On September 28th, 2022, Lee County of western Florida saw climate change knocking on its doors, inviting itself in, and ruining its communities. In the blink of an eye, neighborhoods, businesses, and wildlife were swept up and washed away by Hurricane Ian—an environmental catastrophe strengthened by climate change whose long-lingering damage will take decades to restore.
Generally, hurricanes create disarray within communities and landscapes; the difference with Ian was its colossal size compared to its predecessors. Hurricane Charley was another category 4 hurricane that hit Southwest Florida in 2004 and was known locally as one of the most devastating and impactful hurricanes, remaining a present-day household name after 18 years. Yet, in comparison, Charley was small enough to fit in Ian’s eye.
In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted that there would be an increase in category 4 and 5 hurricanes because warming sea temperatures increase the likelihood of storms with 10% to 15% more precipitation. Since then, Florida has been impacted by Hurricane Irma (category 4), Hurricane Michael (category 5), and Hurricane Ian (category 4, 2 mph away from a 5). The number of major hurricanes is on the rise while the frequency of smaller hurricanes is declining. These larger storms bring larger climate challenges: the bigger the hurricane, the worse the environmental damage.
The “crystal clear” waters of Southwest Florida have already mixed with the murky water from Lake Okeechobee. As storms’ rainwater collects and overflows the lake, the water is released down the Caloosahatchee River into the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in brackish, infected water. Unfortunately, since this river surrounds most of Southwest Florida’s beaches, marinas, and canals, the frequent red tide warnings, bacteria outbreaks, and deadly viruses have impacted tourists and locals alike.
The heavy rainfall that accompanies a hurricane inevitably creates an influx of freshwater entering the river. Along with the flood of new debris and organic materials, bacteria levels have the potential to spread unnaturally, as seen with Lake Okeechobee. In cases such as Hurricane Ian, in which water sources were inundated with 15 inches of fresh water, these bacterial increases are magnified.
Additionally, there are many external organic materials entering the waterways. One major source of this is wastewater treatment plants. Nathan Gardner-Andrews, Chief Advocacy Officer for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, stated that larger cities such as Bradenton and Sarasota released around 17 million gallons of wastewater just 24 hours into the onset of the hurricane. Gardner-Andrews announced that this was due to the vast amounts of rain and because “there is not a sewer system on the planet that can take that kind of hit without having some sort of overflow.” Executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program Dave Tomasko commented that “in Sarasota Bay, normally this time of year the water is beautiful blue-green, gorgeous,” but now it “looks like root beer, smells like dead fish rolled into compost.”
With Florida’s flat landscape, sewer systems cannot rely on gravity. Additional infrastructure is necessary to move wastewater because if systems are overwhelmed or lose power, they prove to be useless, leading wastewater to flow throughout the streets and into waterways. Although wastewater in rivers is not directly caused by climate change, the frequency of such incidents can rise as climate change induces stronger storms.
The long-term effects of a hurricane include not only changes in water quality, but also aquatic life. During high-energy storms, aquatic species may move upstream to avoid water with surging salinity levels. Alternatively, freshwater fish may move downstream as rainwater dilutes upstream. For Southwest Florida, the real issue is oxygen depletion. The long periods of murkiness in the water limit the photosynthetic processes of aquatic plants that feed fish and regulate marine oxygen levels.
Other issues include strandings and turnover. Strandings occur when water encroaches on the land and recedes after the storm, often leaving fish and other aquatic life outside their ecosystems. These strandings can result in alligators, sharks, and other marine animals inhabiting cities during storms –– what the public sees in viral videos online. Turnover, on the other hand, is when bacteria is brought to the surface and decomposes organic material, which not only affects water quality but also drains the aquatic oxygen supply. Despite insufficient data, Southwest Floridian waterways such as the Peace River and Myakka River are documented to have very little oxygen. Consequently, the aquatic life is predicted to die and end up in the harbor, in addition to all the other organic material feeding the festering bacteria.
Florida is also known for its thick webs of mangrove forests surrounding the coastlines and the swamps of the Everglades. These mangrove forests are considered living coastlines that act as a buffer zone between the land and sea, preventing flooding and erosion caused by storms. The increased intensity of hurricane winds has the ability to completely defoliate these habitats and cause dramatic changes in the ecosystems. The impacted animals are either killed by the intensity of the storms or lose access to shelter or food, and the influx of rain can impact soil nutrition and increase erosion.
Considering how much damage Southwest Florida took, economic impacts are inevitable. Beyond just rebuilding costs, the beaches and heavily trafficked areas will take a heavy hit in their main sources of revenue. Tourism in Florida will take months to revive. The aforementioned decreases in water quality will prevent tourists from engaging in water-related activities, especially swimming. On a normal day, any open cut or wound could be exposed to Vibrio vulnificus through direct contact with brackish water. Now that bacteria levels have increased, all Southwest Floridian cities have advised everyone to stay clear of the water. Vibrio vulnificus has been the cause of a surprisingly high amount of deaths in the region, presumably 11 this year.
The lack of hotels, resorts, activities, nature, and businesses on islands like Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, and Marco Island will impact the financial stability of the region. Fort Myers Beach residents are already calling on Lee County to dissolve the local government and take over the restoration process because of how drastic the issue has become. These cities heavily rely on vacationers pouring money into the local businesses that dominate their economies. In the wake of Hurricane Ian, money will be spent on restoring buildings instead of being focused on maintaining water quality or restoring natural elements. Big projects like the Cape Coral Yacht Club’s initiative to improve the Caloosahatchee water quality will be halted to allocate funds to businesses and infrastructure.
As these high-intensity storms increase, environmental damage will worsen. Will the impacts of these hurricanes spark societal change, or will corporations and lawmakers continue to stand by?
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