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School of Geography

Field trip reflections: Florida Everglades

The Everglades is a test. If we pass it, we might get to keep the planet
Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890 – 1998) 'Mother of the Everglades'

Students taking Environmental Management Applications, a second/third year field class module, have the option to do fieldwork in Florida where they can explore the physical, environmental, political and economic issues surrounding a range of restoration and management schemes in South Florida’s fluvial, terrestrial, estuarine, coastal and marine environments. Read a summary below from final-year student, Koh Yi Thong (Geography BSc 2017).

Alligator in the Everglades © Koh Yi Thong
Alligator in the Everglades © Koh Yi Thong

“The Everglades’ mosaic of sawgrasses, tree islands, mangroves and enigmatic swampland is home to emblematic species like the American alligator, the elusive Florida panther and locally endangered birds of prey like the Everglades Snail Kite. However, Florida’s ‘River of Grass’ was starved of crucial water inflows from Lake Okeechobee amidst public outcry for flood protection and shrunk considerably under anthropogenic land conversion into farmland and homes.

Apart from threatening the region’s ecological balance, the Everglades is also becoming increasingly susceptible to imminent sea level rise and soaring temperatures attributed to climate change. Fortunately, there has been growing urgency in efforts to reverse these damages through environmental restoration. Hence, with the world’s biggest ecosystem restoration project currently underway, the Everglades offered an ideal field trip destination to study and examine some of the most cutting-edge and sophisticated restoration approaches as part of ongoing efforts to save the Sunshine State’s most iconic landscape.

It was an eye-opening experience to see the spatial scale of restoration endeavours presently carried out to address a multitude of environmental issues, including the occurrence of pungent, guacamole-coloured algae blooms off Florida’s coasts due to untreated agricultural waste within diverted Okeechobee waters that were originally meant to feed the Everglades. Being able to conduct realistic field activities such as ecosystem service assessments and environmental scoping exercises on these vulnerable ecosystems and environments first-hand also made us much more aware of the true costs of altering vital wetland ecosystems of unparalleled importance.

The best part of the field trip was being able to meet leading experts, professionals and stakeholders at the forefront of managing and restoring the Everglades’ fragile conditions. Through fruitful and engaging interactions, we were able to gain profound insights into management issues surrounding efforts to restore different environments within the Everglades, which usually transcended political, social and economic spheres. In addition, by travelling from the southern end of the Everglades system up north to its headwaters, we obtained a clearer picture of how the entire system was intricately connected and that restoration practices conducted on ranches and riverine environments upstream would inevitably affect downstream efforts if both ends were poorly coordinated.

Koh doing a field sketch © Umar Haroon
Koh doing a field sketch © Umar Haroon

The invaluable opportunity to participate in this enriching field trip organised by Professor Kate Spencer has certainly broadened my horizons on the myriad of environmental management approaches available. More importantly, I’ve realised that restoring a completely functional wetland corridor like the Everglades or any other ecosystem type would necessitate not only robust scientific practice, but also the political will and concomitant financial support to deliver a concerted, well-coordinated management plan. Given the undeniable effects of climate change, this is exceptional important and relevant to environmental management and restoration schemes across the world beyond the Everglades, especially right now when time is running out if there remains reluctance to act.

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