GAINESVILLE --- When University of Florida researchers first looked into Florida west coast residents' complaints of dying palms, they thought the cause was a disease.
But in a landmark study recently published in the journal Ecology, a team of UF and U.S. Geological Survey researchers concluded the cabbage palms and many other coastal trees are falling victim to saltwater exposure tied to global sea level rise. The phenomenon may be a more immediate threat to coastal forests on Florida's west coast than commonly recognized, partly because small increases in sea level can affect large areas of extremely flat coastline on the west coast, and partly because development and farms impede forests from growing anew on higher ground further inland, the researchers say.
"What this does for me is bring home the global problem of sea level rise," said Francis Putz, a UF professor of botany and member of the team that worked on the project.
The research team launched the project seven years ago at the Waccasassa Bay State Preserve south of Cedar Key in Levy County, dividing forested islands with differing elevations into 400-square-meter plots. They tagged and counted all the trees and seedlings and monitored groundwater salinity and tidal flooding. Over the next three years, they returned to the sites periodically to note changes to the tree populations and correlate them with measurements of tidal flooding and changes in groundwater salinity.
Despite the relatively short duration of the study, many trees died by the end of the field research. Although some of the deaths were attributed to the 1993 Storm of the Century, some occurred before the storm.
"Trees died during the course of the study in several island plots, changing
community composition ... Southern red cedars were lost from two of the four
most frequently flooded stands, leaving cabbage palms as the only tree species
in three plots," the study said, noting that the cabbage palms were usua
Contact: Aaron Hoover
University of Florida