Everglades Science: By land, by sea, and by air.


The Everglades is our backyard, and that backyard is HUGE!  Fourteen cities of Miami fit in the Everglades. But in exchange for the high-rises, freeways, and spanish-tiled roofs there are tree islands, sloughways, water, pines, mangroves, birds, alligators, fish, spiders, mosquitoes, and plenty of beautiful scenery. The vastness of the Everglades provides prodigious niches of scientific interest to pursue. Some of us study the impacts of the drainage and canal system that line the perimeter or pierce through the Everglades. Other scientists scrutinize the causes of vegetation community structure changes. Some research predator/ prey relationships and others, the animal movement between biomes. Some study the water cycle and the physical and chemical interactions between surface water and groundwater*.  But before we can crunch all the numbers, write all the papers, graduate and go off to save the world, we need to take the measurements, collect the samples, and download the data. Truthfully, it might just be the best part!
*In no way am I limiting the tons of amazing research going on in the Everglades with FCE to this list. You can check out more great glades research here.

As I mentioned earlier, the Everglades is huge and extremely remote. Different forms of transportation are needed to gain access your sites. Depending on your area of scientific interest, you have a few options on how to get there. My study is primarily focused in the coastal mangroves, but I also collect data, maintain autonomous data loggers and help other researchers in other portions of the Everglades. So I am fortunate enough to see many of the different environments. The Everglades has been coined as the "River of Grass" by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, giving you a hint up front that you are going to need at least a boat.
Fig. 1
 
There are days when I need to collect surface water and ground water samples in the southern and southwestern mangroves. For field days up Taylor River, we ride in a 16’ flat-bottom to the FCE sites TS/Ph 6 & 7.  In the early morning we grab the truck, hitch up the boat and drive down to the Key Largo Ranger Station to launch the boat. From there we drive north-northwest across Florida Bay to the mouth of Taylor River. A lovely 30 minute drive on the open water followed by a 25 minute sinuous maze through the tidal creeks. The mangroves at Taylor tend to be very short, growing a little larger around the tidal creeks which are just large enough to drive a skiff through (Fig 1).  Packed away in the boat are water pumps, bottles, sippers, field computers, field probes and the usual set of tools and electrical supplies (Fig. 2). All the necessary items plus a little more, because it is not like you can head to the store real quick to get something you forgot. The samples will later be analyzed for there chemical composition; major ions, nutrients, and isotopes. These analyses help us to understand the how different water sources interact with other water bodies or with the environment around it. More on that topic at a later date. 
Fig. 2

On other days, I need to collect samples up Shark River. The day pretty much starts the same way. Meet early in the morning. Hitch the boat up and head south. But instead of continuing to the Keys, we turn west toward the main Everglades National Park Entrance on our way to Flamingo. This is a long and lonesome 50 minute drive from the entrance to Flamingo, but the bright side is that you get to drive through many of the unique environments in the park; pine rocklands, marl prairies, cypress stands,  ponds and mangroves.  On really good days you can spot some really cool birds (especially in the coming months). 
Fig. 3

Once at Flamingo, we launch the boat and head northwest across Whitewater Bay and the turn northeast up Shark River to sites SRS 4, 5 & 6.  On lucky days you can run into other FCE researchers from FIU, the USGS, or the ENP (Fig. 3). Most days I am the captain of the vessel (requires MOCC training), on other days I get to put my feet up and enjoy the ride (Fig. 4). During the wet season (May-Nov) it is inevitable that you will encounter a thunderstorm or two (Fig. 5). Usually this happens in the early afternoon, once the convection clouds start to form. In the rainy season, you can almost set your clocks to it.

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

Both the Taylor River and Shark River sites are located in brackish water. In the freshwater portion of the Everglades we can use an airboat to get around, even when there is just a few inches water above the surface. We start with another early morning, but this time we hook up the airboat and head west on Tamiami Trail to Frog City. At Frog City (authorized access only) we launch the airboat on a beat up boat ramp (Fig, 6). Thank goodness for 4-wheel drive.  
Fig. 6

After putting on lifejackets and ear muffs, we crank the boat up with a thunderous roar from the small aviation engine and head south along the airboat trails (Fig. 7). Once we get to our site, it is time to get wet and muddy (Fig. 8). At our freshwater sites, we download data and maintain our Sontek velocimeters. This instrument uses an acoustic pulse to measure small changes in water flow and helps us to understand how fast and how much water is moving through the Everglades.

Fig. 7
 
Fig. 8
 

The best view of the Everglades comes from the air (Fig. 9).
Fig. 9

In the dry season, the water levels in the glades can drop very low and prevent us from using the airboat. Therefore, we have to take the helicopter. No complaints here. The ride to our sites takes only 15 minutes instead of 60. The perspective from the helicopter helps you to really see the great expanse of the Everglades (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10

The cost of the helicopter is pricey so we take measures to help be as cost-effective as possible. We usually share the ride with another researcher and split up to take care of different tasks simultaneously (Fig. 11). Depending on the water levels we might fly over some fellow researchers (Fig. 12) or depending on our heading we might catch an old plane wreck (Fig. 13).

 
Fig. 11
Fig. 12
 
Fig. 13
 
The "River of Grass" is really an amazing place to see and it is always a journey to get to our far-away sites. Ultimately, seeking out the scientific mysteries of the swamp.  
 


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