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Feature Stories

The 2021 Florida State Legislative Session came to an end on Friday, April 30, as lawmakers approved a record $101.5 billion budget. Prior to the start of this year's session, our student-led team sifted through thousands of bills to find those that pertained to our state’s environment. For some, we talked to policy experts and scientists to provide context about how the proposed legislation might impact our state. Find out what happened to these bills in our update on What Happened in the 2021 Florida Legislative Session. 
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Editor’s note: This story was written by Jenn Hayes with contributions from Natalie Lara as a part of the University of Florida Environmental Justice Media Intensive, hosted by the UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute and the UF Levin College of Law’s Public Interest Environmental Conference.

For decades, residents of Puerto Rico have migrated to the U.S. mainland for jobs, college, to raise children and to join family and friends. Those who leave the island often return to it. Patterns of “circular migration” are common.

In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico in rapid succession, resulting in massive and sudden flight from the island to places like Central Florida. 

The Puerto Rico to Central Florida migration dynamic raises key questions: How can government officials, nonprofit organizations and communities support climate migrants in U.S. cities? And what do people in migrating communities need in order to find long-term comfort and stability?

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Feature Video: Butterfly Migration in Florida

Learn all about butterfly migration in Florida with this video by TESI student Lianne D'Arcy. 

Globally, insects provide many services to humans and other plants and animals in the environment, but without widespread action, many of these important creatures face extinction within the next few decades.

Learn more about Earth systems-related topics through our other student-produced educational videos!

Action of the Month:
Plant a Pollinator Garden!

Whether you’re new to gardening or a practiced planter, jump into summer with Hannah Ulloa and Sustainable UF for the May Action of the Month: Plant a native pollinator garden! Read on to explore the numerous physical and mental benefits of gardening, for us and for local ecosystems. 

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Earth to Florida's Action of the Month is produced in collaboration with the UF Office of Sustainability. If you’d like to learn more about sustainability at UF, follow Sustainable UF on Instagram or Facebook!
Stories to watch
  • University of Miami chemists have made a breakthrough that may enable farmers to produce their own fertilizer from recycled waste. During fertilizer production, a greenhouse gas known as nitrous oxide is emitted. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. However, recent studies have shown that it is possible to convert the gas into a key component in fertilizer production – potassium nitrate. Currently, the process is too slow to be efficient, but scientists are working on methods to speed up the process. 

  • Some Florida legislators are requesting action from the Department of the Interior after a Texas-based oil company filed for oil drilling permits in the state’s Big Cypress National Preserve. The U.S. Congress members sent a letter on April 23 asking the department to deny the company’s permits in the interest of wetland conservation. Horizontal drilling, fracking and acidizing would compromise the preserve, they say. 

  • In a study that compiled more than 7 million observations from the website eBird, scientists have determined that climate change is impacting bird migration patterns. While some bird species are able to adjust to seasonal changes, birds with further distances to travel often arrive behind schedule. The phenomenon may explain part of why researchers have seen a 30% decline in bird populations since the 1970s. 

  • The population of North America’s most endangered bird, the Florida grasshopper sparrow, could be stabilizing. Approximately 300 captive-raised birds were released on the Central Florida prairie, the first sparrow species ever to be bred in captivity and then released. So far, the released birds are thriving, and the overall population of Florida grasshopper sparrows in the wild has risen slightly. 

  • As a result of climate change, vampire bats may migrate into the United States from Mexico, and Florida is number three on the list of places they might settle in coming years. Scientists’ primary concern is that the bats could spread rabies and other diseases to cattle, with potentially devastating economic consequences. 

  • A new study from Florida Atlantic University unveiled a comprehensive health assessment of gopher tortoises in Florida. A threatened and vulnerable species, these reptiles are susceptible to many diseases; researchers revealed the presence of antibodies – or lack thereof – to a variety of pathogens in tortoise populations around the state. This important information underscores the need for continued research and protection of this declining species. 

  • An additional $8 million was granted to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to help declining manatee populations. This year, the primary threat to Florida’s state marine mammal has been starvation – a result of a seagrass shortage decades in the making. The additional funds will likely double the funding that manatees typically receive yearly. 

  • The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has plans to stop permitted sea turtle rescue organizations from helping hatchlings to the ocean, and many permits have already been revoked or reduced. The FWC states that the catch and release programs, which were enacted 10 years ago, were meant to be temporary, and that they are no longer needed. They also cite human presence on the beach at night to be a risk for the health and safety of marine life. Rescue organizations say that their presence is necessary to maintain sea turtle populations. Hatchlings must overcome many challenges to get to the water safely – including human interference, aversion of land predators, and increasingly, over-incubation in the sand as a result of climate change. 

  • With sophisticated hearing devices, scientists were able to hear the “voices” of Atlantic whitespotted eagle rays in the Indian River Lagoon. The technology will help researchers gain a greater understanding of the creatures including eating habits and migration patterns. Unfortunately, the study also confirms that the species is at a higher risk from pollution than previously believed. The decline of the rays could begin a domino effect of ecological repercussions, including a decline in water quality and a decrease in bottom-dwelling plants and animals. 

  • new environmental initiative to increase native oyster numbers throughout Miami-Dade is pushing forward and in need of volunteers. Used oyster shells are collected from local hotels and restaurants and used to make oyster gardening lines to create a habitat for mature oysters to reproduce. Native oysters help to filter waters entering the bay by dissolving nitrogen waste. Volunteers are needed to collect shells, build garden lines, participate in citizen science monitoring, and more. 

  • Over the past few decades, Biscayne Bay has faced environmental challenges as a result of increased pollution in the Miami-Dade area. Despite attempts to reduce pollution sources, 2021’s annual report card showed that some areas of the bay have fallen even further, and that not a single region received a “good” score. Pollution enters the bay by way of leaks from septic tanks and stormwater runoff from canals. Climate change and sea level rise can make the problem even worse. Scientists have found that recent fish kills are caused by low dissolved oxygen – a result of higher salinity levels and water temperatures. Stormwater runoff funnels further nutrient pollution into the bay, leading to an increase in algae blooms and seagrass die off. Over the last two years, another unexpected source of pollution was discovered by University of Florida researchers: dense amounts of microplastics that could be consumed by wildlife and move their way up the food chain. 

  • Over the last month, there has been some good news for coral reef restoration! A new study by researchers at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute has revealed that a common antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections in humans also shows promise in treating diseases affecting coral colonies, though further research is still needed. In waters 14 miles southwest of Destin Pass, Okaloosa County sunk a retired 93-foot U.S. Air Force vessel to act as a new artificial reef. After inspection, it has been confirmed that sea life is already starting to gather there. Last month, the first phase of NOAA’s Mission Iconic Reefs project was unveiled in an Earth Day teleconference. Over a period of three years, 60,000 fragments of nursery-raised coral will be outplanted at Eastern Dry Rocks Sanctuary Preservation Area off the coast of Key West. By the end of the three-phase project, NOAA hopes to restore 3 million square feet of coral reef over 15 years. 

  • Over the last two years, Tampa Bay has lost 13 percent of its seagrass, a new study shows – an estimated decline of 5,411 acres. Seagrass is a necessity for many marine creatures, acting as a food source for manatees, and as cover for fish and crabs. According to scientists, the decline is typically caused by nutrient pollution that encourages algae growth and stifles seagrass beds. 
  • In late March, polluted wastewater from an abandoned phosphate mine was pumped into Tampa Bay to stop a leak from flooding surrounding neighborhoods. Now, a computer model has shown that the polluted water will likely remain in Tampa Bay for months. Though the impact of this remains unclear, conservationists warn that elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from the leak could lead to an overgrowth of algae, causing potential fish kills, toxic algae blooms, and dead zones. 

  • Keep your masks handy! Scientists say that using face masks can filter or remove toxic droplets of water from red tide, helping people avoid respiratory irritation. Red tide blooms have been detected in several counties on the Gulf Coast and resulting respiratory irritations have been recorded. Additionally, scientists are concerned that the recent Piney Point wastewater leak could cause further blooms in the Tampa Bay area. As it takes time for the environment to respond to nutrient pollution, scientists will need to track the effects of Piney Point for at least several months.  

  • A 300-square-mile toxic blue-green algae outbreak in the Lake Okeechobee system coupled with red tide in the Gulf of Mexico has prompted environmental groups to request Gov. Ron Desantis to declare a state of emergency. Fish and sea turtles have already begun to die off due to the outbreak, and activists fear potential public health repercussions. 

  • Since January 2020, cruise ships were forced to reduce the sulfur in their emissions in an effort to curb air pollution. Many ships used scrubbers – a machine that scrubs some of the pollution out of the exhaust from the fuel and splashes it into the ocean. According to a new study, 10 billion metric tons of polluted water are dumped into the ocean each year, especially in areas where marine life is already a concern. As of last year, Port Canaveral and Port Everglades prohibited scrubber wastewater discharges. The Ocean Conservancy has published a report asking the U.S. to ban scrubbers altogether. 

     

  • According to a newly released stormwater master planMiami will need to spend at least $3.8 billion over the next 40 years to prevent damage to the city from sea level rise. But even this won’t be enough to prevent flooding in its entirety. In the report, it is recommended that some areas should be abandoned in order to focus on those that are more likely to benefit from infrastructure solutions. A $3 billion plan is also in the works for the Florida Keys, with $1.8 billion allotted toward raising county roads.  

     

  • Every 10 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases new climate normals to establish what weather patterns are “average.” The newest report, which covers 1991 to 2020, shows that Florida’s temperature is rising. Though the average high for Florida has only gone up three-tenths of a degree and the low has gone from 52.1 to 52.7, these seemingly small numbers can have big impacts on the environment. Rising ocean temperatures threaten the ecology of coral reefs and can lead to sea level rise and the increased intensity of hurricanes. 
  • By bolstering and maintaining coastal habitats, Florida residents could mitigate impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, flooding and erosion. Volunteers in Manatee County supported this cause by transplanting cordgrass from a nursery to a bare patch of coastline, where mature grasses can capture mangrove seeds – and one day, where a mangrove forest will hopefully blossom. This project piggybacks on similar efforts in the county and beyond, creating healthy habitats for native plants and animals while protecting inland areas. 
  • As climate change increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters, the elderly in nursing homes face especially grave risks. A new report for the nonprofit news service Climate Central has found that South Florida nursing homes and assisted living facilities are at risk for flooding catalyzed by rising sea levels. In Broward County, it was found that in less than a decade, facilities with 244 beds could face frequent flooding, jumping to 400 facilities by 2050. As evidenced by 2017’s Hurricane Irma, evacuation of these residents can be complicated and rescues even more difficult. Though Broward County and other South Florida cities are working on plans to address these problems, some are concerned that the proposed solutions will not be enough. 
  • Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties will join several municipalities and an erosion prevention district to create the Southwest Florida Resiliency Compact. It’s among a handful of similar groups that have already formed or are in the works around Florida, each bonded with the goal of combatting climate change. This new compact will meet within the coming weeks to plan its operation to secure funding for climate resiliency down the road. 
  • The Miami-Dade County school district has become the first Southern school district to commit to switching entirely to clean energy by 2030. Recently, the district received a grant that lowers the up-front cost of diesel-free buses, allowing them to buy 50 electric buses. School Board members discussed a recent proposal that would create a “Clean Energy 2030” task force by May 26 to conduct a review of current sustainability measures and develop an implementation plan to be presented to the School Board by February 2022. 

What We're Reading

Environmental protection and social justice are deeply intertwined, and we cannot accurately communicate the environmental issues facing our state without acknowledging this relationship. In this monthly Earth to Florida segment, we will share articles and videos that help explain these connections.

Know Your Florida

Want to impress your friends with all you know about our beautiful state? Follow us on Instagram @KnowYourFlorida and get to know your state, your nature, your history – your Florida. See below for a fun fact from this month.
Surrounded by campgrounds and trails, Juniper Springs is located in the Ocala National Forest. The springs and surrounding recreation area are popular for swimming, diving, canoeing and hiking. An old mill house sits next to the springs pool and was used in the past by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a work relief program that was active during the Great Depression and worked to build many parks throughout the state and nation. Alligators, turtles, herons and more can be spotted at Juniper Springs.

Info from USDA Forest Service and The Guardian. Image from Flickr user apasciuto (CC-BY-2.0). 

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About the Institute

Started in 2018, the mission of the UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute is to advance communication and education about Earth systems science in a way that inspires Floridians to be effective stewards of our planet. 
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About Earth to Florida

Each month, a student-led team at the UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute curates Florida's environmental news and puts it into context by explaining what’s going on, why it matters and what we can do about it. We hope you enjoy this month's sampling.

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Have feedback for our team? Email earthsystems@floridamuseum.ufl.edu

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