For most, the best thing we can say about 2020 is that it’s over. The environment took some hits, but it was probably the only space that welcomed world-wide shutdowns.
The year gave us an unrelenting hurricane season, with five storms careening across the Gulf to slam Louisiana and the northern coast, crippling folks across the southeast. In all, 12 storms made landfall in the U.S., making it the costliest season on record. Wildfires ravaged the west, causing untold damage and destroyed some revered, old-growth sequoia groves.
Environmentally, climate change is the most important issue on nearly everyone’s agenda – even “deniers” are fast losing ground. With “sunny day flooding” becoming a familiar issue in Florida’s coastal communities, it’s hard to miss the fact that the sea level is slowly creeping up, causing high-tide flooding when the sun’s out in many low-lying areas.
Flooding played a major role in the damage inflicted here in Gulfport. A November storm, Eta, roared in with unexpected force, causing extensive flooding and stranding at least six boats. It was a wake-up that bigger, more destructive storms are becoming more common.
However, there were some bright spots this year. Though we suffered through the isolation of COVID-19, the environment benefited immensely from the quarantine in discernible ways. According to NASA, the decline in air pollution was visible from space, as people drove less, airlines cut trips drastically and folks stayed home. During mandated shutdowns, citizens in Mexico City and Beijing looked up to see the smog-filled skies fade to blue for the first time in years.
According to data collected during the pandemic by NASA, U.S. Geological Survey, and the European Space Agency, satellites found the changes in our behavior impacted the environment around us in myriad ways, including the proliferation of birds. Science Daily reported that birdsong changed, “recovering the acoustic quality of songs sung decades ago, when city life was less noisy.”
Ed Sherwood, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, said it was a good year for the bay.
“There were improvements in air quality,” said Sherwood, “and we finalized the coastal forest plan that protects mangroves and coastal growth to provide wildlife habitat.”
The water quality in the bay now is clean enough to sustain a commercial shellfish industry, said Sherwood.
“There’s a new commercial oyster farm in lower Tampa Bay, near Joe’s Island in Manatee County, the first since the 1950s,” Sherwood said.
With 40 thousand acres of healthy seagrass, he hopes farming of Gulf shellfish expands.
“That’s pretty exciting,” Jan Allyn, a longtime environmental advocate in Pinellas County, said. “Our economy was so devastated by red tide and cyanobacteria, it’s encouraging to see improvement in local water quality.”
The new seagrass preserve that opened in August created a huge, contiguous meadow connecting Florida Bay with Big Bend area could vastly improve habitat. It also serves as a carbon sink for CO2, a main cause of climate change.
Despite the EPA’s rollbacks of many environmental regulations, there were other positive trends nationwide. The Great American Outdoors Act became law in August, guaranteeing $900 million per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, plus $9.5 billion dollars to maintain America’s parks.
Nationally, trends are moving away from fossil fuels and focusing on new sustainable forms of energy such as wind and solar. The Supreme Court handed pipeline protesters a great victory by shutting down construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and also causing two utility companies to cancel the Atlantic Coast pipeline.
Governor Ron DeSantis finally signed Florida’s first climate change bill, SB 178. The first lines of the bill state that climate change is real, a reversal from Rick Scott’s administration, which forbade the use of that term. This bill requires all state-funded buildings in coastal zones to take into account sea-level rise before building – a pretty big deal in a state where nearly two-thirds of its population lives in coastal areas.
But unbridled growth is still a huge concern for Florida, as developers continue to pave the state, curtailing rain water reaching the aquifer. In mid-December the EPA handed Florida the right to control its own wetlands. This has alarmed some environmental groups who fear it gives builders an upper hand as it eliminates oversight by the Army Corps of Engineers that usually evaluates issues of dredge and fill. There will be lots more on this in the coming year.
Rolling into 2021, we can hope for greater awareness on climate change – especially since 2020 was the Northern Hemisphere’s hottest summer on record, according to NOAA. At least there was no red tide.