More than 30 percent of the trees on Big Pine Key died in the months following Hurricane Irma.
This last remaining functional pine rockland in the Florida Keys is at risk of becoming an underwater ghost forest, according to a team of FIU researchers. For hundreds of years, these trees have managed to thrive on the island’s harsh limestone surface. Now, they face an uncertain future.
Hurricanes have always hit the Florida Keys. Yet, the pine rocklands always found a way to recover. Rising seas are changing this. The researchers — who’ve tracked the changes on Big Pine Key for more than two decades — discovered that storm surge is washing more salt water onto land and choking the trees that depend on freshwater for survival. This can have devastating, long-term consequences.
“Once you start losing adults, you can’t produce enough young for the next generation,” Michael Ross, professor in FIU’s Department of Earth and Environment, said.
Ross, who led the research, has studied the pine rockland forests in South Florida since 1988. Back then, he remembers visiting Sugarloaf Key and seeing standing dead pine trees poking up into the sky like tombstones in a graveyard. Over time, the once-thriving pine rockland forest was wiped out by salt water intrusion. Now, Ross may be watching history repeat itself on nearby Big Pine Key.
“I always take a long view approach. The decline of ecosystems is a slower process than my lifetime — or, at least, I thought so. But in this case, it really isn’t,” Ross said. “But, I’m also a part of a generation that has to come up with solutions. I want to contribute to figuring out the best path forward.”
The findings were published in Estuaries and Coasts.