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Research Findings from Hurricane Ian Shared at Coastal and Heartland National Estuary Partnership Climate Summit

The Coastal and Heartland National Estuary Partnership held its 3rd Annual Climate Summit at Collaboratory in Ft. Myers in mid-March.  The two-day event allowed climate professionals to hear about academic and applied climate research including citizen-science engagement, Hurricane Ian impact analysis and recovery, and education and advocacy underway by the NGO community. Among the many outstanding presentations, there were important takeaways to share that provide perspective on the challenges facing the region and the path forward.  Following is a select synopsis of the Hurricane Ian research, as the analysis from data collected in its aftermath is now emerging.



Within 48 hours of Hurricane Ian’s landfall, Dr. Werhlan of the Berkeley National laboratories confidently stated that its rains were “at least 10% higher” as a result of a warming climate. Dr. Werhlan explained how a hind-cast model developed from storms in 2020, was used with Ian data to quickly reach this conclusion.  Further analysis of the Ian data suggested that 10% was a conservative projection, and the 3-hour peak and 3-day rain totals were actually 15% to 20% higher (with a 95% confidence interval) as a result of human-induced warming. This is twice the impact typically attributed to climate change when people quote the Clausius-Clapeyron physics principle documenting that a 1°C temperature increase results in 7% more moisture. His research models indicate the highest rain totals are found in the “1 o’clock position” of the circulation pattern, which allows better freshwater flooding prediction for future storms. This team is now developing end-to-end modeling that connects flooding prediction models to concrete damage assessment.



FGCU’s Dr. Mike Savarese showed the geomorphic changes to the beach and dune zone resulting from Ian’s storm surge. Hurricanes normally redistribute sand, further landward on the dune field, but the drone photography taken post-storm revealed that the ebb flow from the storm surge carved wide drainage channels in the dunes where footpaths and boardwalk overpasses provided beachgoers access. Dr. Savarese noted that footpaths are known to weaken the integrity of the dune line, but it was surprising to find that the undisturbed sand under the boardwalk overpass also eroded. The lack of vegetation under the structure might explain the erosion in these areas. The findings show the protective benefits of planting or conserving native coastal vegetation and suggest that coastal engineers might need to design pedestrian access differently to allow sunshine and plants to grow in these areas.



While the most evident hurricane impacts were along the Gulf’s coastal communities, Dr. Ernesto de la Vega from Lee County Hyacinth Control District presented data indicating an increased salinity in retention ponds in several residential communities.  The Pond Watch fieldwork uses citizen-science volunteers to measure salinity levels at varying pond depths. The Pond Watch program has found that saltwater has sunk to the bottom of inland retention ponds, and 17 ponds in the 53 participating locations had salinity over 1.2 ppm, the maximum water salinity that can be used for irrigation. Nine ponds had salinity levels of over 5.0 ppm. The colder salt water has disturbed the freshwater fauna and flora of the ponds creating anoxia (low oxygen and higher ammonium) that kills some fish species, and subsequently impacts the entire food chain. Mussels and a shark were found living in some of these ponds. Communities that draw irrigation water from these ponds saw brown, dying, grass, and without understanding that salt in the irrigation water was causing the problem, increased fertilizer use, compounding the pond problem, as nutrient-laden run-off fuels algae growth. The monitoring program covers Lee County, and Dr. de la Vega is willing to add more monitoring locations. Contact him if your HOA would like to participate at 239 694-2174. Collier communities are also encouraged to consider hiring pond maintenance companies to sample and appropriately address emerging pond issues. Most importantly, scientists hope that during the rainy season, the salt concentrations will be diluted.



The CHNEP Climate Summit provided a valuable opportunity to share new insight on hurricane impacts, as well as how climate professionals around the state are increasing resilience through policy and investment.  Presentations from the Central Regional Planning Council, Florida’s Resilience Officer showcase resilience investments. Audubon, Tampa Bay Estuary, and the City of Winter Haven presented programmatic approaches. In sum, wonderful environmental work is happening all around us, and recovery from Hurricane Ian has become a catalyst for additional efforts, resulting in lessons about the impacts of a changing climate in our region that continue to emerge.


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