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Flying south
Loop around Loop Road

There’s always lots to see …

On a flight over Big Cypress Nat’l Preserve.

We flew clockwise around Loop Road

On this trip south of Tamiami Trail, we see a swamp mirror (reflecting the clouds), the Pinecrest Chain of Hammocks, Gum Slough, Loop Road, Sweetwater Strand and Gator Hook Strand and Trail.

big weather

Steaming swamp
Think hot asphalt after a cool rain

From the distance it looked like smoke …

Or maybe dust kicked up from the limerock road.

It looked primordial, but it was actually super chilled

Only upon closer inspection did we see it was steam.

The source?

Similar to a hot asphalt road steaming after getting cooled down by an afternoon shower, the wisps of water vapor hovering over the cypress stand were the result of an ice-cold drenching from a super thunder cell.

The super cell, looking north, about 15 mile east of the strand

As good fortune would have it, I actually took a photo of the thunderstorm about an hour before and 15 miles upwind from the steaming strand. The air among the wisps was incredibly cooled and the fragrance from the cypress intense. Landing and walking in the water was further proof.

The water was chilled as if it had hailed.

Ghosts of watersheds past

Age of litter
Geologic evolution of a tin can

How old is this marl prairie?

Judging from this upper layer I would say a good thirty years old.

If this were a car, we’d call it a classic

That’s when they stopped making pull tab cans.

The label was too faded to read.

About a week later I ran into this can floating plain as day in the center of a small cypress dome. It was also a pull tab, thus presumably about the same age, but I was shocked to discover in picking it up that its label read as clear as day. And that was one thick can! They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

It didn’t hurt it was protected by the shade.

The aluminum on this can was surprisingly thick

Bottom Line:

I wasn’t sure if I should pick it up and haul it out, or let it stay, untouched, as a mid-1970s archaeological find?

Pine high ground

High and dry in the pines
September is (usually) peak season in the swamp

You know we’ve finally hit the heart of the wet season …

When the pinelands are shallowly flooded.

Bar chart showing hydroperiod (i.e. duration of flooding) in the pines of Big Cypress National Preserve over the past 30 years.

Over the course of an average year, we can usually count on the hydric pines going under for a good 4 months of the summer/fall period and the higher-perched mesic pines getting inundated for about a month.

And usually September is reliably our peak water season.

Except this year.

The water table is inching up but still below the pine trunks.

Hydric pines during wetter times

That makes this year drier (i.e. less wet) than the drought summer of 2000

rain charts

Rain Table and Map
Swamp-wide view

No, water does not flow up hill.

But trying to keep up with it often feels like an uphill battle.

Table of monthly rainfall

My solution: No one graph, table or map usually tells the full story. You need a combination. And even then you usually have to be looking out the window, too. But looking out your window can be deceiving, too.

That’s where aggregating data by watersheds or basins comes in handy.

Rain for the past 7, 30 and 90 days (in inches)
Mythical Big Cypress

Big Cypress Watershed
Or is the term "mosaic" a better descriptor?

Animated cross section of the rise and fall of the water table in Big Cypress National Preserve
Swamp water cycle in motion

In the modern era, we’ve come to know the Big Cypress as a watershed. But what if I were to tell you, use of that term for the Big Cypress is as new as the preserve? Yes, that’s right, the day Big Cypress National Preserve was established in 1974, it was dubbed a watershed – it’s own watershed, a watershed separate from the Everglades and the Lake – and has been thought of in that pristine, almost utopian way, ever since. But the truth is the Big Cypress is only a watershed because its original “other sources” of water were drained away, or diverted.

Listen to Audio Introduction

What were those sources? Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades definitely flowed into the swamp. If you don’t believe me, just read the Buckingham Report from 1848. And prior to the destruction of the Ft. Thompson Falls and drainage of the Upper Caloosahatchee Basin (Lake Flirt, Lake Bonnet and Lake Hicpochee), the swamp was fed water through groundwater seeps from the Immokalee Rise.

Before, Current and Future Restored Maps of the Big Cypress Swamp
The rainfed swamp we know today was once fed by upstream water sources

So yes, in a way the Big Cypress we know today is a rainfall-sustained ruins of a pre-drainage cathedral of of headwater flows, now largely collapsed (by drainage). That doesn’t make the swamp any less special. In fact it makes it more interesting than we knew. And it also points to our need to steward water. The sky provides the Big Cypress with a bounty of water. But it needs help, our help, to make sure its clean, connected to its remnant headwaters where possible, and help it spread out.

And the swamp needs fire, too. Every square inch of flora and fauna in the swamp depends on a regular return interval and dosage of flood and fire. Those are the two forces that give the swamp its distinctive mosaic of habitats. The cypress may look “old as the hills” but they are actually holes — although it is incorrect to call it a homogenous swamp.

More correctly stated, it’s a malleable swampy mosaic that’s semi-fixed in time and space. Or as we like to say around here:

So goes flood and fire, so goes the swamp.

Slow-filling swamp?
Swamp fills slow for a second year in a row

Remember the years the swamp filled up early …

And instantly with a single storm?

This domes still waiting for its water

This year doesn’t appear to be one of them.

Water is soaking in for sure, and we’ve had our fair share of afternoon downpours, but the water table is lagging behind the pace of its normal summer rise.

Case in point:

I was greeted by a small puddle on a recent trip into the heart of a cypress dome. Normally by this time of year, late July, the entirety of the center of the dome is shin to knee deep.

Preservewide, current water stage (blue line) is a half foot lower than normal levels (dotted white line) for late July

That doesn’t mean we aren’t one big storm away, or the regular regime of afternoon storms doesn’t eventually fill everything up. The good news: domes to the south are filling up a little quicker than farther north.

And Pinelands, if you’re listening:

You should still be prepared to get your feet wet.

Calendar chart showing the history of flooding in Big Cypress Nat’l Preserve, 1992 to present

But it does cluster this year with that subset of slow-filling years, including the summer of 1998 (when I first arrived), 2004, 2015 and 2020.

Or in other words, make it two in a row.

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