COS biologist receives $700,000 grant

A College of Sciences biologist has received a $700,000 grant to complete the first-ever statewide study of the impact of rising sea level on some of the most vulnerable natural and human communities in Florida.

The grant, from the Kresge Foundation, will allow Reed Noss, Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor, to lead a team of scientists to map projected changes in sea level and identify the species and populations that will have to migrate or face extinction. The implications are profound for the state, which is low-lying and surrounded by water.

“Even at slow rates of change, sea level rise can cause communities to come apart as species respond to increasing salinity and other changes,” Noss said.

As the ocean rises by a projected 0.8 to 1.9 meters or more by the year 2100, vegetation such as coastal mangroves and salt marshes will be threatened, and mammals such as Florida’s endangered Key deer will be forced to relocate or perish. Migration is complicated, Noss said, by human infrastructure in the way and the fact that different species move at different speeds, meaning the entire ecosystem becomes disrupted.

“We have had entire salt marshes and mangrove forests drowned in place during periods of rapid sea level rise in the recent geological past,” he said, an event that, if repeated, would have a devastating impact on fisheries and other sectors of the economy.

The problem of a rise in sea level has become more pronounced in recent decades as the effects of climate change have led to increased melting of glaciers and polar ice sheets. Some estimates show that Florida could lose up to 10 percent of its land mass by 2060.

While many people mistakenly think of sea level rise as a purely coastal problem, Noss said, the research will likely show how many coastal residents would be forced to move and how that puts pressure on inland communities.

Thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission received earlier this year, the scientists’ research already has started.
Noss and his team, including Tom Hoctor, director for the Center for Landscape and Conservation Planning at the University of Florida, and Jon Oetting, conservation planner with the Florida Natural Areas Inventory, are working to determine at-risk species and habitats, map projected inundation and get aerial images of Florida’s coastline.

Part of the research conducted will be to interpret these images, taken with LIDAR optical sensing technology. John Weishampel, a UCF biology professor who specializes in building environmental models using LIDAR and other remote sensing instruments, and Scott Hagen, a UCF civil and environmental engineering professor who is an expert in using computer modeling and simulation to analyze storm surge and other impacts of sea level rise, will collaborate.

Scientists also will work with stakeholders such as regional and local governments, some of which are planning for sea level changes, to help predict where humans are likely to relocate and how those areas will be impacted by rising waters.

The final component of the research will be an effort to reach out to decision makers and the public to make them aware of the changes and help them plan for how to respond.
The Kresge Foundation, which awarded the $700,000 grant, funds projects to improve the life circumstances of poor and low-income children and adults, and those living in underserved urban and rural communities. A year ago the foundation announced new strategies geared toward helping society mitigate the serious impacts of climate change.
Noss, who came to UCF in 2002, has spent his career studying endangered species and ecosystems. This year, he edited a special issue of the scientific journal Climatic Change on sea level rise in Florida. In a 1995 paper, he identified Florida as the state to be impacted most by the problem.

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