Has the Conversion of Natural Wetlands to Agricultural Land Increased the Incidence and Severity of Damaging Freezes in South Florida?

Curtis H. Marshall Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado

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Roger A. Pielke Sr. Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado

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Louis T. Steyaert EROS Data Center, U.S. Geological Survey, and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland

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Abstract

On several occasions, winter freezes have wrought severe destruction on Florida agriculture. A series of devastating freezes around the turn of the twentieth century, and again during the 1980s, were related to anomalies in the large-scale flow of the ocean–atmosphere system. During the twentieth century, substantial areas of wetlands in south Florida were drained and converted to agricultural land for winter fresh vegetable and sugarcane production. During this time, much of the citrus industry also was relocated to those areas to escape the risk of freeze farther to the north. The purpose of this paper is to present a modeling study designed to investigate whether the conversion of the wetlands to agriculture itself could have resulted in or exacerbated the severity of recent freezes in those agricultural areas of south Florida.

For three recent freeze events, a pair of simulations was undertaken with the Regional Atmospheric Modeling System. One member of each pair employed land surface properties that represent pre-1900s (near natural) land cover, whereas the other member of each pair employed data that represent near-current land-use patterns as derived from analysis of Landsat data valid for 1992/93. These two different land cover datasets capture well the conversion of wetlands to agriculture in south Florida during the twentieth century. Use of current land surface properties resulted in colder simulated minimum temperatures and temperatures that remained below freezing for a longer period at locations of key agricultural production centers in south Florida that were once natural wetlands. Examination of time series of the surface energy budget from one of the cases reveals that when natural land cover is used, a persistent moisture flux from the underlying wetlands during the nighttime hours served to prevent the development of below-freezing temperatures at those same locations. When the model results were subjected to an important sensitivity factor, the depth of standing water in the wetlands, the outcome remained consistent. These results provide another example of the potential for humans to perturb the climate system in ways that can have severe socioeconomic consequences by altering the land surface alone.

Corresponding author address: Curtis H. Marshall, NCEP/Environmental Center, 5200 Auth Road, Rm. 207, Camp Springs, MD 20746-4304. Email: Curtis.Marshall@noaa.gov

Abstract

On several occasions, winter freezes have wrought severe destruction on Florida agriculture. A series of devastating freezes around the turn of the twentieth century, and again during the 1980s, were related to anomalies in the large-scale flow of the ocean–atmosphere system. During the twentieth century, substantial areas of wetlands in south Florida were drained and converted to agricultural land for winter fresh vegetable and sugarcane production. During this time, much of the citrus industry also was relocated to those areas to escape the risk of freeze farther to the north. The purpose of this paper is to present a modeling study designed to investigate whether the conversion of the wetlands to agriculture itself could have resulted in or exacerbated the severity of recent freezes in those agricultural areas of south Florida.

For three recent freeze events, a pair of simulations was undertaken with the Regional Atmospheric Modeling System. One member of each pair employed land surface properties that represent pre-1900s (near natural) land cover, whereas the other member of each pair employed data that represent near-current land-use patterns as derived from analysis of Landsat data valid for 1992/93. These two different land cover datasets capture well the conversion of wetlands to agriculture in south Florida during the twentieth century. Use of current land surface properties resulted in colder simulated minimum temperatures and temperatures that remained below freezing for a longer period at locations of key agricultural production centers in south Florida that were once natural wetlands. Examination of time series of the surface energy budget from one of the cases reveals that when natural land cover is used, a persistent moisture flux from the underlying wetlands during the nighttime hours served to prevent the development of below-freezing temperatures at those same locations. When the model results were subjected to an important sensitivity factor, the depth of standing water in the wetlands, the outcome remained consistent. These results provide another example of the potential for humans to perturb the climate system in ways that can have severe socioeconomic consequences by altering the land surface alone.

Corresponding author address: Curtis H. Marshall, NCEP/Environmental Center, 5200 Auth Road, Rm. 207, Camp Springs, MD 20746-4304. Email: Curtis.Marshall@noaa.gov

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