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The building block of the Everglades is in danger

The building block of the Everglades is in danger

Ph.D. student is studying peat collapse to protect the iconic river of grass

February 25, 2020 at 10:37pm

Peat is in trouble. Lukas Lamb wants to help.

On visits to see what peat is up to, Lamb fights through thick walls of sawgrass that can grow as tall as seven feet. The sharp edges of the leaves slash at his limbs. Still, he keeps going, until the sawgrass starts to grow sparser and the ground grows softer beneath his feet. Suddenly, he’ll sink into a pool of water. At one time, when the water wasn’t so deep, this was the place he could find more sawgrass and more peat.

Peat — as in peat soil — is the backbone and building block of the Everglades. Lamb, a FIU Ph.D. student in the department of biological sciences, is researching how peat collapse has impacted sawgrass in the coastal Everglades. The data he’s gathering will be used to identify and detect areas vulnerable to future collapse.

Lamb knows losing peat would mean losing Florida’s iconic “river of grass.” That would trigger a vicious cycle of more severe storm surge and decreased water quality.

“Salt water intrusion is a silent killer,” Lamb said. “It’s coming up from beneath the ground, moving farther and farther inland.”

While the process may be invisible, the effects can be seen above the ground, especially in plants. Even one of the most tough, hardy plants in the Everglades — and the very fabric of the river of grass — sawgrass.

The Everglades, of course, desperately needs more freshwater to push back against salt water intrusion, prevent peat collapse and maintain the delicate balance of saltwater and freshwater. In 2000, Congress authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP, to fix the damage done by the flood control system that was put in place to drain the Everglades for agricultural, residential and commercial development. The largest hydrologic restoration project ever undertaken in the United States, CERP aims preserve and protect the Everglades by redirecting the freshwater flow.

Lamb’s research answers one of the most important questions of CERP. It will provide restoration managers and stakeholders much-needed specifics on where freshwater is needed to prevent or slow peat collapse. And because timing is everything to the future of the Everglades, it will also pinpoint when it can make a difference, like in times of drought or during the dry season.

In a race against rising seas, this data will also help save mangroves — and, in turn, peat soil. An unlikely symbol of hope for the future of the Everglades, these tough, gnarled trees are moving into inland areas where seagrass once flourished and helping to build up soil levels. For Lamb, a big part of his project is a matter of buying time for the mangroves to move into the marshes and help prevent peat collapse.

“If these sawgrass marshes collapse before the mangroves have time to move in, the water depths will be too deep for mangroves to even get started,” Lamb said.

Under the guidance of Associate Director of science of FIU’s Sea Level Solutions Center Tiffany Troxler, Lamb is using data from the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research program. His work is funded in part by the Everglades Foundation’s FIU ForEverglades Scholarship.