ecology

Rolling Swamp
And why the canopy doesn't lie

Swamps are flat and low …

Making it impossible to see a good view, right?

Big Cypress National Preserve’s Mullet Slough

That might usually be the case, but not in the Big Cypress Swamp. The reasons? The swamp ecosystem is full of mountain ranges of linear-running cypress strands and rolling hills of cypress domes. And yes, those strands and domes are actually places where the land dips (and water stays longest), but the canopy couldn’t be more clear: the swamp is a uniquely undulating terrain. And it’s not just from the sky that you can see the effect. The best vantage is probably best from the ground, in a marl prairie where the vista to the horizon is clear and the distant mountain ranges (strands) and hills (domes) abound. Or is the better view from the domes and strands themselves? Walking in the trees are dense at first, until it opens up and there you are — at the bottom of the tallest trees (the mountain tops) looking up.

More about the photo above: The deepest spot is the hole where there are no trees. As for the highest ground, that would be the green area in the middle that looks lower than everything else. The land in there is called a hardwood hammock and is actually dry all year round compared to the rolling (and flooded) hills of cypress around it.

Watersheds of south Florida

Lesser known sloughs
But just as important as Shark River

The Everglades top flow way?

Answer: Probably Shark River Slough.

The swamp has multiple flow paths

But if you hop the fence (actually it’s a levee) into the Big Cypress Swamp, the sawgrass plain gives way to a labyrinth of cypress strands, open marl prairies and pine island high ground. Major flow ways include Fakahatchee Strand, Mullet Slough, Okaloacoochee Slough, Turner River, Sweetwater Strand, and Gum Slough to name a few. Lostmans Slough is in Big Cypress National Preserve but it’s on the Everglades side of the Pinecrest picket fence. It’s actually not a fence, but discontinuous archipelago of remnant Miami limestone.

The map above isn’t exactly as the ecosystem still flows today, but more a peek back on how it might have worked prior to levees and canals. Did you know Lake Okeechobee use to flow into the modern-day Big Cypress National Preserve. My favorite flow system actually isn’t shown. It’s called Devils Garden, located on the eastern fringe of the Immokalee Rise. Depending on the season, it received flows from the Upper Caloosahatchee to the north, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades to the east and discharge from the Immokalee Rise to the west and discharged south into Cowbell Strand. Sounds more like an Eden to me.

Just a tree
And why that's good enough

When is a tree …

More than just a tree?

Available on Apple Podcasts and Podbean

Answer: It’s true, some trees are more famous than others. South Florida’s most famous tree may be at the “Lone Cypress Tree” at the shores (or what used to be the shores) of Lake Okeechobee. Or there may be a stately Royal Palm Tree or Royal Poinsettia Tree that really stands out in your mind. In the neighborhood across the road from where I live there’s a Ficus like no other tree I’ve ever seen. It has multiple trunks — a solid dozen of them — and consumes what appears to be the better part of an acre. But really in my book a tree is a tree and worthy of a second look, especially if it’s doling out a nice patch of shade.

winter

Florida’s 70° Rule
For measuring summer and winter

People winter in Florida, as in the verb.

We call them snow birds.

Naples enjoys 3 weeks of winter to 20 weeks of summer

To them, without a doubt …

Winter the noun does not exist in south Florida.

Major caveat: To us “year rounders” the thermometer couldn’t be more clear. We go by the 70 degree rule. What is the 70 degree rule? You know it’s a cold day in Florida when the daytime high doesn’t rise above 70° F. We call those day “winter.” On the other side of the coin, you know its a hot day in Florida when the nighttime low doesn’t drop below 70° F. Going by the 70 degree rule, Naples averages 18 days of winter and 130 days of summer. As for the rest of the days, us “year rounders” call those spring and fall; or in the parlance of the northerners, “– that’s ridiculous, it’s all summer!” Well, not if you’re a Florida weather connoisseur.

tidal

Two Floridas
One's mild and the other is less mild

How much colder is …

Naples from Gainesville, Florida?

Comparison of high and low air temperatures in Gainesville and Naples, FL

Answer: In terms of daytime lows dropping below 50 degrees, Gainesville has already recorded 15 compared to zero in Naples. In fact, there’s only been six nights in Naples that even dropped below 60 degrees. That’s not including wind chill. Nor does it factor in that you are also wearing shorts.

Interestingly, Naples and Gainesville are in the same neighborhood when looking at daytime highs. It’s the nighttime lows that separate them. But that’s splitting hairs really. Everywhere in Florida has a mild winter compared to most of the rest of the United States.

holidays

“Warm” Thanksgiving Wishes
And why the company matters most

You know it’s cold in south Florida …

When daytime highs don’t rise above 70° F.

The chart above shows Naples FL’s
daytime highs and nighttime lows
forecast for this Thanksgiving
and Thanksgivings past.

By that metric, South Florida was graced with three (3) consecutive Thanksgiving Days of winter-like (i.e. at or below 70°F) cool for the Thanksgivings of 2012, 2013 and 2014.  The past seven Thanksgivings have been warmer by comparison. The good news: this year’s won’t be too warm.  A daytime high of 80 sounds perfect to me. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone everywhere and remember it’s not about the weather — it’s about the company!

bobby angel

One more melaleuca
For the road (to retirement)

As contradictory as it may sound …

Sometimes saving a forest means cutting trees.

Stay on afterwards for the exclusive interview after the song

Specifically I’m thinking melaleuca in the Big Cypress Swamp, and even more specifically than that I’m thinking about a botanist named Tony Pernas. This Bobby Angel classic was written some 20 years back when Tony announced he was leaving Big Cypress National Preserve for the greener pastures of the Everglades and sung at his farewell party. Backstory: Tony had mentioned to me in passing that One More Cup of Coffee was his favorite Bob Dylan tune. Thus when it came time to write his farewell song, it only made sense to use the same chords.

More backstory: As is the case with all prodigal sons, Tony eventually returned — we call it “the missing 15 years” — and eventually went on to become the Resource Management Chief of Preserve. Fast forward the clock eight years later, and word just broke: After over 40 years of government service, Tony is retiring. Or “hanging up the ax” as exotic plant eradicators like to say. Not to worry: Tony will still be involved in a Phantom 2.0 type of way (i.e. filling swamp-rat extraordinaire Fred Dayhoff’s old shoes).

To say that Tony will be leaving behind a void is the understatement of the year. And by void, I mean all the melaleuca trees he cut down. Be sure to stay on for the interview after the song to hear Bobby Angel riff on comparisons to Bob Dylan, what makes Bob Dylan and Michael Jordan great, why he gave up guitar for 20 years, and why melaleuca is such a scourge.

water table

Feast and famine
Why the summer bounty never lasts

One thing we can count on with the water cycle …

No two years are alike.

Hydrograph of water levels in Big Cypress National Preserve comparing this year (blue line) to last year (red line)

Yes, it’s true: We have the average year (shown as the “normal range” band in the hydrograph above) that we compare current conditions to. But in my memory we’ve yet to see a year that stays completely within the “normal range.” This year for example, water levels in the swamp were tracking low for much of the summer. Then came a wet end of September and above average October rains, plus a drenching November rain. The result? Water levels are above the normal band. But how long will that last? Answer: Probably not as long as last year’s record wet winter. However, even last year’s record TS Eta rain event, the water table still dropped down into a fairly deep drought by the end of the spring.

No matter how big the summer bounty of rain, canals and levees rig the swamp for a dive into spring drought without the timely arrival of dry season rains.

Fakahatchee Freeway?
Deep Lake Road isn't bad either

Nothing against the number 29

In my mind it’s just as good as 41.

SR29 is more damaging than the Tamiami Trail

My beef is this: People drive on State Road 29 all the time thinking it’s just another country road. But how could they not? All anybody knows it by is the stand-alone and rather non-descript alphanumeric code — SR29.

The road is greatly underappreciated, and a missed opportunity in my book. Consider for example that it cuts through the heart of the Big Cypress Swamp, straddling two of the region’s most famous strands (i.e. Fakahatchee and Deep lake Strands). And did you know it passes right by Deep Lake, one of South Florida’s most iconic natural ponds? The Lake in fact was the road’s original destination … before it got extended north. And here’s what bugs me most about non-descript SR29: it completely severs flows to the crown jewel of the Big Cypress ecosystem — Fakahatchee Strand. 

Call me a dreamer, but in my opinion a name change (i.e. rebranding) to the road could be the first step (i.e. a catalyst) to getting it fixed. How does Fakahatchee Freeway or Deep Lake Road sound?

strands and sloughs

Baby Strand
Can you see Monument Lake?

Or maybe cypress tendril …

Is a better term.

Looking northeast towards the Tamiami Trail

The reason? The word “baby” implies that it’s younger than an adult (or larger) strand, or that in the years hence it will grow to a larger size. What we do know is that the cypress find the lowest spots in the marl prairies to grow, partly because of the deeper peat and partly because that peat stays wetter longer than the higher-lying marl prairie on either side. And it’s not so much that cypress love water, they do. Rather it’s surviving that sets them apart. Wetter longer means being less susceptible to wildfire when it sweeps through.

It’s a flood and fire adapted swamp. So goes flood and fire, so goes the swamp.

wave

Sheet and spring flow
Similarities and differences

One spreads out …

And the other discharges from one spot.

Sheet flow in Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Spring flow at Silver Spring in Ocala, Florida

Other differences? One flows all year round. The other lasts for a few months. One gushes fast. The other moves as slow as snail. One is ground-fed and the other gets its water mostly from the sky. One is deep reaching down into underwater caverns that require Scuba gear to explore. The other is shallow thus allowing you to explore by foot (so long as you’re willing to get your socks wet).

As for similarities? Both are crystal clear in their undisturbed state. And both are tranquil beyond belief. Most of all, both need our help to keep them that way.

Ghost farmers in the sky
And how rock plowing saved the swamp

Swamp buggies sort of resemble tractors …

But the days of farming The Big Cypress are long gone.

The furrows are easy to see from the air

As easy as the furrows are to see from the sky …

At ground level you’d swear they weren’t there.

But invisible from ground view

Sometimes you have to be far away to properly focus in. It also raises the question. What caused so much agricultural land to be abandoned? By the time the Preserve was established in 1974, the era of tomato farming had come and gone. The reason? Apparently the advent of rock plowing on the Miami coast made farming in the flood prone swamp economically unfeasible. Nothing against tomatoes and as sorry as I am for the farmers who were put out of business, I’m oodles more happy for the marl prairies that recolonized by and large with native plants.

animate drop sweater

High or normal?
It depends on your baseline

Discharge from Silver Spring …

Appears to have risen in recent years.

Animated chart showing current year discharge rates compared to the recent (post 1993) and distant (pre 1993) past

But that’s only the case if you compare what you see now to what we’ve seen in the past thirty years, i.e. the recent past. I like to say that everyone has a “born on date” for understanding places. The Big Cypress Swamp for example was born five to six thousand years ago, but I didn’t arrive until 1998. So for me, in a way that was my personal “born on” date. The only change I know is what’s happened after I arrived.

So yes, Silver Spring has been flowing bountifully this past month and year compared to the recent past. But a deeper look at the historic record shows that today’s same “high” discharge rate is actually just “normal” compared to the sixty year span from 1932 to 1992.

Thus the question: Can Silver Spring’s past glory be reclaimed? And if so, how? The first step is protecting what we have.

editorial

Steady decline
And can it be stopped?

Nobody can shut off a Florida Spring …

Or can we?

History of discharge (in cfs) from Crystal Spring, FL

The answer is yes. It happened to Kissengen Spring. Once a popular tourist draw and water hole, nearby groundwater pumping dried up the spring the river run it fed. But surely that could never happen to Silver Springs, a first order magnitude artesian spring. Some would call it Florida’s crown jewel. Just a few year back I was at the spring marveling at the volume of water it produced. If you’ve never seen a Florida spring, they are a “must see.” The water manifests itself as the surface as a crystal clear boil of rolling water flowing non-stop day and night all year long.

Looking back at the historical data for the site — and we should all thank the U.S. Geological Survey for having the foresight to start collecting it in 1932 — the volume of water gushing out of the spring has declined over the decades, starting in the 1990s and dropping down even more in the 2000s. The good news? Spring volume rebounded back to near normal levels (between 700-900 cfs) in recent years. It’s still not what it was (prior to 1990), and future depletion is a real threat. But there is a plan in place to save the spring and its flows. Click here to find out more.

water table

All season spring
Sheet flow and spring flow compared

Florida’s Silver Spring …

Almost looks like it’s boiling.

The swamp’s sheet flow and Ocala’s Silver spring are currently flowing at about the same rate

And during the winter it is quite warm. But only because the air temperature is cold, or cooler than the water below. So yes, it is therapeutic to swim in during the winter at the same time getting out is quite cold. Paradoxically, the same boil of water water turns refreshingly cool each summer. And not because it’s appreciably cooler. Rather, the onset of Florida’s hot and humid season makes a plunge underneath its surface invigoratingly crisp.

The magic behind Florida’s freshwater springs are that they are ground-water fed. That keeps its water at a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit and keeps it at a fairly constant flow rate all year round. Compare that the boom and bust wet and dry season cycle of the swamp’s sheet flow.

Which one flows more? At one spot, I’ll go with the springs. But spread out across the landscape, the swamp wins every time. Caveat: It has to be summer.