Saturday, March 30, 2024

Is $25 million for FGCU water quality study a boon or a boondoggle?

**Update 1 April 2024** Today I talked to a Water School colleague who worked behind the scenes to get this $25 million funding from the state, and I'm convinced now that it will be a positive thing addressing a real research need. It's building on a successful partnership between FGCU's hydrogeology and engineering folks and the statistics / data management company SAS, which specializes in organizing and making sense of massive amounts of data. The partnership started with them putting together data from the Peace River watershed to better understand harmful cyanobacterial blooms and other problems there. The new funding will allow them to extend that approach to other watersheds around the state. Among other things, the project is going to round up all the state's existing data on water quality and make it more accessible to the public through online "dashboards" and such. (A common criticism of Florida's current environmental monitoring programs is that their data is hard for the public to access and use, and it sounds like this new project will partially fix that.) Another goal of the big analysis / synthesis is to better pinpoint the worst pollution sources, and to more strongly connect pollution to its consequences (e.g., harmful algae blooms).

**Original Post 30 April 2024**

The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University, where I work as a professor of marine science, was recently gifted 25 million dollars from the state legislature to fund a “comprehensive water quality study.”

Money for water quality research sounds like a good thing, and assuming we have some freedom to plan the research ourselves, I think we can make good use of it. Nevertheless, there have been some legitimate concerns and criticisms surrounding the gift. I first saw these expressed in social media commentary, then in a pithy editorial by author and journalist Craig Pittman in the Florida Phoenix. https://floridaphoenix.com/2024/03/21/new-study-of-florida-pollution-just-an-expensive-way-to-delay-cleanup/

The main criticism is that the state already has more than enough information on its water quality problems to start fixing them. Therefore, spending more money on studies is a wasteful distraction; a way for politicians to look like they’re helping the environment while avoiding making any real changes that might inconvenience their polluter and developer buddies. The implication is that it would be better to spend the money on things we know will reduce the pollution problems, like wastewater and stormwater system upgrades, conservation land purchases, etc.

This criticism is fair. Honestly, as much as I appreciate money for studying things, if we are not ALSO allocating serious money and effort to fixing the things we already know are broken then we won't see the changes we need. There’s a lot of precedent for the “commission some experts to study an environmental problem then ignore their advice on how to fix it” thing happening in Florida. For example, a few years ago Governor DeSantis made a “Red Tide Task Force” and a “Blue Green Algae Task Force” to study those problems, but the most important recommendations that the task forces gave have been largely ignored. Specifically, recommendations to address the root causes of the algae blooms (pollution and habitat destruction) have mostly been ignored in favor of “treat the symptoms but not the causes” approaches like dumping chemicals into the rivers to kill the algae. Meanwhile, anti-environment politicians and the polluters backing them have worked ceaselessly to erode Florida’s existing environmental protections, trying to stop grassroots efforts to reduce fertilizer and pesticide spraying, and trying to shrink Florida’s aquatic preserves, for example. Some of their attempted environmental villainy has failed, but some has gotten through.

One of concerns in Pittman’s article is that FGCU is a compromised institution that won't be able to give an unbiased assessment of Florida’s pollution problems. As evidence for this Pittman brings up some dirty laundry that impugns FGCU’s environmentally friendly image:

1) The original sin of the university having been sited on wetlands that weren’t supposed to be developed. This was part of a sketchy exchange of favors between the state and land baron Ben Hill Griffin, which opened the gates to lucrative but environmentally destructive development in eastern Lee County. In my opinion it would have been better to site the university nearer downtown Fort Myers to reinvigorate the walkable downtown, reduce outward sprawl and commuter traffic, etc., but nobody asked me because I was in high school in Washington State in the 1990s when this was happening. As it stands now, FGCU IS built in the middle of wetlands, but we’ve made the most of it by using them for teaching and research about biology, ecology, stormwater engineering, etc. We’re hoping those activities have some positive effects that counterbalance the sin of our placement.

2) How FGCU provided a “soft landing” in the form of a cushy job for Noah Valenstein, the former head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, who worked under environmentally-unfriendly governor Rick Scott and a little bit for his successor Ron DeSantis before exiting amidst environmental crises. I see Valenstein once or twice a year at water school staff meetings. So far, he hasn't done anything to interfere with us doing our jobs and expressing our honest views about the environment... which is quite different from some other recent appointees into Florida’s universities who have clearly had a mission to disrupt them. E.g., conservative activist Christopher Rufo who was installed at the New College of South Florida to purge it of wokeness.

Anyway, back to the water quality study. Can FGCU do an unbiased study of water quality problems in Florida? I think we can. $25 million will send a lot of scientists out sampling a lot of water in a lot of places for a lot of different types of pollution, and those scientists’ analyses and reports are likely to be too numerous, too diverse, and shared in too many ways to be politically micromanaged to be pleasing to polluters. “On the ground” at The Water School we’re a plucky band of scientists and professors who are motivated by deep concern for the environment, love for education, and respect for the practice of ethical science. It is possible for research organizations that receive a lot of funding from special interest groups to develop blind spots when it comes finding and criticizing the effects of pollution linked to those groups, but I don't think this particular funding from the legislature has any strings attached that will keep us from pointing the finger at polluters.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Apocalyptic year for Florida Keys getting more apocalyptic

This has been a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year for Florida Keys ecosystems. This is remarkable not because Florida Keys ecosystems were doing fine until now, but because I honestly didn't think they could get much worse than they already were. Significant declines in Florida Keys reefs started in the 1970s, with pollution, diseases, and extreme weather events knocking out one coral species after another. First, most of the Staghorn and Elkhorn corals, which were essential to the habitat structure of the reefs, died out to white-band disease and other diseases. Then the brain corals, star corals, maze and pillar corals started dying out to other diseases and man-made stresses. By the 2000s the average coverage of live coral on the reef had gone down from over 50% to less than 10%. In 2014, a new coral disease called "stony coral rapid tissue loss disease" (SCTLD) spread from a dredging project near the Port of Miami into the keys, wiping out the survivors of the other diseases and bringing live coral coverage down to less than 5%. Recent geological surveys show that the entire sea bottom structure of the keys has changed. With no living corals to build up reef rock and offset erosion, the once-tall reef structures have been crumbling into flat fields of rubble and sand.

In 2023, a major El NiƱo on top of many decades of increasing global temperatures due to climate change brought the worst-ever marine heatwave to the Florida Keys. The water temperature exceeded 30 Celsius (the bleaching threshold where corals get stressed and start losing their symbiotic algae), earlier than ever, and reached temperatures higher than ever seen before in the Florida Keys. The killer temperatures lasted until October, which created an enormous "cumulative stress" on the corals (See picture). Even hardy, resilient species like sea fans, fire corals, and finger corals bleached and died, their flesh sloughing off their skeletons like meat from bones in an overcooked stew.



When I took my FGCU Marine Ecology class snorkeling there in October we saw a surreal scene of devastation. Dead but still-standing sea fans were covered in fuzzy algal turf. The few corals still alive were bleached to snow white, fluorescent pink, or yellow (see album).



The one part of the reef ecosystem that still seemed to be OK then was the fish. Even though the corals were dead and dying, the reef fish were still abundant in the no-fishing zones where we snorkeled. Sadly, in November 2023, not long after my class snorkeling trip, the fish in the keys also began to suffer. It was a mysterious ailment dubbed "spinning disease," that caused them to swim in an erratic, disoriented manner. It started happening to all sorts of fish species, from tiny pinfish to huge sharks and rays. The afflicted fish often die. This is particularly disturbing because it's affecting critically endangered species like the smalltooth sawfish. There are thought to be only a few hundred sawfish left in Florida, and more than 20 have already been found dead from this in the keys.



Naturally, people want to know what's causing the spinning disease, so just about every marine biologist and environmental management organization in Florida is trying to figure it out. People have tested for red tide (turns out it's not that), common pollutants like nutrients, pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metals (none of those seem to be much higher than normal), and diseases and parasites (none that we can find so far). Some people have speculated that recent water releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries caused it, but it couldn't have been that because: a) the spinning disease started months before the water releases and b) the water release areas are hundreds of kilometers north of the keys. That's not to say that pollution hasn't caused or contributed to this, though. The Florida Keys have been having problems for years with chronic and recurring sewage leaks and spills, including a broken pipe detected in October 2023 that leaked 106,533 gallons of sewage near the epicenter of the spinning disease on Big Pine Key. The info below on the spill is from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Public Notice of Pollution website, which also has information on thousands of other spills throughout the state.

Incident Location: (link)
Incident Description: During a verification inspection of the low pressure system force mains, the mechanics determined that the low pressure grinder system (LPS) force main was not passing a pressure test. Upon further investigation, staff discovered that the 1 1/4" HDPE force main had been augured through by a contractor while installing a fence post on private property. The force main was repaired, a portion of the fill was excavated and replaced and the area was cleaned up, washed down and lime was applied. Repair is complete and yard is restored.
Wastewater Type: Untreated
Cause: Contractor
Spill Volume: 106,533
Volume Recovered: 25
Waterbodies Impacted: N
Clean-up Status: Complete
Clean-up Actions: Vacuumed/pump truck, Applied lime, Washed down area, Raked and disposed of debris
Agencies Notified: Gary Hardie FDEP, State Watch Office


The continuing influence of sewage leaks and spills on marine water quality in the Florida Keys is indicated by elevated levels of an artificial sweetener called sucralose detected in recent FDEP monitoring. There's no natural source of sucralose, so if you're finding it in the water that means that there are wastewater inputs nearby, or that wastewater was spilled in the past and hasn't fully dispersed.

The other link to man-made pollution is the freakishly hot weather, which is signficantly hotter than normal due to the global problem of carbon dioxide pollution increasing the atmospheric greenhouse effect. In addition to contributing to hotter temperatures via the greenhouse effect, the elevated level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to higher levels of carbonic acid in seawater, lowering its pH. This phenomenon is called "ocean acidification" and has already made the ocean 25% more acidic, on average, than it was 150 years ago. Experiments show that hotter temperatures, more acidic waters, and higher nutrient pollution levels all stress corals individually, and that their combined effects are even worse, hence the post-apocalyptic state that Florida reefs are in now.

Anyway, back to the spinning disease. My FGCU colleague Dr. Michael Parsons, who specializes in studying harmful blooms of microscopic marine algae, has strong suspicions that it's linked to a type of single-celled dinoflagellate algae called Gambierdiscus.



Unlike the Karenia brevis dinoflagellate algae that causes red tide, Gambierdiscus is benthic. Benthic means mostly found on the bottom, growing as an "epiphyte" on seagrass, seaweed, rock, etc. It attaches kind of loosely, though, so if there's a lot on the bottom you'll also find some in water samples. During this spinning disease event, Dr. Parsons has been finding Gambierdiscus at levels 10 to 50 times higher than ever seen before in the keys. Gambierdiscus makes multiple types of neurotoxic chemicals that can harm other marine life, as well as people who eat contaminated seafood. The best-known toxin that Gambierdiscus makes is "ciguatoxin," which accumulates in the marine food chain from small algae-eaters to big predator fish, and can then be passed on to people who eat the fish and develop a serious illness called "ciguatera." The weird thing in this case, though, is that Dr. Parsons and the other harmful algae researchers working in the keys have not been finding much ciguatoxin in these Gambierdiscus or in the affected fish, and there haven't been any reports of people in the keys getting ciguatera from eating the fish. (I still wouldn't recommend eating any seafood from the keys now, though.) With ciguatoxin, you'd also expect it to affect just the species in the food chain that were getting exposed via their diet, and the spinning disease seems to be affecting all species of fish- bottom feeders, plant eaters, predators, planktivores, etc. That is leading Parsons and other to suspect that the spinning disease is caused by one of the OTHER toxins that Gambierdiscus makes- maitotoxin.

Maitotoxin is the one of the deadliest biologically-produced toxins known to science. Unlike ciguatoxin, maitotoxin is water-soluble, so fish can be directly exposed through the water rather than through their diet. The maitotoxin hypothesis is consistent with observations by fishermen in the keys that spinning fish often recover back to normal after 17-25 minutes in a tank with water from an unaffected area. Parsons suggests that rescue tanks could be set up to put some of the most endangered species of fish in to recover, but you'd need a pretty big tank for a 5 meter (16 foot) long smalltooth sawfish. Because the maitoxin molecule is huge and complicated, you need sophisticated equipment to detect and measure it, and not many labs in Florida are capable of doing that. Dr. Allison Robertson at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama is able to do it, though, and she HAS detected maitotoxin in the recent samples Parsons has sent her from the keys. So far we just know that maitotoxin is present in the affected area- not how much there is. Parsons and Robertson are working on more quantitiative analysis now, comparing the concentration of maitotoxin in the spinning-disease area with its concentration in unaffected control areas. If the incidience of spinning disease closely corresponds with the concentration of maitotoxinin the water, and the concentration of maitotoxin in the water closely corresponds with the abundance of Gambierdiscus on the seafloor, that would be strong circumstantial evidence for the maitotoxin theory, which could be confirmed by experimental tests.

If it is maitotoxin produced by Gambierdiscus that is causing this, that will lead to more questions, such as "What's going on in the environment that's causing there to be so much Gambierdiscus and maitotoxin?" and "What can we do to stop it?" As for what's causing the Gambierdiscus increase, we already have a rough hypothesis based on what has been seen with Gambierdiscus in other parts of the world: It increases after man-made and natural disasters that damage reefs. Something about a degraded reef ecosystem seems to create ideal conditions for toxic Gambierdiscus. Maybe it's disruption of the normal microbial and grazer community that keeps Gambierdiscus in balance. Maybe it's increased availability of nutrients, seaweeds, and dead coral skeletons to grow on. Maybe it's all of the above. While we're waiting for more complete answers and the next phases of research, I have some suggestions:

1. Don't eat seafood from the Florida Keys until this is over, unless you're trying to do neurotoxicity experiments on yourself.
2. Get SERIOUS about keeping nutrient pollution out of South Florida waters-
    a. Support wastewater treatment system upgrades, maintenance, and monitoring.
    b. Tell the FDEP to bring the hammer down on those responsible for sewage leaks and spills.
    c. Fertilizer also contributes to nutrient pollution, so stricter fertilizer regulations for the keys could help. If I was king of the keys I'd ban fertilizer year-round with no exceptions for golf courses.
    d. Lobby the state and the feds to complete the everglades restoration projects they've been working on for decades that are supposed to improve the quality of the water passing through the Everglades to the keys.
3. Stop denying that climate change and ocean acidification are happening and start doing your part to reduce carbon dioxide pollution.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Southwest Florida Environmental PSA Videos

Although I'm a marine biologist whose primary research interest is the saltwater environment, I'm a big fan of nature in general, and that includes freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. One of the reasons I care about these land and freshwater environments is because they are incredibly important in the processing of water flow and pollution as it makes its way from the land into the ocean. If the terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems get messed up, the ocean gets messed up, too. That means murky water, algal blooms, and death for all the seagrasses, corals, manatees, sharks etc. that I love, not to mention despoiling of the waters I like to windsurf and paddle on. So I take it very personally when I see dumb things being done on land that I know are going to harm the ocean. A new thing I am trying this summer to help save the environment is filming short public service announcement videos about various Southwest Florida environmental things. I hope they can help increase folks' knowledge and appreciation of our local environment and get them to start doing things differently in ways that will benefit the environment and themselves. I'm posting my first batch of videos here.

Some of the PSAs are simple profiles of particular species of interest:


Others address ecological concepts and managment ideas:


Some are linked to the hot issue of herbicide spraying around lakes and ponds; something I can't stand:

Friday, December 30, 2022

Thoughts on SWFL economy and moving from house to an apartment



One of the indirect consequences of Hurricane Ian was that it motivated my landlord to sell the house in Bonita Springs that my spouse Rhonda and I had been renting and living in since 2012.

Initial rent for the house was reasonable, and it went up just 16% from 2012-2022, which was less than the 29.7% cumulative rate of inflation in the US from 2012-2022 (https://www.usinflationcalculator.com). So we were actually getting a little better deal on rent in 2022 than in 2012. Of course that assumes that university faculty salaries in Florida kept up with inflation over that time period, which they didn't quite do, but since I got promoted from assistant professor to associate professor in 2018 we were alright.

Unfortunately, the less-than-inflation rate of rent increase that we experienced from 2012-2022 was extremely atypical for the area. Every other place in SW Florida was experiencing insanely high rent inflation, like 300% from 2012-2022. I.e., a small house like ours could rent for $2850 (or more) now. This was probably another part of our landlord's motivation to sell.

The first wave of sticker shock hit me when we started searching for a new place and realized the single family homes for rent were all some combination of: A) way too expensive, B) way too far away, and C) not available. So I was like, "Dang, I guess we have to switch down to an apartment." The second wave of sticker shock was realizing that even the single bedroom apartments in our area were a lot more expensive per month than the house had been. So I was like, "Holy moly, I have to pay way more per month AND give up the longboard windsurf and paddleboards that I built my outdoor recreation, exercise, and social routine around for 10 years? YUCK!" The sacrifices Rhonda would be making would be of similar order, including giving up space for visiting family, arts and crafts supplies, writer's library, home office space, etc.

One ray of hope and consolation was the prospect of moving closer to work and reducing my commute to bike-able distance. That was a tough thing, though, since near the FGCU campus you have to pay at least as much for a 1 bedroom apartment as you would pay for a 2 bedroom apartment with a 30 minute commute. There were some fraught negotiation surrounding the size vs. distance tradeoff, amid the stressful labor and expense of filling out endless electronic forms for multiple apartment applications. In the end the smaller but closer apartment won out, and we signed the lease.

Moving was accomplished with a rented Penske truck between the 12th and 15th of December, and the two dogs and two humans that comprise our family unit have now been fully transplanted to the apartment, at "Longitude81" behind Hertz Arena, where the Everblades play hockey. The watersports gear I didn't sell is convalescing at friends' houses- the 14' Riviera paddleboard in my old neighborhood, and the 14' Fanatic paddleboard and 11'8 Exocet Windsup in a colleague's backyard storage unit. I've so far made one trip back to the old neighborhood to paddle the Riviera, and one trip to Bunche Beach in Fort Myers to windsurf with the shortboard that now lives permanently in my minivan. So it looks like I will preserve my watersports hobbies in some form, but to get enough exercise I'm also going to have to jog and use the little gym room at the apartment complex.

One thing that's on my list to do is figure out exactly what watersports I can do at the lake on the FGCU campus, and when I can do them without getting hassled by the campus cops. Around two years ago I was getting a pretty good routine going of hydrofoil windsurfing on the FGCU lake, but then a campus police officer told me I could only do it when the lifeguards were on station at the lakefront, which I think rules out the after-work sessions I was getting. BEGIN BEACH ACCESS RANT: Beach and lake access in SW Florida was getting really difficult even before the storm. We've got miles of near-empty private beaches for rich people to look at from their mansions or condos, but not nearly enough public beach parking to accommodate inland residents and tourists. The post-hurricane closures of almost all the beaches in Lee County and North Collier County, combined with pathogenic bacteria, red tide fish kills, etc. has made the beach access situation even worse, of course. My partial solution would be to condemn the destroyed beachfront lots and let them be public parking areas but that would be anethema to the pro-privitization ethos of area leaders.

Ok, how do I wrap this up? I'm moving forward with all the optimism I can muster, but struggling with the demoralizing effects of current circumstances. I'm getting more politically charged against the rich-take-all, screw-the-environment, damn-the-poor economic trend that seems to have taken hold of the world, and particularly this peninsular state, as its effects are becoming more and more invasive in my life and the lives of my colleagues, friends, and neighbors. That anger is tempered somewhat by reminding myself that living more simply and eliminating my car commute is a good thing for the planet that I probably should have done anyway, and I still have the really important essentials like safe shelter and a beloved partner to share it with.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Post-Hurricane downsizing stuff for sale, from windsurfs to lawnmower

UPDATE: Got rid of everything except the 9.5 Ezzy sail, mast, and boom.

One of the consequences of Hurricane Ian, which is something that was going to happen eventually anyway, is that my landlord decided to sell the house we rent. We have to leave before 31 Jan 2023. Because prices in the area have more than doubled since we moved down in 2012 I can no longer afford to rent a house within a sane commuting distance from Florida Gulf Coast University and I will have to rent an apartment. Therefore I need to sell lots of things that I can't use or have no room to store in an apartment. Please contact me if you want to buy any of these things. I'm not going to ship any of them, so you'll need to come fetch them from Bonita Springs.

Generac GP6500 Generator- $600 obo. We got it new for $950 after the hurricane and it has barely been used. I'll throw in a high voltage extension cord and a couple gas cans for free. If you're a Floridian who lives in a house you should have one of these.


Hisense Dehumidifiers (2), medium sized- $100. Two nice dehumidifiers only used for couple weeks after the hurricane. They were $175 new. Good for keeping humidity low to kill mold, dust mites, etc.


Hisense Dehumidifier (1), large sized- $150. Nice, powerful dehumidifier with a indicator that tells you the relative humidity in your house, only used for a couple weeks after the hurricane. Was $240 new.


Kenmore Gas Grill- $120 obo. Convenient outdoor grill with 3 adjustable burners, side trays, propane tank with propane in it, etc. Has a canvas cover but there's a small rip in the cover.


Nelo 560 Surfski Kayak with Braca IV 705 carbon fiber paddle and normal and weedless rudders- $1000. This is a very fast elite ocean racing kayak for an experienced paddler or someone willing to put in the time to develop the balance for it. It's 18'4" long. The paddle was a two-piece adjustable but it's now stuck in the 0 degrees feather 210 cm extension position I always used it in.


Formula / foil windsurfing board and 70 cm fin- $200 obo. Exocet Turbo Formula II formula windsurfing board with fin, footstraps, and reinforced finbox so you can put a hydrofoil on it. (I am not selling the foil; just the board and a standard 70 cm fin.) Board is 155 liters, 100 cm wide x 230 cm long. Has some patches and stuff but it's still very light and watertight. Perfect for getting into foiling, or just regular light wind shortboard windsurfing. Foils are expensive, but the board doesn't have to be.


Ezzy Cheetah 9.5 msq windsurfing sail with Sailworks carbon SDM mast, Neil Pryde Carbon Fiber formula boom, adjustable outhaul, chinook aluminum SDM base extension- $600. This is a good packaged deal because normally the sail or carbon boom alone would cost way more than this. If you want to buy just some of the individual components let me know and we can figure out a price. Here's a link to the Ezzy sail- https://www.ezzy.com/2012-sails/ezzy-cheetah/


Gaastra Nitro V 11.0 msq windsurfing sail with 550 cm carbon fiber mast. FREE. This huge sail is kind of a white elephant now that formula windsurf racing has died, but maybe someone would still want it to play with, or recut as a foil racing sail or something.
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Yard Machines gas powered lawnmower- $60. It's a lawnmower. It works. It doesn't have the bag attachment anymore so it's only good as a mulching mower (leaves the clippings on the grass). I'll throw in a small gas can with it.


HDX shop fan- Free. It's a little rusty from living in our lanai for years but it's a powerful fan that works.


RIGID Shopvac, Medium sized, 5.0 peak HP- $50. I bought this for sucking up the drywall dust when I had to take the wet drywall out of the house we rent. Works great and includes an add-on muffler and some other extra attachments that we bought for it beyond just what it comes with from HomeDepot.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Hurricane Ian research cruise log: effects on Gulf of Mexico

Album of photos to accompany this post:
I am currently aboard the Florida Institute of Oceanography's research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico off SW Florida. I'm with a team of eight scientists including: Dr. Eric Milbrandt the director of the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, Florida Gulf Coast University Vester Marine Station research and education coordinator Adam Catasus, FGCU graduate students Robert "Marlin" Smith and Matthew "Cole" Tillman, dive safety officer Calli Johnson, FGCU undergraduate students Gavin Costello, Susannah Cogburn. Also among the passengers on this boat are Wink News (local CBS network) reporter Elizabeth Biro and cameraman Renzo Soriano, plus captains Brian Davis and Hayden Wiley, engineers Grady Smith and Heather Meneses, and most importantly Jordan Adams the chef.

We are doing the un-glamorous job of assessing impacts of Hurricane Ian, and Hurricane-delivered pollution, on water quality and sea bottom life on the "SW Florida shelf" which is the broad expanse of relatively shallow bottom off of the SW Coast of the Florida Peninsula. The cruise began yesterday at FIO headquarters in St. Petersburg. We steamed out of Tampa Bay in the morning and headed south, sampling every "pass" along the way. A pass is an inlet connecting the Gulf of Mexico to inland waters like bays and estuaries. Pollution from the hurricane is likely to be concentrated around the passes as all the gunk dislodged from land pulses out to sea with river discharge and ebbing tides.

The waters were (relatively) clear outside Tampa Bay; we could see the "CTD Rosette" (heavy contraption of water collection bottles and electronic instruments) for two meters or so as we winched it down into the water. Not far south of Tampa Bay, however, we hit browner water, part of the "plume" of discharge from the worst affected parts of Florida we were approaching. In addition to those visual cues, we have tons of instruments running that tell us fairly precisely what the stuff is discoloring the water. We're also taking a huge number of different types of water samples to analyze for pollutants of all sorts, plus nutrients (which may be considered a pollutant), plankton, sediments from the bottom, etc. It's fun with the whole team scrambling to get the heavy instruments deployed and all the samples retrieved and properly filtered, packaged, and stored before the next station. Doing it 4 or 5 times would be a full day. Doing it the approximately 50 times we need to do it is definitely a week's work, and then some.

While the seas were gentle just offshore of Tampa, conditions have deteriorated with the arrival of a cold front's strong, North winds. The worst of it was in the wee hours last night. This heavy, 78' boat is seaworthy, but it was really rocking. Kudos for Dr. Milbrandt for filtering samples and assisting on the wave-washed deck all night. I only made it until 11 pm before fatigue and creeping seasickness sent me down to the security of my bunk in the belly of the boat. The fresh morning air (and a seasickness pill) perked me up in the morning to begin today's shift. In the morning we crossed throught worst storm-affected areas of Sanibel Island and Fort Myers, where we saw a lot of debris floating in the water as well as the discoloration of the hurricane runoff, further stirred up by the night's big swells from the NW.

One encouraging sight, near shore off Naples, was that the buoy my lab group placed to mark out scuba research site is still there. It was tied around a natural bridge in the limestone seafloor. Impressive that it held up through the giant waves of the hurricane. Looking at the levels of murk in the water, and feeling the chilly 63 degree Fahrenheit breeze, is subtracting a bit from my enthusiasm about scuba diving tomorrow at our sites further off Naples. I know I'm with a good team of safe divers, though, so we should be able to get down there safely and get our area surveyed even if visibility is less than 1 meter.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Hurricane Ian personal story

Hello friends, family, and windsurfing- and science-curious strangers who happen upon my blog. I'd like to take a moment to tell the story of my personal struggles with big, nasty Hurricane Ian, which ravaged SW Florida even more so than Hurricane Irma of 2017. I'll tell the story in phases.

Phase 0: Before the Hurricane.
Prior to Ian, 2022 was going pretty well for Rhonda, myself, and our French bulldogs Petunia and Violet. I was busy with my job as a marine biologist at Florida Gulf Coast University- teaching classes, advising graduate students, and doing some fun research using scuba diving to study the effects of coastal pollution on underwater habitats offshore of Lee and Collier Counties. Rhonda was busy writing a new speculative fiction novel and working part-time as a store clerk at the HomeGoods down the street. We were looking forward to Rhonda's sister and nephew visiting.

Phase 1: Weather Watching
Up until September, the 2022 Western Atlantic Hurricane Season had been pretty dull. But it got spicy quick, with Hurricane Fiona becoming a big baddie that walloped Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and even Nova Scotia. Hurricane Ian then took the stage, moving west through the Caribbean as a tropical storm then strengthening and turning north, with the western tip of Cuba and the Gulf Coast of Florida "in the cone." The early forecasts had it hitting somewhere north and west of us; Tampa Bay looked imperiled, but the Fort Myers / Naples area not so much. I cancelled my lab's plans to do scuba diving research, though, because the Gulf would be too rough and our crew would need to be making hurricane preparations at the university's Vester Marine Field Station. Rhonda had to cancel her sister's plan to visit. I got increasingly nervous while looking at iWindsurf.com forecast models which showed our coast getting a sustained beating from the onshore winds on the south side of Ian's counter-clockwise rotation. This was a scenario I'd also worried about when weather-watching Hurricane Irma- A storm offshore in the gulf can be more dangerous than one passing directly overhead, because of the way the onshore wind field can build a massive surge. Irma had caused major storm surge in the Florida Keys, but because it then then came due north over land it caused "only" wind damage and rainfall flooding in SW Florida. Ian, with a potential approach from the Gulf, looked like it could deliver the surge that Irma had only threatened. By Sunday the 25th some of the models and warnings coming out the National Hurricane Center were making it look really scary for us, fleshing out that storm surge from the gulf scenario. The NHC has a model now that can show a high-resolution, color-coded map of areas that may be inundated. The house we rent in Bonita Springs is only about 2 meters above mean sea level, and its near the tidally-influenced Imperial River; a water highway that can would conduct storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico, through Estero Bay, into my living room. So naturally it was flooding in those models, and each time I checked, like between teaching classes on Monday, it looked worse.

Phase 2: Evacuation
Work/school was cancelled for Tuesday the 27th, and a mandatory evactuation was ordered for low lying parts of Lee County that morning. In retrospect, the evacuation order should probably have come earlier. This is something that has become a major controversy in the hurricane's aftermath since so many people ended up dying in the storm who might have evacuated had the order come earlier. As it was, Rhonda and I had to scramble to make our evacuation plans, picking which of our friends or family outside of the hurricane's path we would choose to burden with ourselves and our not-quite-potty-trained dogs for who knows how long. Ultimately we decided that Valerie Dinsdale, our long time family friend who knows lives in Palm Beach Gardens in East Central Florida, was who we would crash with. We actually kind of dallied around our house on Tuesday morning the 27th, figuring we'd drive over later in the day and wanting to enjoy our coffee and not unplug our computers and stuff right away. In retrospect we should have dropped everything and frantically moved all precious things to the highest shelves and stuff. By the time we did get ourselves, our dogs, our dog beds, dog crates, dog pee pads, dog food, dog leashes, dog medicines, and other important things we didn't want to lose in a flood like our birth certificates and social security cards, loaded into the car, it was 6 pm or so and already raining hard. On the drive across the state we took back roads and avoided traffic, but the weather was hellacious, with our phones buzzing every five minutes with more emergency warnings of tornados, flooding, etc. etc.

Phase 3: At Valerie's
Despite getting drenched bringing stuff in from the car at Valerie's house, and struggling to get the dogs properly quarantined in her laundry room, we felt a lot of relief to be out of harms way. Valerie never lost power, so the next day we had a front-row tv and computer seat to the tragedy and destruction unfolding on the west coast of the state. I got intermitent text reports from my neighbor who had stayed home, and they were not encouraging. "Everything is floading." "We are evacuating." And later, "There is a tree on your house." You've surely seen the news reports so you know: it was BAD. As predicted the storm surge reached our house, and it was more than a foot deep around the outside based on the line left on the wall. We were anxious to return to see the damage and attend to the house, but we knew we couldn't go right away because we wouldn't have a safe place to keep the dogs air conditioned and cool. (Because of their brachycephalic heads and constricted air passages, bulldogs can't keep themselves cool in hot weather and they easily die of heatstroke. Rhonda and I still feel terrible about her English Bulldog Buri who died that way on the the 4th of July 2012. We think the Buri-spirit supported our decision to hang out with Valerie for a few more days.)

Phase 4: Coming home, sort of
I honestly don't even remember what exact day we left Valerie's, but it was a shit day. We had found an animal hospital open less than an hour from our house in the town of Labelle, so our plan was to drop the pups off there, then clean the house up and retrieve the dogs from boarding once we had power. The plan was derailed because it turned out that the "animal hospital" in Labelle was a squalid nightmare based out of an old schoolbus and damp, falling-down trailer, which reeked of mold and feces and of course had no power. So after a tense marital discussion we determined that we would travel to our home for just a few hours, keeping the dogs in the shade or in the air conditioning of the car, then Rhonda would return with them to Valerie's and I would stay in the house to do whatever I could to salvage things and make it habitable. Arriving at the house we could clearly see the black smudge of the high water line on the outside, and it was more than a foot up, pretty discouraging. Inside it was nasty and wet, but our forensic work indicated that the water inside had only reached about 10 cm / 3 inches deep. 10 cm was enough to ruin any water-absorbent thing on or low to floor. So that was all the upholstered furniture and the lower shelf of the bookshelves and filing cabinets, but thankfully not the bed, the futon, or the dressers that were on legs. The stench inside was a horrendous mix of rehydrated dog pee, sewage, leaf litter, mildering clothing, and wet drywall and insulation. We hurriedly mopped up the standing water in the low spots of the floor and started moving ruined things out to the curb, then moving possibly saveable things to the covered lanai area. Rhonda and the dogs left and I spent my first night sweating with windows open and no covers on atop the bed surrounded by an epic mess. The next day or so was all about moving stuff out, boxing up dry things that there were no longer shelves for (got a million giant tupperware things from the hardware store), jury rigging a window unit AC and dehumidifier on a generator with help from my work buddy Serge and Rhonda's cousin Mike. Concurrently I was in frantic negotiations with the landlord to see what to do about the wet drywall, which becomes an epic mold problem if not removed soon. I got the go-ahead to remove it, and got some tips from my paddle buddy Matt Kearney on how to do so. One of the worst things was just drawing the line around the entire house at exactly 26" high, which is tricky when you're moving things which have no place to go, crawling around like a mole inside closets, etc. I forgot to wear a mask the first day of drywall removal so I'll probably die of asbestosis, but I wore a mask after that. The one good part of those hell days of all work and no electricity was meeting and bonding with a bunch of my neighbors that I hadn't really known before. As messed up as my house was, I was actually among the lucky ones, since a lot of folks closer to the River or bay had head-high water in their homes and lost everything inside. Worst of all, of course, were the folks who lived near the open coast whose entire houses were knocked down and swept away. It does make one question the wisdom of rebuidling in some of the lowest, most coastal areas. I'd like to see folks find ways to turn those areas mostly into public parks and beaches.

Phase 5: The lingering nightmare
One horrifying discovery when removing the drywall, along with the spiders, roaches, piles of lizard eggs, pine straw rat middens, and actual TOAD under the sink, was that an addition to the house had tons of pre-existing rot in the walls from where the roofs of the new and old part of the house weren't mated right and water got in. You know the rot is bad when you can actually vacuum up boards like wet coffee grounds with the shopvac. It's like, if I ever wondered why my rent was cheaper than average, now I knew. The horror of the mildew and stuff abated once everything was dried and out and vacuumed out and bleached and carted to the mountain of house guts on the curb (matching the mountains of house guts all down the street, and in every adjoining neighborhood, for miles and miles), and the power came on and Rhonda and the dogs were able to come back. But it's still unsettling living in this frankenhouse where the dogs can run freely from any room into any other and we don't know if the landlord is ever going to fix it and wonder if we could afford a different place. My pay has gone up about 10% since I moved here in 2012, but the average rent in town is like 2 or 3 times higher than it was. Cherished luxuries I've enjoyed, like having a shed for windsurfing boards and water within walking distance to go paddleboarding in, are things I maybe shouldn't have taken for granted. Although I'm not sure the "water nearby" thing is the unqualified perk that it initially appeared, especially with the sea level rising and stuff.

Phase 6: Life goes on, and science
October 10th was my first day back at work at FGCU, with a full schedule of classes and all the usual stuff, plus a lot of hurricane talk and catching up. I had 276 unread emails on the first day- yikes! One of the important things in those unread emails was that my scientific collaborators on our EPA-funded SW Florida shelf research project had arranged an alternate strategy for getting our October sampling done despite our marine research station being trashed. That alternate way is a 7-10 day cruise onboard the Florida Institute of Oceanography's boat, the R.V. Hogarth. We leave from St. Petersburg Tuesday. I should have internet so I'll try to do some posts of our scientific findings. We'll also have a reporter and cameraman onboard from SW Florida's Wink News. We expect to find a lot of murky, polluted water, and possibly some nasty knock-on effects of all the pollution and rotting material that has been injected into the Gulf; effects like algal blooms and oxygen depletion smothering sea bottom life.