Rising Sea Levels are Changing Florida’s Gulf Coast

The natural landscape and indigenous species inhabiting the islands near Florida’s Gulf Coast are being threatened by rising sea levels due to a rapidly changing climate.

By Susan Cerulean


September 2015

Rising Sea Level

The beautiful islands in the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are rapidly changing as rising sea levels threaten biodiversity.

Photo by Fotolia/12ee12

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Since her childhood, Susan Cerulean has explored the natural wildlife and terrain of Florida’s northern Gulf Coast islands. In her book Coming to Pass (University of George Press, 2015); she contrasts her experiences as a youth to the rapidly changing environment of these islands today. She points to rising sea levels caused by anthropogenic global warming and calls for more human responsibility in protecting the world that holds us. This excerpt, which discusses a microcosm of this phenomenon on St. Vincent Island, is from the Introduction, “The Passing of a Palm Cathedral.”

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Cabbage top is a crescent of sand, thin as the smile of a three-day moon. Like every bit of Florida’s coastline, it is sinking into the sea. 

This floating cathedral of palm trees tethered to St. Vincent Island’s furthest flank is a singular orienting feature in Apalachicola Bay. But when winter fogs zipper the horizons up tight, you can’t see Cabbage Top at all. You lose even the cardinal directions until the sun burns back through. 

Of all St. Vincent Island’s wild geographies, Cabbage Top— labeled on older maps as Paradise Point—had seemed the most impossible to reach, on foot or by boat. I often thought about it as I explored other parts of the island, wondering what it might look like and how I might approach it. I imagined a deeply shaded hammock, refuge of red wolf and sambar deer.

My husband, Jeff, and I chose a clear February morning to run our skiff up the miles of the sound and explore the place for ourselves. We timed our trip to take advantage of a full moon–swollen tide and a predicted swing of the wind from west to south to east. The bitter air would run at our backs both coming and going, easing our travel along the sound.

We motored past things we knew: a favored resting place of white pelicans and the Pickalene Bar, where redfish run and wintering bald eagles squat among the oysters. We flew right by the mouth of Big Bayou, where Buddy Ward’s sons still hold oyster leases and watch over the coming and going of each boat that ventures into that shallow bay. 

“Give me a stab!” called Jeff. I leaned over the boat’s nose and sounded the water with a paddle.  “Still got two feet,” I said. “I think we’re going to be good.” I scrambled back to the stern, and we floated our unweighted bow right up to Cabbage Top’s beach. I jumped ashore and looped a line around the trunks of two palms. To the east, a tidal creek defined the island’s end. The western tip tailed off into a palmflush strand overtopped by two slash pines tall enough to serve a single eagle. One pine was dead, its roots killed by salt. 

Many of the palms were dying as well. If you only thought of the headless trees as beautiful pillars holding up the sky, if you had never heard their emerald fronds talking in the wind, then the lopped-off tops of the trees might not have saddened you. Maybe you would not even know what voices no longer were speaking— I mean the ceaseless clattering leaves of the palm, which translate the air’s movement into a language louder and more specific than any words. You might have said that the empty chalice of a root ball, where a palm recently stitched to the land, was a baptismal font. You might have tipped your fingers into that round rainwater pool and tasted its wild-caught liquid on your tongue. You might have stroked the smooth concrete of one of the trunks and believed it fine and strong. You might have drummed your hands against it, and the tree would have responded to your touch with a hollow thrum, a tall percussive instrument standing in the sun. But if you laid your weight against it, both you and the tree would have fallen.

That day on Cabbage Top I understood with my eyes and in my bones what the scientific data so clearly show: the oceans are swelling. Florida, the last landscape on our continent to emerge from salt water, is sifting back into the sea. Our coast will never be the same as it is today, not even tomorrow. I looked around Cabbage Top, a point of land I had only just met, a crowded barge of dying green plants, a refugee from its own island. I knew its time was limited. 

Cabbage top sits on the trailing margin of northwest Florida. There, at the mouth of the Apalachicola River, four islands—Dog, the two St. Georges, and St. Vincent—stud a slim necklace of emergent sand that dangles into the Gulf of Mexico. To the west and the east, the peninsular spits of Alligator Point and Cape San Blas clasp the chain to the coast. Perhaps if you studied a map or a satellite photo, you wouldn’t see the curve of a necklace but something more like a wishbone. Cape San Blas and the islands could be clavicles hugging their lagoons to the land, and Cape St. George, the bold breastbone, their point of fusion. 

This stretch of Gulf Coast, like all the edges of our continent, has served humans so well that we believe its present configuration will always be under our feet. Nearly three-quarters of Florida’s human population live or work in coastal areas. Even when hurricanes rearrange whole communities and roads fall into the sea, we cash in our insurance and rebuild. We think of these coasts as permanently constrained by legal definition or at least by an informal agreement cemented over generations of living by the water.

Throughout my life as a biologist and a writer, I have worked for several nonprofits and two state agencies searching for ways to protect Florida’s natural lands and wildlife. I wrote about the endangered Florida panther and the splendid swallow-tailed kite, and how to create a backyard refuge for wildlife. I helped design a program to monitor Florida’s nongame wildlife, and as data from those bird counts and mammal surveys accumulated, I began to understand the downward trend in numbers—and in numbers of kinds. Always, it seemed to me that my colleagues and I worked in a defensive stance, trying to shore up losses. 

During all these years, the northern Gulf Coast has been my refuge. I wanted to learn its islands as if I’d always lived there, and as if unbroken generations of my people had before me. I wanted to learn the intricacies of bird migrations and how to feed myself and my family from the sea. As I camped, fished, and counted birds, I became curious about the age of the islands and how they had come to be. 

But the world was already changing. I could see how storms and the rising sea were rolling over the black needle rush marshes where clapper rails slip and seaside sparrows sing. I tracked pines and cedars killed by salt, far up Shepherd Spring Creek and the Pinhook River, Money Bayou, and the backsides of the islands. I tabulated declines in the annual Christmas Bird Counts. 

I am not native to the northern Gulf of Mexico. I was raised near the New Jersey shore. But each of us is fully indigenous to the Earth. No matter the bioregion of our origin, injuries our species has perpetrated against our planet’s climate and biodiversity grieve us. We may not know with scientific precision the extent of the wounds that pierce and accumulate, but we live with the loss. We know our beaches and our oceans, our neighborhoods and our trees grow quiet. All living things have language. They demonstrate with their bodies and their voices what they have to say. What the wild animals and the wild islands are telling us is this: you leave us no place to live. 

How can we change the trajectory of these losses? I have posed this question to scientists, to birdwatchers, to lovers of sea turtles, to activists, and to therapists. I listened for stories from the coast and its creatures. I have studied the cultural assumptions that allow this destruction to occur. I prayed for dreams to guide me. 

Not long ago I dreamed about a woman wearing a ceremonial cape pieced together from the feathers, skins, and bones of wild animals. Her garment was a crazy quilt, fashioned of white beach mouse fur, the plumes of an oystercatcher, and the pelage of a fox squirrel, attached to a helmet constructed from the bony skull and long bill of a brown pelican. A buffalo skin formed the back of the cloak. Woven throughout were tiny flowers of an endangered plant called butterwort. Bits of ancient clay pottery served as fastening buttons. 

At first I could find no comfort or direction from the dream. But as I thought about the long past of our coastline and its uncertain future, my night reverie became a helpful teaching and a guide for this book. It reminded me that in each fragment is the shape of the whole, and that my task was to unearth and stitch together what I could of the stories of the coast, and of the animals and people who have lived here. 

My hope in bringing together the stories in this book is to reconstitute something like the cape in my dream, to warn us and guide us as we ride this coastline we love so dearly into an uncertain future. Some of the stories describe extinction of land, climate, and beings; others simply reflect the beauty and wonder I have seen. The stories may seem fragmented, not smooth and unbroken like the surface of the sea. But maybe this is a true thing, how we live in this time, trying to find our way back to wholeness. 

All my life, I have been coming to the coast. As a child, I lived with my family among the foothills of the northern Appalachians, about fifty miles from the New Jersey shore. I loved our leafy green town, but my geographical orientation was fixed due east toward the saltwater edge of the continent. My mother taught me to want the sea. If love and longing were enough to save the wild seacoasts, they would have remained unscathed. 

On our frequent trips to the shore, we never talked about the landscape we traversed—the coastal plain that stretched between home and the Atlantic Ocean. No natural landmarks or stories guided us. We had only the hanging green directional signs along the Garden State Parkway to show us the way. No one ever mentioned how the land and the sea roll on deep waves of time, or anything about the ten thousand years humans had lived in relationship to this coast before us. My family wasn’t alone in our ignorance about this place we nevertheless loved so dearly. 

The towns of Seaside Park and Seaside Heights had been built on a slim and delicate twenty-mile long peninsula, very like the islands I love in North Florida today. It never registered in my mind when we traveled there that we approached an island and crossed over a tidal lagoon in order to reach our destination. I barely noticed the ribbon of Barnegat Sound underneath our car as we rumbled over the drawbridge. All of our attention was focused forward. We competed to catch the first sight of the sea. This could have been a moment to notice that the beaches belonged to the continent’s barrier island system. What I learned instead was to follow my longing to be at the edge of the sea. 

Although I was not taught the anatomy of the coast, my sister Bobbie and I had full-body experiences with Barnegat Bay, the lagoon that divided the island peninsula from the mainland. My sister and I were small and skinny. The water was black and bitterly cold. Blue crabs sidled between clumps of sea grass on the bottom. If you stood long in one place, your toes would work their way down through the seaweed, and you might get pinched. 

The part of Long Beach Island that once had been natural dune and swale had been flattened, plotted into grids, and then covered over with beach-house communities. Every family we knew had their preferred place to visit at the shore. Our next-door neighbors, the Grambors, always drove to Mantoloking. The Ciandellas liked Sea Bright, and it was understood that the Guldens would summer at Lavallette. Middle-class shore towns—their streets and houses and stoplights—were undifferentiated and continuous. Only highway signs let you know when you had crossed from one community into the next. We never visited a salt creek, a shorebird rookery, an Indian midden, or an offshore bar. 

Once we arrived at the public beach of Seaside Heights, we trudged between the rental cottages, hobbled by towels, lemonade, a paper sack of peanut butter sandwiches, and one aluminum beach chair for my mother. From her seat on the sand, she watched so that we did not venture too far into the cold, indigo Atlantic. You could not see her eyes nor read her mood behind her mask of sunglasses and Kent cigarettes, but I knew my mother would be staring beyond our play, in the direction of her own private longings. Time at the beach helped my mother contain the extremes of her life. She oversaw the happiness and safety of her children and, at the same time, looked to the impossible horizon of her unarticulated dreams. 

It was the 1950s, and then the 1960s, and our family was part of the middle-class metropolitan population with enough leisure time to go to the beach for fun. Gas was plentiful and cheap; boxy station wagons that could accommodate big families were affordable; rail lines allowed my father to commute back and forth to Manhattan on the rare occasions we rented a cottage for a week. Proximity to New York and Philadelphia had led to the establishment of resort communities such as Atlantic City, Asbury Park, and Wildwood, during the first two decades of the twentieth century. 

The level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was three hundred parts per million and rising, but we knew nothing at all about that. Instead, corporate marketing taught us what we wanted, and television convinced us what we needed to buy. 

What I am saying is that we—an entire population—had no concept of the beach as part of a natural system, or the atmosphere of the Earth as a whole. We simply drove to the edge and got out of the car. That was what we knew, the front beach—and the bright lights of the boardwalk, of course. 

We did learn something of the habits of the coquina and the sand flea. As children we occupied the same shifting place on the sand. I knew that small fish and crabs lived in the trough behind the breakers, because we sometimes found them with our feet. We were familiar with laughing gulls and sandpipers (our catch-all name for all of the other shorebirds), and we knew the ghost crabs that dodged our dogs. But for the most part, we were preverbal and primitive in our understanding of our relationship to the landscape that we traversed and the coastal beings with which we shared it. 

Still, my parents gave me a great gift: abundant time to play and swim by the ocean. The shore is a regenerative and healing place for the human spirit, and children are resilient. We rolled in the hot sand and buried each other. We dripped liquid sand through our fingers to make castles, floated in black inner tubes we had picked up at a gas station until we were sleepy or seasick, and jumped the waves until our mother said our skin had turned blue. In these ways, I learned the fundamental rhythms of the coast through my body. And I came to believe that my personal territory, no matter how far inland I lived, included the closest, wildest coastline. 

Take away intention. I had none. Dismiss any thought of a plan. I drifted south after high school, drawn to the Gulf of Mexico. I didn’t know enough to believe in my destiny, so the northern mountains had to shake me loose, down the eastern seaboard. Not yet knowing my place on the planet, I waited tables on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, worked for a time as a field technician on South Carolina’s coastal plain, went to college in St. Petersburg and Gainesville, and finally found my way home to my life and my work in North Florida. Just as the Appalachian Mountains shed their rock to create the sandy coast I love, I believe they tumbled me down their long spine to the south. 

The first time my husband, Jeff, and I visited Cabbage Top, that moment when I saw with my own eyes how the islands are slipping into the sea, I could have been lost in despair. No one could blame me if I had said to Jeff, “Let’s not come back here anymore. I can’t watch another place or species go down. It’s just too sad.” How could we ask for respite from a place that was itself washing away? 

But the island offered another point of view. A red cedar tree grew in the shade of the pines. It had pushed out creamy, mustard-yellow cones from the tips of its branchlets, bent on reproduction, no matter that the sand dissolved under its roots. Following the tree’s crazy hope, rooted into impermanence, I knew we must likewise be steadfast in our love for these islands. Even though I wanted only to deeply experience the wild edge of this coast as it is and had been, I knew I had agreed to witness whatever comes to pass.


Reprinted with permission from Coming to Passwritten by Susan Cerulean and published by The University of Georgia Press, 2015.