Pythons, sea-level rise and other horrors, oh my
Pythons edged out sea-level rise on the threat-assessment level by one noted environmental scientist.
Meg Lowman is director of environmental initiatives and a professor of biology at New College in Sarasota. She is in the midst of a five-year study of science matters for Sarasota County, and offered some thoughts last week.
Burmese pythons are invading the state, she bluntly said. The snakes are found predominately in the Everglades in huge numbers: Lowman pegged their numbers at 30,000, while others estimate five times more of the big reptiles.
And big the python can get, at up to 26 feet and 200 pounds.
State and federal officials toured the Glades late last week to address the slithering subject. State wildlife commissioners met with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Salazar said he was interested in placing a bounty on the head of every Burmese python. Dead or alive is not known.
Crist said the idea had merit, and a state wildlife commissioner said he’d pony up $10,000 out of his pocket for the program, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
Burmese pythons are not Florida native reptiles. They are popular among some folks, though, who keep them legally as pets.
But the cute little wrigglers quickly grow into big eating machines and a big problem for the owners. Rather than dispatch their prized “Professor Slitherin,” they tote him to a swamp or wilderness area and open the cage with a cry of “be free!”
The snakes are prodigious swimmers, Lowman said, as well as good climbers and a threat for nesting birds and small animals.
Also house cats and even alligators are at risk. Remember that picture a while back of a dead python that had tried to eat a big gator?
Most officials say pythons are one of the most damaging species to invade the Everglades.
And they’re moving north.
Lowman said there have been a number of reports of the snakes in Lee and Charlotte counties, fewer in Sarasota. Manatee County shouldn’t be too far away from the reptile rumble.
She added that a general rule of thumb for Burmese pythons is that there are about 10 in the bush for every one in the hand.
Taking the federal census, that means that there could be 1.5 million pythons thumbing their noses — or flicking their tongues, probably — as us. Waiting. Watching.
Oh, yeah, sea-level rise
The New College environmental expert has also addressed sea-level rise as it pertains to global warming.
Lowman said that depending on which weather expert you talk to, estimates by the year 2100 put the water up 3-15 feet.
Variables abound on the estimates, she added, as does the science used to create the data. Ice-sheet melt, Antarctic ice-flow calving and myriad other factors are weighed in the figures.
For example, a study released late last week by the National Center for Atmospheric Research said that the Greenland ice-sheet melt “may drive more water than previously thought toward the already threatened coastlines of New York, Boston, Halifax and other cities in the northeastern United States and Canada.”
If the ice melts faster than anticipated, the ocean circulation may shift and slosh more water closer to and over the shore in that part of the world.
By the numbers, NCAR reports:
“The 2007 assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that sea levels worldwide could rise by an average of 7 to 23 inches this century, but many researchers believe the rise will be greater because of dynamic factors in ice sheets that appear to have accelerated the melting rate in recent years.”
NCAR said that if the Greenland ice melts as it predicts, the sea-level rise along the northeast coast of the United States could be 12-20 inches more than the worldwide norm.
Lowman said she has data, which indicates the rise could be as much as 24 feet.
Anna Maria Island is generally about 5 feet above sea level.
There’s a new “exotic” to the underwater marine scene now, too, which may not really give a hoot about sea-level rise or pythons.
Florida now claims the two largest artificial reefs in the United States off its shores.
The USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a retired U.S. Navy warship, was sunk last week about 7 miles offshore in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It rests in about 140 feet of water, but since the 17,250-ton ship is so high, part of its superstructure is only 40 feet beneath the surface.
The sinking cost about $8.6 million, and included removing tons of stuff that would be harmful to its new visitors — divers, fish and other marine life.
For divers, the cleanup included wires and cables that could snag a swimmer.
For marine critters, the removal required hauling off all sorts of leftover chemicals and toxins, including asbestos.
It was a costly sinking, but one that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believes will prove cost effective. NOAA estimates that the economy for the Florida Keys and Monroe County will net $7.5 million annually in tourism and related services.
The Vandenberg was built in Richmond, Calif., in 1943. It was commissioned as a World War II troop transport ship. After Japan surrendered, the Vandenberg was the first Navy ship to return to New York Harbor.
It later transported refugees from Europe and Australia to America, then went into service to track missiles. In the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force used the Vandenberg to track missiles and space shuttle launches.
She was decommissioned in 1986, then chosen for her ability to become an artificial reef.
According to CNN, the ship was a feature in the 1999 movie “Virus,” with Donald Sutherland and Jamie Lee Curtis.
New College’s Lowman said there are 44 invasive reptiles in Florida. Nile monitor lizards and Mexican black spiny iguanas are but two, both making their home in Southwest Florida in Lee and Collier counties.
As to the Burmese python, the usually mild-mannered, outgoing, former director of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Lowman said: “We have to eradicate them before they take a hold in our watershed.”