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Impacts of past climate and sea level change on Everglades wetlands: placing a century of anthropogenic change into a late-Holocene context

January 1, 2011

We synthesize existing evidence on the ecological history of the Florida Everglades since its inception ~7 ka (calibrated kiloannum) and evaluate the relative impacts of sea level rise, climate variability, and human alteration of Everglades hydrology on wetland plant communities. Initial freshwater peat accumulation began between 6 and 7 ka on the platform underlying modern Florida Bay when sea level was ~6.2 m below its current position. By 5 ka, sawgrass and waterlily peats covered the area bounded by Lake Okeechobee to the north and the Florida Keys to the south. Slower rates of relative sea level rise ~3 ka stabilized the south Florida coastline and initiated transitions from freshwater to mangrove peats near the coast. Hydrologic changes in freshwater marshes also are indicated ~3 ka. During the last ~2 ka, the Everglades wetland was affected by a series of hydrologic fluctuations related to regional to global-scale fluctuations in climate and sea level. Pollen evidence indicates that regional-scale droughts lasting two to four centuries occurred ~1 ka and ~0.4 ka, altering wetland community composition and triggering development of characteristic Everglades habitats such as sawgrass ridges and tree islands. Intercalation of mangrove peats with estuarine muds ~1 ka indicates a temporary slowing or stillstand of sea level. Although sustained droughts and Holocene sea level rise played large roles in structuring the greater Everglades ecosystem, twentieth century reductions in freshwater flow, compartmentalization of the wetland, and accelerated rates of sea level rise had unprecedented impacts on oxidation and subsidence of organic soils, changes/loss of key Everglades habitats, and altered distribution of coastal vegetation.