FGCU professor: Climate change hitting SWFL; citizen action needed — Updated

10-21-19 Climate change lectureProf. Michael Savarese addresses the Collier County Democratic Club.      (Photo: author)

Oct. 23, 2019 by David Silverberg

Updated, Oct. 24 with link to Power Point presentation at end of article.

To an individual Southwest Floridian, the dangers of climate change can seem vast, global and intimidating.

What’s more, the impact of climate change is already being felt in Southwest Florida, which is particularly vulnerable given its coastal location.

But as big and as overwhelming as climate change may be, people can take action to protect themselves and their communities and make a real difference.

10-21-19 Michael Savarese
Michael Savarese

That was the message that Michael Savarese, a professor of Marine Science at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) brought to the Collier County Democratic Club meeting in North Naples on Monday, Oct. 21, in a lecture titled “Climate Change Preparedness and Community Engagement.”

Among those measures, residents can improve their preparedness for severe storms. They can urge their county and municipal governments to do more to build resilience to counter the effects of climate change. They can put a focus on mitigation, eliminating or reducing the impacts of carbon emissions. And equally important, they can educate friends and neighbors about the dangers looming ahead if nothing is done.

The problem

Climate change is already impacting Southwest Florida—sometimes severely, said Savarese.

Sea level rise is eroding more than the shore and beaches, he pointed out. It’s altering the terrain further inland. In wildlands, mangrove forests are moving inland, away from salt water invading their traditional territory. They’re going into what are now freshwater marshes.

Elsewhere, the seawater percolating inland is killing vegetation and leading to soil subsidence and the formation of brackish “pocks” in the landscape, particularly in parkland where there are no buildings or structures imposed on the environment. Those pocks expand and join together, creating lagoons of seawater where there was once dry land.

Sea level rise is threatening Southwest Florida’s barrier islands, where the interiors of the islands become seawater-infused and the vegetation dies. Though the rims of the islands remain, their centers disappear, like Pacific atolls. Sea level rise is eroding beaches, for example, at Keeywadin Island, where the back of the island becomes beachfront as existing beachfront erodes.

“Florida’s coastline is critically eroding,” he warned.

“Nuisance floods”—daytime, fair weather floods unrelated to storms—are becoming more common. These have plagued Marco Island, Goodland and Naples.

Climate change is also making storms more intense, slower moving and wetter so they do more damage when they reach land, as evidenced by recent hurricanes like Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Precipitation is changing as a result of climate change, altering past seasonal expectations. The traditional “dry” season is now wetter and its pattern is harder to predict.


Savarese didn’t just focus on the problems, he also suggested steps that citizens can take to address the challenge and he presented them in a very clear order:

  • Understand the vulnerabilities;
  • Plan to improve resilience;
  • Implement the plans;
  • Mitigate the conditions resulting from climate change.

“The key,” he said of the measures being taken, “is getting from here to there.”

Some changes are already underway. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is in its third year of studying Collier County’s vulnerability to sea level rise and storminess and is beginning the transition to planning to cope with it. On Sanibel Island, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Coastal Partnership Initiative project is studying the City of Sanibel’s vulnerability.

“The county and city levels are fully aware and understand the basic principles of vulnerability,” said Savarese. “I’m very much trying to get people to come together.”

There are obstacles. “You have to overcome this misinformation at the federal level at the state level,” he observed. “If it takes Collier County [alone] to take steps over 10 years and no [other community] does anything, it’s all over.”

Savarese had high praise for the environmental efforts of Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), whom he said had been an advocate for dealing with climate change and provided federal support for local efforts.

In addition to existing measures, the University of Florida and FGCU have created ACUNE (Adaptation of Coastal Urban and Natural Ecosystems), a Web-based interactive tool allowing researchers to model the path and impact of individual storms, flooding and other climate-related probabilities.

Cities, towns and counties are also banding together to create regional organizations that can pool information and resources and work together.

All these were encouraging actions, according to Savarese—but there’s a big gap.

“What are we doing about mitigation here?” asked a member of the audience.

“Nothing,” answered Savarese emphatically.

Collier County is doing nothing to mitigate the root causes of climate change in the local area, whether that would be reducing carbon being released into the atmosphere or cutting down other forms of pollution—and the need is urgent.

One action people can take is to join the Citizens Climate Lobby, an apolitical, non-partisan environmental activist group.

“There will be decisions made about funding adaptive planning and that effort will be important,” he said, urging his listeners to weigh in at the county and municipal levels when those decisions are discussed.

“If a city would sign a resolution saying that carbon-less is the way to go, that would be a beginning,” he said. “Have a target community that steps up, like the City of Naples.”

The state has appointed a “resilience officer” to oversee resilience measures. Counties and cities in Florida are doing the same. He suggested that appointment of resilience officers for Collier County and its towns would be a step forward.

Some of these steps seem very small in light of the enormity of the problem—but every single one is important, no matter how small it may seem. “Here in a community so entrenched in conservative values, it takes baby steps,” Savarese noted.

To see Prof. Savarese’s Power Point presentation, click here.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg


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