cooks on and hurricane season warms up, there will be more articles in the news about climate and its effects. When reading these, look at the source and their intent. Is this an opinion piece/blog with deeply emotional photos and stories meant to sway readers one way or the other? Or is it an agency page, reporting factual data? Time-tested agencies like the National Weather Service (NWS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) have been keeping historic records of climate data and satellite imagery of ice cover for decades. Use their information to inform yourself, no matter where you might fall upon the “six Americas” spectrum. Worldwide data for climate has been kept since 1880, and both NASA and NOAA climate data found:

  • 2016 was the hottest year globally on record
  • 2nd and 3rd hottest years on record were 2015 and 2014.
  • 16 of the 17 warmest years documented since 1880 have been since 2001

For more information on climate science, check out these resources: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NOAA Climate, and NASA Climate.

Hurricanes and floods: Meeting the resource needs of private well owners

Flooding along the South Prong of the Black Creek River in Clay County on September 13, 2017. Photo credit: Tim Donovan, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

As hurricane season is upon us again, I wanted to share the results of work that UF/IFAS Extension staff did with collaborators from Virginia Tech and Texas A&M University to help private well owners impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey last year. This work highlights just how important it is to be prepared for this year’s hurricane season and to make sure that if flooding does occur, those that depend on private wells for household use take the proper precautions to ensure the safety of their drinking water.

About 2.5 million Floridians (approximately 12% of the population) rely on private wells for home consumption. While public water systems are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ensure safe drinking water, private wells are not regulated. Private well users are responsible for ensuring the safety of their own water.

Hurricanes Irma and Harvey

In response to widespread damage and flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida in August and September 2017, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VT) received a Rapid Research Response Grant from the National Science Foundation to offer free well water testing to homeowners impacted by flooding.

They partnered with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension’s Well Owner Network (run by Diane Boellstorff and Drew Gholson) and us, at UF/IFAS Extension to provide this service. The effort at VT was led by members of Marc Edward’s lab in the Civil Engineering Department: Kelsey Pieper, Kristine Mapili, William Rhoads, and Greg House.

VT made 1,200 sampling kits available in Texas and 500 in Florida, and offered free analysis for total coliform bacteria and E. coli as well as other parameters, including nitrate, lead, arsenic, iron, chloride, sodium, manganese, copper, fluoride, sulfate, and hardness (calcium and magnesium). Homeowners were also asked to complete a needs assessment questionnaire regarding their well system characteristics, knowledge of proper maintenance and testing, perceptions of the safety of their water and how to best engage them in future outreach and education efforts.

Response in the aftermath of Irma

Although the sampling kits were available, a major challenge in the wake of Irma was getting the word out as counties were just beginning to assess damage and many areas were without power. We coordinated the sampling effort out of Quincy, Florida, where I am based, and spread the word to extension agents in the rest of the state primarily through a group texting app, by telephone and by word of mouth. Extension agents in 6 affected counties (Lee, Pasco, Sarasota, Marion, Clay and Putnam) responded with a need for sample kits, and they in turn advertised sampling to their residents through press releases.

Residents picked up sampling kits and returned water samples and surveys on specified days and the samples were shipped overnight and analyzed at VT, in Blacksburg, VA. Anyone from nearby counties was welcome to submit samples as well. This effort complemented free well water sampling offered by multiple county health departments throughout the state.

In all, 179 water samples from Florida were analyzed at VT and results of the bacterial analysis are shown in the table below. Of 154 valid samples, 58 (38%) tested positive for total coliform bacteria, and 3 (2%) tested positive for E. coli. Results of the inorganic parameters and the needs assessment questionnaire are still being analyzed.

Table 1. Bacterial analysis of private wells in Florida after Hurricane Irma.

County Number of samples (n) Positive for total coliform (n) Positive total coliform (%) Positive for E. coli (n) Positive for E. coli (%)
Citrus 1 0 0% 0 0%
Clay 13 5 38% 0 0%
Hernando 2 1 50% 0 0%
Hillsborough 1 1 100% 0 0%
Marion 19 5 26% 1 5%
Monroe 1 0 0% 0 0%
Pasco 40 19 48% 1 3%
Putnam 61 19 31% 0 0%
Sarasota 16 8 50% 1 6%
Overall 154 58 38% 3 2%

Of 630 samples analyzed in Texas over the course of 7 weeks post-Hurricane Harvey, 293 samples (47% of wells) tested positive for total coliform bacteria and 75 samples (2%) tested positive for E. coli.

What to do if pathogens are found

Following Florida Department of Health (FDOH) guidelines, we recommended well disinfection to residents whose samples tested positive for total coliform bacteria, or both total coliform and E. coli. This is generally done through shock chlorination by either hiring a well operator or by doing it yourself. The FDOH website provides information on potential contaminants, how to shock chlorinate a well and how to maintain your well to ensure the quality of your well water (http://www.floridahealth.gov/environmental-health/private-well-testing/index.html).

UF/IFAS extension agents that led the sampling efforts in their respective counties were: Roy Beckford – Lee County; Brad Burbaugh – Clay County; Whitney Elmore – Pasco County; Sharon Treen – Putnam and Flagler Counties; Abbey Tyrna – Sarasota County and Yilin Zhuang – Marion County.

We at IFAS Extension are working on using results from this sampling effort and the needs assessment questionnaire filled out by residents to develop the UF/IFAS Florida Well Owner Network. Our goal is to provide residents with educational materials and classes to address gaps in knowledge regarding well maintenance, the importance of testing and recommended treatments when pathogens and other contaminants are present.

Remember: Get your well water tested if flooding occurs

It’s important to remember that if any flooding occurs on your property that affects your well and/or septic system, you should have your well water tested in a certified laboratory for pathogens (total coliform bacteria and E. coli) and any other parameters your local health department may recommend.

Most county health departments accept samples for water testing. You can also submit samples to a certified commercial lab near you. Contact your county health department for information about what to have your water tested for and how to take and submit the sample.

Contact information for county health departments can be found online at: http://www.floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services/county-health-departments/find-a-county-health-department/index.html

You can search for laboratories near you certified by FDOH here: https://fldeploc.dep.state.fl.us/aams/loc_search.asp This includes county health department labs as well as commercial labs, university labs and others.

You should also have your well water tested at any time when:

  • The color, taste or odor of your well water changes or if you suspect that someone became sick after drinking your well water
  • A new well is drilled or if you have had maintenance done on your existing well

Testing well water once a year is good practice to ensure the safety of your household’s drinking water.

“Ice Age” Tree in Peril: Florida Torreya

“Ice Age” Tree in Peril: Florida Torreya

Having just completed the Okaloosa/Walton Uplands Master Naturalist course, I would like to share information from the project that was presented by Ann Foley.

 

The Florida Torreya. Photo provided by Shelia Dunning

The Florida Torreya is the most endangered tree in North America, and perhaps the world! Less than 1% of the historical population survives. Unless something is done soon, it may disappear entirely! You can see them on public lands in Florida at Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve and beautiful Torreya State Park.

The Florida Torreya (Torreya taxifolia) is one of the oldest known tree species on earth; 160 million years old. It was originally an Appalachian Mountains ranged tree. As a result of our last “Ice Age” melt, retreating Icebergs pushed ground from the Northern Hemisphere, bringing the Florida Torreya and many other northern plant species with them.

The Florida Torreya was “left behind” in its current native pocket refuge, a short 40 mile stretch along the banks of the Apalachicola River. There were estimates of 600,000 to 1,000,000 of these trees in the 1800’s. Torreya State Park, named for this special tree, is currently home to about 600 of them. Barely thriving, this tree prefers a shady habitat with dark, moist, sandy loam of limestone origin which the park has to offer.

 

Hardy Bryan Croom, Botanist, discovered the tree in 1833, along the bluffs and ravines of Jackson, Liberty and Gadsen Counties, Florida and Decatur County in Georgia. He named it Florida Torreya (TOR-ee-uh), in honor of Dr. John Torrey, a renowned 18th century scientist.


Torreya trees are evergreen conifers, conically shaped, have whorled branches and stiff, sharp pointed, dark green needle-like leaves. Scientists noted the Torreya’s decline as far back as the 1950’s! Mature tree heights were once noted at 60 feet, but today’s trees are immature specimens of 3-6 feet, thought to be ‘root/stump sprouts.’

Known locally as “Stinking Cedar,” due to its strong smell when the leaves and cones are crushed, it was used for fence posts, cabinets, roof shingles, Christmas trees and riverboat fuel.  Over-harvesting in the past and natural processes are taking a tremendous toll. Fungi are attacking weakened trees, causing the critically endangered species to die-off. Other declining factors include: drought, habitat loss, deer and loss of reproductive capability.

With federal and state protection, the Florida Torreya was listed as an endangered species in 1983. There is great concern for this ancient tree in scientific community and with citizen organizations. Efforts are underway to help bring this tree back from the edge of extinction!

Efforts include CRISPR gene editing technology research being done by the University of Florida Dept. of Forest Resources and Conservation- making the tree more resistant to disease. Torreya Guardians “rewilding and “assisted migration”.  Reintroducing the tree to it’s former native range in the north near the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, which has maintained a grove of Torreya trees and offspring since 1939 and supplying seeds for propagation from their healthy forest.  Long before saving the earth became a global concern, Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), spoke through his character the Lorax warning against urban progress and the danger it posed to the earth’s natural beauty. All of these groups, and many others, hope their efforts will collectively help bring this tree back from the brink!