The South Florida wetlands ecosystem is an environment of great size and ecological diversity (figs. 1 and 2). The landscape diversity and subtropical setting of this ecosystem provide a habitat for an abundance of plants and wildlife, some of which are unique to South Florida. South Florida wetlands are currently in crisis, however, due to the combined effects of agriculture, urbanization, and nearly 100 years of water management. Serious problems facing this ecosystem include (1) phosphorus contamination producing nutrient enrichment, which is causing changes in the native vegetation, (2) methylmercury contamination of fish and other wildlife, which poses a potential threat to human health, (3) changes in the natural flow of water in the region, resulting in more frequent drying of wetlands, loss of organic soils, and a reduction in freshwater flow to Florida Bay, (4) hypersalinity, massive algal blooms, and seagrass loss in parts of Florida Bay, and (5) a decrease in wildlife populations, especially those of wading birds.
This U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) project focuses on the role of organic-rich sediments (peat) of South Florida wetlands in regulating the concentrations and impact of important chemical species in the environment. The cycling of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur in peat is an important factor in the regulation of water quality in the South Florida wetlands ecosystem. These elements are central to many of the contamination issues facing South Florida wetlands, such as nutrient enrichment, mercury toxicity, and loss of peat.
Many important chemical and biological reactions occur in peat and control the fate of chemical species in wetlands. Wetland scientists often refer to these reactions as biogeochemical processes, because they are chemical reactions usually mediated by microorganisms in a geological environment. An understanding of the biogeochemical processes in peat of South Florida wetlands will provide a basis for evaluating the effects on water quality of (1) constructing buffer wetlands to alleviate nutrient contamination and (2) replumbing the ecosystem to restore natural water flow. The results may also suggest new approaches for solving problems of contamination and water quality in these wetlands.
A second focus of this project will be on the geochemical history of the South Florida ecosystem. Peat is a repository of the history of past environmental conditions in the wetland. Before effective action can be taken to correct many of the problems facing these wetlands, we must first study the biogeochemistry of the peat at depth in order to understand whether current problems are the result of recent human activity or are part of a long-term natural cycle. Coordination with other (USGS) projects for South Florida is ongoing. These projects are studying the biological history of the ecosystem by using pollen and shells buried in the peat, together with procedures for dating the peat at various depths, to develop an overall ecosystem history model, with emphasis on the last 100 years.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
South Florida wetlands ecosystem; biogeochemical processes in peat