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Upmanu Lall uses climate models to help restore Everglades

“We stand to lose perhaps the most magnificent environmental or ecological resource the United States has,” said Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University. Dr Lall discusses what we need to do to save the Florida Everglades, North America’s largest wetland.

Upmanu Lall: We stand to lose perhaps the most magnificent environmental or ecological resource the United States has.

Upmanu Lall is director of the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University. He’s speaking about the Florida Everglades, North America’s largest wetland.

Upmanu Lall: Essentially, we have a competition between human use – manifest as agriculture in the area, and the drinking supply for the 6 million people that live there – and simultaneous ability to sustain and nurture the ecosystem, which we have decided is important to us.

Human activity around the Everglades – essentially, a shallow and wide river – has caused the wetlands to shrink, and species to disappear. Lall is using climate models to determine how humans can restore the Everglades to a more natural state – and trying to factor in the uncertain impacts of climate variability and change.

Upmanu Lall: And that’s a challenge, because the natural system, as far as hydrology is concerned, mimics what goes on with climate.

Lall said climate change is likely to affect the region’s temperature and rainfall patterns. A significant rise in sea level would allow salt water to flow into the low-lying, freshwater Everglades.

Upmanu Lall: This in effect puts a very strong pressure on an already strained system.

Lall said that the restoration will include measures like tearing down levees and converting agricultural land. He said the goal of the restoration is to attain a balance between the natural ecosystem and human use of the area. Lall added that climate change presents a difficult challenge for the restoration project.

Upmanu Lall: There is a universal concern with the impacts of climate change, and lack of clarity on how to assess these uncertainties and respond to them.

Lall said that the Everglades’ extremely variable climate, and complex ecosystem interactions, make it difficult to know how endangered species will fare with restoration plans.

Upmanu Lall: One of the challenges we have is that each species responds differently to what’s proposed. We learn since species compete, there is not going to be a uniform solution which is best for all species.

Lall’s program is collaborating with the National Park Service and South Florida Water Management District. He said the Everglades restoration project is a pioneering effort, in terms of how societies can analyze and plan for managing water and ecology in the face of a changing climate.

Upmanu Lall: The hardest part is diagnosing what it means to restore an ecosystem, and what is reasonable, and how do you define success?

Lindsay Patterson

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