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Project Work Plan

Department of Interior USGS GE PES

Fiscal Year 2010 Study Work Plan

Study Title: Sea Level Rise and Climate: Impacts on the Greater Everglades Ecosystem and Restoration
Study Start Date: 10/1/09 Study End Date: 9/30/2014
Web Sites: Data will be made available at:
Location (Subregions, Counties, Park or Refuge): Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Biscayne National Park, Ten Thousand Islands NWR. Monroe, Collier, and Lee Counties, FL.
Funding Source: GE PES
Other Complementary Funding Source(s): None at this time
Funding History: FY10, estimates for FY11; FY12; FY13; FY14.
Principal Investigator(s): G. Lynn Wingard
Study Personnel: C. Bernhardt, T. Cronin, M. Marot, J. Murray, T. Colley, T. Sheehan, B. Stackhouse, D. Willard, G.L. Wingard; USGS. Frank Marshall, Contractor.
Supporting Organizations: South Florida Water Management District; Everglades National Park; Biscayne National Park, Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish & Wildlife Service, NOAA, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Associated / Linked Studies: Determining Target Salinity Values for Restoration of the Estuaries of the Greater Everglades (Wingard); Impacts of Hydrologic and Climatic Change on Greater Everglades Marl Prairies, Marshes, and Sloughs (Willard); Historical Changes in Salinity, Water Quality and Vegetation in Biscayne Bay (ended in FY06); Synthesis of South Florida Ecosystem History Research (ended in FY07); Ecosystem History of the Southwest Coast-Shark River Slough Outflow Area (ended FY09).


Predictions of sea level rise of 18-59 cm by the year 2099 were presented in the IPCC Report of 2007, but these estimates excluded contributions from melting glacial ice. Recent estimates presented at the Copenhagen Climate Conference (March 2009) suggest sea level will rise a minimum of 50 cm and probably reach 100 cm or more. These estimates present a significant level of uncertainty for South Florida ecosystem restoration. Almost all of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem is less than 5 m above current sea level. A number of factors make South Florida particularly vulnerable to problems associated with rising sea level and global climate change: 1) low elevation; 2) lack of topographic gradient to promote drainage; 3) water table at or near the surface; 4) no upland source of sediment to resupply coast; 5) probability of increasing strength and number of tropical storms; 6) thermal expansion of the oceans (some models show the thermosteric anomalies being greater off the coast of Florida (Plag, 2006)); and 7) the fact that water management practices have reduced freshwater flow during the 20th century and thus increased the rate of encroachment of saline waters. Long term tidal gauge records show that Florida has been undergoing a 1.9 mm yr-1 increase in relative sea level between 1950-2000 (Miller and Douglas, 2006; Plag, 2006). The questions are how does this recent rate of relative sea level rise compare to pre-anthropogenic rates, has anthropogenic alteration of the South Florida environment increased the impact of rising sea level, and what are the projected future rates under various IPCC scenarios?

In an ecosystem based on the supply of freshwater, and a restoration plan based on "getting the water right", understanding potential impacts of sea level rise is critical. One of the primary questions that have surfaced in recent CERP team discussions about climate change and sea level rise is whether restoring more natural flows to the Everglades can restore the ecosystem's natural resiliency. While worrying about the long term affects of climate change and sea level rise, CERP project managers are faced with the immediate need to set restoration targets and performance measures. These targets and performance measures need to be attainable and sustainable, but how should attainable and sustainable be defined in the face of global change? Given the range in predictions and the level of uncertainty, what tools do managers have to incorporate sea level rise into restoration planning? The estuaries of the Greater Everglades provide the perfect living laboratory to study the long term impacts and implications of sea level rise on the ecosystem.


This project will address the questions of rates and impacts of sea level rise on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) by utilizing paleoecologic tools and salinity models to examine changes to the Greater Everglades Ecosystem over the past 500-3000 years. Historical rates of change will be compared to potential sea level rise conditions under different IPCC climate change scenarios. The relationship between sea level, salinity, habitats and biota will be examined, and ecologic indicators of sea level rise will be identified.

Scientific Objectives

  • Determine rates and impacts of sea level rise in South Florida for the last 500 to 3000 years and the associated climatic factors; focus will be on the coastal ecosystems (mangroves, corals, bays and estuaries)
  • Compare past rates to those projected in the future by IPCC climate change scenarios and those of other modeling groups
  • Modify or use existing models (e.g.: statistical, FATHOM), which reflect historical salinity patterns in the estuaries, to examine effects of sea level rise on salinity in estuaries and freshwater flow in upstream Everglades (Marshall, et al., 2009)
  • Examine through the use of existing models the impact of increasing freshwater flow on the encroachment of saline waters into the upper estuaries and wetlands
  • Integrate the potential effects of CERP projects into the salinity models and overlay the imprint of the predicted sea level rise
  • Use paleoecologic temporal and spatial species distributions derived from prior ecosystem history projects to examine past ecologic response to sea level and to predict the effects of future sea level rise on key South Florida ecotones
  • Identify ecological indicators of sea level rise that can be used to track predicted inland migration of ecotones based on modern and paleo-species distributions

Management Objectives

  • Address Southern Coastal Systems Sub-team of RECOVER's concerns about the impact of rising sea level on the estuaries
  • Address the use of salinity Performance Measures for CERP alternative evaluations for the Sub-team
  • Assist sub-team in determining alternative salinity targets under various future scenarios
  • Provide Land Managers responsible for protection of habitats with historical data on responses of ecotones and key indicator species to changes in sea level
  • Provide a historical perspective on response of organisms and ecotones to sea level rise

Specific Relevance to Major Unanswered Questions and Information Needs Identified: (Page numbers below refer to DOI Science Plan.)

The importance and application of studying the impacts of sea level rise on restoration of the South Florida ecosystem has been identified in a number of documents. The DOI Science Plan (p. 79) lists "understanding the effects of sea-level rise" as research that needs to be conducted "to assess the current and historic relationships between sea level, salinity, overland freshwater flows, tidal regimes, water budgets, and climate on mangrove and oligohaline communities." The plan further identifies an information gap in understanding the "response of coastal communities to simultaneous effects of increased freshwater flows and sea-level rise." The analysis of paleoecologic data proposed here, and the linkage to models that determine the relationships between freshwater stage and flow in the wetlands and salinity in the estuaries, provides the longer term historical perspective necessary to predict future effects of sea-level rise on the physical and biological components of the ecosystem and the interplay of restoration efforts and global changes.

The DOI Science Plan (p. 89-90) also identifies a need for "models that simulate how restoration projects will alter the hydrology of Florida Bay" and the related effects of sea-level rise. The linear regression models that we are developing in this and a related project (Determining Target Salinity Values for Restoration of the Estuaries of the Greater Everglades) provide the tools necessary to relate stage and flow directly to salinity using empirical data, and these models can be used to estimate future sea-level rise effects. Sea-level rise is considered a component of adaptive management under CERP Landscape Monitoring and Assessment (p. 94, 104) and detecting "early ecological responses to changes in sea-level" is identified as needed science. The faunal and floral analyses of cores proposed in this study provide centennial scale response patterns and change-detection to fulfill these science needs.

Further indication of the importance of this issue to the South Florida restoration effort is the Miami-Dade Climate Task Force and the four county Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change compact. The primary concern of these local coalitions is sea-level rise. Restoration must include and continue to provide safety and protection for the citizens of South Florida, and this issue becomes even more significant in the face of sea level rise, a point made by the South Florida Natural Resources Center of NPS in their brochure "Climate Change and South Florida's National Parks".

Specific Relevance to USGS Mission:

This project is directly related to the USGS Science Strategy (USGS Circ. 1309) - Understanding Ecosystems and Predicting Ecosystem Change. We are investigating the causes and consequences of ecological change and the response of the biological components of the South Florida ecosystem to changes in sea level. A primary goal of the work is to provide policymakers with information on how the current and future rates of change will impact the natural and human resources of South Florida. The work also examines the relationship between biodiversity and migration of ecotones in response to sea level and climate changes and addresses the Climate Variability and Change Science Strategy by examining these relationships over historically significant time periods. Using historical records, we can project future states under various IPCC scenarios and how those scenarios may affect restoration planning.

In addition, we are addressing the science theme of Hazards by assessing "the vulnerability of national parks and wildlife refuges along the Nation's coasts to sea-level rise and coastal change" (p. 33). Also, the knowledge we are gaining about rates of sea level rise and interaction with the biota of South Florida can be used to understand the impacts on other regions of the southeastern United States as well. Finally, our work will shed light on the theme of Water Availability by examining the impact of sea-level rise on freshwater supply and the interaction of these factors with climate.

Status: This is a new project in FY2010.

Recent Products: This is a new project in FY2010.

Planned Products:

  1. Report on cores from the Southwest Coastal mangrove ecotone, examining the position of sea level over the last 2000 years
  2. Compilation of existing data from USGS, Penn State, and other databases on sea level position in south Florida during the Holocene
  3. Journal articles on analyses of cores, rates of change, application of models etc.
  4. Journal articles on the response of organisms to changes in sea level over biologically significant time periods


Title of Task 1: Sea Level Rise and Climate: Impacts on the Greater Everglades Ecosystem and Restoration
Task Funding: USGS Priority Ecosystems Science
Task Leaders: G.L. Wingard
Phone: GLW: 703-648-5352
FAX: 703-648-6953
Task Status (proposed or active): Active
Task priority: High
Time Frame for Task 1: FY10, estimates for FY11; FY12; FY13; FY14.
Principal Investigator(s): G. Lynn Wingard
Task Personnel: C. Bernhardt, T. Cronin, M. Marot, J. Murray, T. Colley, T. Sheehan, B. Stackhouse, D. Willard, G.L. Wingard; USGS. Frank Marshall, Contractor.

Task Summary and Objectives: Same as for project (see above).

Work to be undertaken during the proposal year and a description of the methods and procedures:

In FY10 we will initiate an analysis of the relationship between salinity and sea level rise, focusing on the southwest coastal mangrove ecotone. A preliminary list of indicator species/assemblages will be compiled for determining migration of the saltwater/freshwater transition zone. We will compile existing records from USGS, Penn State, and other databases that provide information on position of sea level in the later part of the Holocene for South Florida and relationships between climate patterns and sea level. Reconnaissance will be conducted, and if permits are obtained, three new cores will be collected from the marsh areas of Shark River Slough and examined for pollen and any faunal remains. These cores will broaden our existing coverage of the area and address the role of freshwater / saltwater transition on the location of vegetation types and associated fauna. This work will be conducted in conjunction with Impacts of Hydrologic and Climatic Change on Greater Everglades Marl Prairies, Marshes, and Sloughs (Willard, PI).

Work to be undertaken in future years: Future years will build on initial work in FY10, starting with application of existing historical salinity models for the estuaries to predict future salinities under various IPCC scenarios. Core data will be compiled from existing cores, and new cores collected if necessary to fill in information gaps. Rates of sea level rise will be estimated for South Florida, and compared to IPCC projections of future rates. Maps will be developed illustrating the migration of key species assemblages over time in response to changing salinity patterns and sea level position.

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