Hit by a hurricane, Everglades National Park adapts to changing climate

Editor’s Note: To mark US National Park Week, CNN Travel is featuring several stories about the country’s national parks, seashores, historic sites and more.

Everglades City, Florida CNN  — 

Seen from above, Everglades National Park looks vast and timeless, a rippling marsh that merges with the horizon in every direction.

The largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, it’s the only place on Earth where crocodiles coexist with the American alligator, an ancient carnivore that survived the dinosaurs and predates human life by more than 140 million years.

Encompassing 1.5 million acres of mangroves, sawgrass marshes and upland forest, the Everglades is the leading edge of coastal Florida, and like a massive shock absorber, it soaks up the fury of passing storms.

When Hurricane Irma heaved across the Caribbean in September of 2017, the Everglades swallowed rain and storm surge, sheltering inland communities.

Seven months later, Everglades National Park is still in recovery, and far from being the ageless landscape it first appears, the Everglades is in flux. Many scientists say tropical storms are worsening, bringing an uncertain future for Florida’s coastal ecosystems and cities as sea levels continue to rise.

But with an economy that depends on tourism for survival, locals from park rangers to fishing guides are eager to get out the message that much of this destination is vibrant as ever.

The impact of Hurricane Irma

When Hurricane Irma made landfall, entire roads and campgrounds in Everglades National Park were submerged, washed by rain and storm surges that ranged from 3 to 9 feet. In the weeks after the storm, a focused cleanup effort aided by hundreds of volunteers and park service staff from outside the area reopened almost all the park to visitors.

Of the five visitor centers in Everglades National Park, just the southern entry points of Ernest F. Coe and Royal Palm were mostly undamaged, opening their doors shortly after the storm. Popular with both visitors and 1,000 pound alligators, the Anhinga Trail boardwalk near the Royal Palm visitor center was among the first trails to be cleared.

In the northern part of the park, Shark Valley Visitor Center remained flooded for weeks, then opened to the public after receding water revealed a sawgrass landscape that was mostly undamaged, including paved tram routes, trails and roads that are a favorite for spotting alligators as they bask at the edge of the water.

Closer to the ocean, the Gulf Coast Visitor Center was hit by storm surge that clocked in at 8.78 feet, and it was still closed in early April, with a temporary “visitor contact station” and portable toilets available. After sustaining heavy damage from high winds and a 3- to 5-foot storm surge, the coastal Flamingo Visitor Center is now partially reopened, with kayak rentals and ranger-guided outings.

Free, ranger guided tours of the Anhinga Trail depart daily from Royal Palm Visitor Center. Tram Tours of Shark Valley are available from $25/adult, $19/senior, $12.75/child.

Rangers also offer guided flamingo tours, while kayaks and canoes can be rented from the onsite concessionaire.

Walking, camping, boating

And even after the destructive storm, there’s plenty to explore in Everglades National Park. In the beloved Long Pine Key campground near the southern entrance to the park, sites are still shaded by palm and palmetto forest and open until April 30 (the campground closes for budget reasons during the park’s slower season of May through November 14). The first-come, first-served campground is often in high demand, but Alan Scott, the park’s chief of resource education and interpretation, noted that “numbers are definitely down in places because people know we got hit by a hurricane.”

As campers return to sleep inside the national park, that means they’ll enjoy an unexpected gift from Hurricane Irma: more space and quiet than in recent years.

After being closed due to infrastructure damage and high water, the Pa-hay-okee Trail is once again one of the park’s most popular walks, passing through a sawgrass wetland near Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, which serves the Everglades’ southernmost road entrance.

Backcountry camping sites along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway that links Flamingo and Everglades City are fully open after months of repair, and boaters are once again free to explore the maze of channels and islands. Submerged debris remains a hazard, however, and the national park expects cleanup efforts to stretch through 2018.

A changed landscape

Though Hurricane Irma swept into Florida accompanied by dramatic headlines, storms are nothing new for the Everglades.

“When a storm hits, they’re pretty well equipped to survive,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, the deputy director of Audubon Florida. “In part because of where they’re located, they’re built to be able to withstand a lot of weather impact, like storm surge, wave action and wind.”

And as the Everglades snaps back from a hurricane season of record-setting intensity, travelers have a remarkable chance to see a fascinating landscape in transition.

In some places, Florida’s prolonged drought and fire suppression meant forests were overgrown, with thick vegetation that blocked sunlight from reaching the forest floor. A fire or a storm can clear things out, a boon for plants and animals on the ground.

But Hurricane Irma was remarkably powerful, setting a global record for high wind speeds over an unusually long time, and much of the park sustained damage that will be visible for years.

“I was shocked to see how many of the pine trees are broken,” said the park service’s Scott, “and some mangrove trees got completely stripped of their leaves.”

Sponges that provide filtration within the mangroves have been destroyed, resulting in muddy surface water in some coastal areas, while many trails are lined with fallen debris.

The park’s abundant large wildlife, from manatees to American crocodiles, was mostly unharmed by the hurricane, but the animals may prove hard to spot through the remainder of the 2018 season. An influx of fresh water has delayed the Everglades’ “dry down,” the yearly event when water levels recede, concentrating fish and other wildlife in confined pockets where they’re most visible to visitors.

Fallout varies for each species.

“These high waters are bad for the wood stork,” said Scott, “but it’s been so high for so long that the snails are doing really well — that means that the snail kite, another endangered species, is having a much better time at feeding.”

See the Everglades’ three mangrove species — black, white and red — on the West Lake Trail, which remains open despite 300 feet of boardwalk that were destroyed by Hurricane Irma.

Sighting an endangered snail kite remains rare, but park staff recommend bringing your binoculars to Nine Mile Pond (PDF) on the park’s Main Road, where the raptors come to feed on abundant apple snails.

An uncertain future

While many love the sight of scores of alligators, more elusive large wildlife might not be a bad thing. For decades, the massive clusters of alligators that the Everglades is known for have been a symptom of a thirsty ecosystem cut off from fresh water, long diverted to create viable land for farms and development.

The high fresh water levels in early 2018 are the result of two converging factors: Even as Hurricane Irma dumped a remarkable amount of rain along the length of Florida, a planned rerouting of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee flowed into the park.

It is hoped that more fresh water might offset the creeping salt beginning to change the face of the Everglades, hypersalinization that’s testing the salt tolerance of the park’s freshwater plants.

“It would be difficult to understand how the Everglades works without evaluating both the effects of climate change and water management,” said Dr. Tiffany Troxler, principal investigator at Florida International University’s Wetland Ecosystems Research Lab.

With a front row seat for watching the Everglades react to a changing climate, Troxler has seen ever-increasing levels of salinity, encroaching seawater and the growth of “white zones,” areas of low biological productivity whose spread is thought to be spurred by decreased fresh water in the Everglades.

Reason to hope?

Despite the challenges facing the Everglades, the National Park Service’s Scott saw Hurricane Irma as a reminder that nature can sometimes bounce back better than Florida’s built landscape.

“We all went through the hurricane outside of the park where we have homes and neighborhoods, and those were pretty much a disaster,” he said.

After experiencing that devastation, coming into the park was a relief. “There were trees down, there was flooding, but it still looked like the Everglades.”

As Scott explored the Everglades in the days after the storm, he found reason for optimism. In the freshwater marsh surrounding Royal Palm, a visitor center set miles away from the coast, Scott stooped to pick up a propagule, the pod-like seed of a coastal red mangrove that had been carried by wind and water all the way from the sea.

“We’re seeing the impact of sea level rise in our soils and we’re seeing the impact of saltwater on the marl prairies,” he said, referring to the park’s sprawling, freshwater prairies. But the propagule was a reminder that the Everglades, too, can change, that if sea level rise remains within certain limits, those inland marshes might someday be coastal mangroves.

It’s a resiliency Scott sees year after year in the Everglades. “This is a place where hurricanes happen, freezes happen, floods happen, and fires happen, all in the same year,” he said. “The Everglades as an ecosystem — and the wildlife and the plants that are in it — are super tolerant.” Only time can tell whether that tolerance will keep pace with the changing climate.