Michael J. Barry started to study the sea level rise on the coast of Southwest Florida 10 years ago as an employee of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. After becoming a private contractor, he continues to study the effects that sea level rise is having on the coast of the state, specifically the vegetation shifts inland due to saltwater intrusion.
Barry, 47, grew up in the southern end of Portage, Michigan with an interest in nature and the environment, but it wasn’t until college, Barry found a reason to make a living as an advocate for climate change and as a contractor documenting vegetation shifts in the mangrove swamps of Southwest Florida.
“Growing up in Florida, you have to really want to be in those mangrove swamps to do it, and I like it,” Barry said. “What we’re seeing out there and what we have seen out there is what already is and will affect us all.”
Although he has only been a contractor for 10 years, for the past 20 Barry has been paying close attention to sea level rise on the coast of Southwest Florida and watching changes in the environment accelerate relative to the average rate of change over the past 3,000 years.
Barry began studying pre-engineering for his undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan in 1985. But two courses instantly lured him away from pursing an engineering degree, and it cemented his decision to change majors and begin studying at the UM School of Natural Resources.
“The first two classes I took were, the biology of woody plants, and the global environment class,” Barry said as he laughed. “I did my term paper on climate modeling, so unfortunately I’ve been paying attention to this all along. If I hadn’t, I might have enjoyed my career a little more.”
Barry earned his B.S. degree in 1990. He took a year off to study in Costa Rica before he earned his degree.
Barry looked for work in his home state of Michigan, but the opportunity didn’t seem to be there at the time. He was looking for a rope to pull him in somewhere, so he searched for anything that he could grab on to.
“My connection to Florida is half my dad’s family was in the Tampa, central Florida area,” Barry said. “So, as kids we would come down every year, often time in the summer–the opposite of the snowbirds.”
He managed to pay off college loans before he made the trip and ultimate decision to relocate to Florida.
“At the Immokalee IFAS Center, at UF’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Science, they had a field-tech position open up for the citrus wildlife study,” Barry said. “There was a big citrus boom after the ‘89 freeze where it killed a lot of the citrus in central Florida. So, the cold north winds brought me down from Michigan.”
Prior to the collection of tidal stage data that began in Key West in the 30s, the sea level was considered to be rising at .04 millimeters every year, and this was the rate that sea level rise was averaging over the past 3,000 years Barry said.
The rate was 2.6 mm 10 years ago. This rate was the average rate of rise between the years from 1940 to 2005. It was calculated by Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, based on Key West stage data, Barry said. Today, from the recorded data and as of 2013, the sea is rising at a rate of 3.3 mm every year—and it’s only heading in one direction, Barry said.
“So, 20 years ago on Little Pine Island, we were looking at the effects of sea level rise on isolated rises out there,” Barry said. “I became familiar with the shift of vegetation, basically looking at dead trees with no regeneration of that species, being replaced by halophytic or salt tolerant species.”
Barry has been keeping up with the pace of sea level rise on the coast of Southwest Florida since 1995.
“The vegetation changes are a result of the tides,” Barry said. “Vegetation changes are also affected by drainage of wetlands and development. We are going to be losing a lot of habitat, especially looking at places such as Rookery Bay.”
Areas on the coast like barrier islands are only being affected by sea level rise, but the areas on the mainland have more extreme issues due to the compounding factors of sea level rise and drainage of wetlands.
Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is contracting Barry currently to monitor and study the changes that he has been monitoring since he started working in the state.
“The paid work on vegetation shifts on the coast started 10 years ago on Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife refuge,” Barry said in an email.
“The mangroves’ habitat is shifting up to higher elevations inland and converting the former non-mangrove species to mangrove-dominated areas,” Barry said.
With the changes that Barry has been recording for decades, he has recorded the effects that sea level rise will have on the vegetation, but also the effects it will have on the state and residents living near the coast, which includes Naples. He believes his research shows overwhelmingly conclusive results.
“The tide is rising here, and the evidence is obvious in the field,” Barry said.
When Barry provides data about shifts in vegetation, he is also showing his personal experiences that he, his colleagues and his family have had in Florida’s natural ecosystems.
“It’s true, out there in Florida, you have to want to be there when you’re outside between mosquitoes, the heat, the afternoon lightning storms, the snakes, the gators; you have to like it,” Barry said. “That’s never been a problem for me, so I’ve always had plenty of field work.”
Barry’s evidence has agreement from other sources regarding the patterns he studies and monitors.
“And in the southernmost Florida Keys, freshwater pine forests are shrinking and are being replaced by plants that live in saltwater,” according to the National Parks Service website. “In both cases, plants are responding to the conversion from freshwater to saltwater environments because of sea level rise.”
Barry gets direct indications of the effects that salt water is having on the natural ecosystems when he sees large numbers of dying buttonwoods and cabbage ponds farther inland. As the mangrove habitat moves inland it begins to disrupt other ecosystems such as the pinewood uplands, which are higher in elevation compared to the coastal mangrove swamps.
“With high temperatures and much less rain during the rainy season, that means less fresh water,” Barry said. “Our biggest challenge for the future is fresh water.”
Barry’s data shows changes in sea level rise, and it will begin to affect humans if these changes compromise the natural aquifers and freshwater wetlands farther inland.
“The thing is that, it’s not about me; it’s about the data that I work with that’s here in this coast,” Barry said.
At the rate that the sea level rises each year and increases, charts from organizations such as NASA, NOAA and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimate that the sea will rise to 2 meters by 2100, covering much of Southwest Florida.
“My son, if he lives to an average lifetime, he will see much of Naples go under water,” Barry said.
Barry believes that taxing to lower certain emissions that cause warming of the oceans and sea level rise to occur need to be implemented for now and in the future.
“The carbon tax is a thing we really need to move toward as a global community,” Barry said. “It’s basically putting a monetary value on the pollution. Based on what I’ve read in terms of what we can do for our future, that is the most important thing to support. That is what they’ve been trying to get people to agree with. Of course, half the electorate doesn’t think that is an issue.”
Originally recorded data in 1940, Barry has aerial photos that show changes on the coast of Southwest Florida between that year and as recent as 2014. The images show the erosion of barrier islands and the coast’s decrease in size, as well as the dying vegetation and changes to habitat like in the pinewood uplands.
“Whether I am seeing vegetation changes happening or not, the tidal stage data is there, and nobody is making this stuff up, and these are changes I have been watching my whole career,” Barry said.
“If people really want to know what is occurring they need to look at the data,” Barry said. “The data is there. You can say natural cycles, but people have been teasing out the natural cycles for years.”
Barry firmly believes that human activity plays a role in the changes that have occurred since industrialization and the developing of other technologies that have developed in the past hundred years.
“A lot of our forests and things have changed just over the last 18,000 years, and that is when things started warming, natural warming,” Barry said.
Barry stresses that the changes he has gathered and recorded–from the past 70 years to the present–are not simply due to natural occurrence.
“For me, I’ve been into the woods my whole life,” Barry said. “And you can see how I live. I don’t expect people to do the same things that I do, but what bothers me the most is not only are they not interested, but they choose to not even believe the data.”
“We’ve gotten better at controlled burning and techniques of exotic control,” Barry said. “Some pieces of land managed to fill in canals and start holding back the freshwater and building the aquifers up again. So, individual pieces of property have gotten better. We’ve nailed a lot of the melaleuca in the big cypress area, for example.”
“It’s the reality. It’s the planet we live on,” Barry said. “When you live in a house or in an apartment, and that’s your world, there are certain things you can’t do: You can’t bust up your chair and have a bonfire in your living room. You can’t turn on the faucets and let them run and overflow. We have constraints where we live.”
There may not be a final solution for the rate that the sea level is rising, but Barry sticks to his view on prevention and preparation.
“For me, the first thing to know, when living in Florida, is to conserve fresh water,” Barry said. “The next thing is to take climate change very seriously and support any collective political actions that are going to deal with it because it’s incredibly important.”
Barry enjoys being in the field more than anything. He wants to be in the mangroves, and he wants his data to reach the eyes of the masses, especially in Southwest Florida.
“It just so happens that a person like me with my background and my likes is certainly going to be the one that is going to go out and do this kind of work,” Barry said. “And what is out there is going to affect us all.”
Related to the research that Barry conducts is the research of Dr. Michael Savarese, a professor of marine science, at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Savarese studies the effect that erosion from sea level rise is having on barrier islands off the coast of Southwest Florida. The dunes that act as a natural-protective barrier to homes and vegetation farther inland on the islands are deteriorating on the Ten Thousand Islands. This is also at the cause of warming oceans and sea level rise Savarese said.
“The good news is we’ve only been experiencing maybe 100 years of this sea level rise, so it’s not dramatic,” Savarese said. “But if that persists, we will see a dramatic change in the near future.”
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