Hurricane Ian left fingerprints on Everglades, but wasn’t a mangroves killer like Irma

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From the air, the fingerprints of Hurricane Ian’s journey through the Everglades are easy to see: swaths of beach washed away on Cape Sable, a plume of coffee-colored water leaking into the teal of Florida Bay and a stray sailboat shoved violently ashore, taking down 10 feet of mangroves on the way.

Ian’s Category 4 winds and record-breaking storm surge caused much misery in Southwest Florida, along with a death toll that passed 100 and continues to climb, but an initial visual survey of the southern Everglades, Florida Bay and Cape Sable revealed an ecosystem left largely intact.

That’s good news for an area still recovering from Hurricane Irma’s wrath in 2017. That storm destroyed 40% of Everglades mangroves, NASA scientists found, and those still-decaying trees could be the source of a persistent algae bloom that is still troubling Florida Bay.

The Miami Herald joined Steve Davis, chief scientist of the Everglades Foundation, Monday for what was likely the first aerial survey of South Florida’s ecosystem since Hurricane Ian hit Sept. 28. The flight was provided by Lighthawk, an organization that donates plane rides to conservation partners.

Steve Davis in a helicopter holding a cell phone and wearing a headset

Alex Harris/Miami Herald

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Aerial support: LightHawk

Steve Davis, chief science officer for the Everglades Foundation, discusses how Hurricane Ian’s impact on Florida Bay compared to Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Davis’ verdict? South Florida’s ecosystem appears to have weathered the storm. The hurricane may have even helped clear out some lingering polluted water.

“That is really heartening to see,” he said. “What we saw with Ian in this flight today was not as much wind damage. In fact, there was very little wind damage at all. What we saw mostly was evidence of surge.”

Ian’s horrific surge peaked near Fort Myers Beach and Naples, but the Cape Sable and Florida Bay area probably saw at least several feet, Davis said. The surge eroded some of the pristine natural beaches near Cape Sable and on some of the Ten Thousand Islands near Everglades City.

An aerial view of Chokoloskee and Everglades City, sparsely populated cities south of Naples, revealed no missing roofs or ruined docks, although USA Today reported that Ian flooded homes and tipped some of the fishing boats residents rely on for their livelihoods.

The most apparent mark of Ian’s surge on the Everglades was new deltas of light sand bursting out from what used to be contiguous shorelines, a sign that storm surge or intense rain blew out the natural barriers.

These blowouts create new openings for saltwater to snake its way inland, where it can kill off freshwater plants and shift the ecosystem to a saltwater one, a process already accelerated by sea level rise. The two new ones spotted Monday appear to be minor.

Mangroves along Florida Bay, Taylor Slough and Shark Valley Slough appeared to be in good shape, Davis said. But the scars from Irma were still visible. In many spots, the waterfront mangroves are green and thriving, but the inland mangroves are long dead and brown.

“A lot of these trees were killed by Irma and now they’re just standing dead wood,” he said.

Aerial view of the Everglades

Alex Harris/Miami Herald

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Aerial support: LightHawk

An aerial survey of the Everglades after Hurricane Ian showed some new blowouts along the coast of Cape Sable from the excess rain and storm surge.

Irma demolished thousands of mangroves and scoured sea grass off the shallow bottom of Florida Bay, which is still recovering from a massive sea grass die-off in 2015. That stinky mass of decaying sea grass and mangrove limbs took a long time to dissolve, and some of those remnants might have been a factor in the unusually persistent algae bloom fishers and researchers noticed this summer.

But that algae bloom was nowhere to be seen Monday morning, which could be a sign that Ian’s torrential surge and tides actually did the Everglades a favor.

Aerial view of the Everglades

Alex Harris/Miami Herald

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Aerial support: LightHawk

An aerial survey of the Everglades after Hurricane Ian showed the mangroves along the southernmost coast of the Everglades were practically unscathed, although the beach suffered some erosion.

“We have very dark green pea-soup-colored water leading up to the storm for much of this year, and it looks like that storm may have flushed out much of that bad water, and hopefully we’ll see continued sea grass recovery in those basins,” Davis said.

Florida Bay is so shallow that its landscape of islands and sand bars functions like the cross bars in an ice cube tray. Regular tides usually aren’t strong enough to flush out any dirty water that settles in, Davis said, but something like a hurricane can reset the system and blow all the muddy, polluted water out to sea.

“If we can see bottom here, that’s still better than we had before Ian,” he said. “That is really great-looking water right here.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.  

Aerial view of the Everglades

Alex Harris/Miami Herald

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Aerial support: LightHawk

An aerial survey of the Everglades after Hurricane Ian showed the mangroves along the southernmost coast of the Everglades were practically unscathed, although the beach suffered some erosion.

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