No square inch of the Florida Keys is more than twenty feet above sea level. As Hurricane Irma approached this week, experts predicted that the sea would surge by between five and ten feet. Evacuations were ordered days ago, though some residents stayed, and by Sunday morning the National Weather Service’s Key West station was tweeting out last minute advice to anyone still uncertain: “***EVERYONE IN THE FLORIDA KEYS*** / *** IT’S TIME TO HUNKER DOWN.***” Lobsters headed for deeper waters. A pair of parrots sought shelter on a twenty-second-story windowsill at a Miami hotel. In Key West, the few people who had remained gave sun-blasted, blustery interviews to local reporters. A man posed for photographs in swimming trunks and flippers and said that he was planning to rescue anyone who needed rescuing. A Key West resident named Chris Bergh, who on Thursday had evacuated to a high point midway up the Florida peninsula called Lake Wales Ridge, took stock of the situation from there. “People are complicated,” he said.
Bergh has a long view of the Keys. He is an ecologist, in charge of the Nature Conservancy’s work in South Florida, especially the group’s efforts to protect the vast coral reef that runs through and beyond the Keys. Bergh grew up in the Keys, and has been skindiving in these waters since the nineteen-seventies. He remembers a time when the coral came so close to the surface that you worried it would scrape your belly as you swam by. Swimmers don’t worry about this anymore. The increasing warmth and acidity of the oceans have prompted the coral to recede, and have converted pine woods along the Keys’ coasts into mangrove ones. The naturalist’s disposition is generally toward what endures, but to have watched the environment in South Florida recently, Bergh said, is to be in awe of how much has changed “before my eyes, in the span of one human lifetime.”
Across Florida this week, the stress of an approaching hurricane has been accompanied by a feeling that things will not simply reset afterward, that the storm is not a one-off. The politics of climate change are as complicated in Florida as anywhere else in the country, but perhaps it is easier to see a pattern when facing the country’s second cataclysmic storm within a week. “If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is,” Miami’s Republican mayor, Tomas Regalado, said Friday. “This is truly, truly a poster child for what is to come.” To the east of his city, the Army Corps of Engineers recently finished pouring two hundred and twenty thousand cubic yards of sand onto the beaches, to replenish what is being lost to erosion. “This is a lesson that we need protection from nature,” Regalado said. It was that, but it was also a reminder that nature needs protection from us, too.
From the comparative high ground (at least in Florida terms) of the Lake Wales Ridge, Bergh described what has already changed in the Keys, and how Irma might complicate the situation further. The Keys’ reef sits especially close to a large human population, as reefs go, and so it is under regular assault from wastewater, from dropped anchors and lobster traps, from ordinary traumas and pollution that can break off limestone coral. It is under further pressure, these days, from blights of coral bleaching, and from a devastating disease that is thought to also be related to the changing conditions of the ocean and is progressing south along the reef. In many places, for reasons that also remain mysterious, coral has been replaced by an anemone called Palythoa, which blankets reefs without excreting the limestone skeleton that grows the coral. In the generally flat and featureless underwater landscape of the Carribbean, reefs are places where life congregates. The coral cover is now less than half what it was since when Bergh started his work on reefs. “You used to knock down a reef and the reef rebounded,” Bergh said. “Now it’s harder for the reef to rebound.”
Hurricanes accelerate these changes. Huge waves, cohering in the wind, shatter the coral. Sand from the ocean floor, kicked up by the tumult, further abrades it—just as sandblasting might, Bergh said. His current project is to try to replenish the reef by growing coral onshore and then transporting it offshore, in the same way that you might try to regrow a forest. But the faster-growing corals he uses in this project are also those most at risk of being broken in a storm. Later this week, once Hurricane Irma moves on, the waves recede, and the sand settles, Bergh will be out on the reef once more, inspecting the damage. Until then, there is just the certainty of change, the knowledge that the Keys, shaken by the storm, will come out differently than they were before.
Mavis Staples on Prince, Trump, Black Lives Matter, and Her Exercise Regimen
Amid the turbulence wrought by the current Administration, the singer makes clear that her loyalty remains with the oppressed.
By Elon Green