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SWFL to Lose Barrier Islands to Rising Seas Before Next Century

Andrea Perdomo
The shore of Big Hickory island, a natural barrier island located in Estero Bay, during low tide. FGCU researchers estimate the island could be underwater in the next 50 to 100 years due to rising sea levels.

Big Hickory Island is one of many barrier islands that protect Southwest Florida's shores when storms batter the peninsula.

Florida Gulf Coast University researchers believe many of those islands will be underwater in the next 50 to 100 years, due to climate change.

Joanne Muller is a professor of marine science at FGCU. She’s leading research on storms and climate change with a special focus on Southwest Florida.

"The atmosphere is warming; the seas are rising; hurricanes are getting stronger," Muller said. "So, it's important — it's absolutely crucial — that  we learn how to be more resilient."

Muller specializes in paleoclimatology — studying how past hurricanes have shaped and changed the land, and how sea level rise and shrinking barrier islands could change the impact of future storms.

Credit Andrea Perdomo / WGCU
FGCU professor of marine science, Joanne Muller, sits on a boat headed to Big Hickory Island, a natural barrier island located off of Estero Bay.

"We’re already seeing the effects of sea level rise on our local barrier island systems, so they’re already eroding."

Muller said barrier islands serve as buffers and losing them would make the mainland more vulnerable to the direct impact of storms.

Standing on the white sand of Big Hickory — an island that Muller said has an elevation of only about 19 inches — she said she and her team are witnessing effects of climate change now, so she hopes research like hers will get local leaders talking seriously about solutions.

“And have more conversations about which areas we can afford to lose and which areas we can’t and how we can make those (areas) resilient in the future,” Muller said. 

Andrea Perdomo is a reporter for WGCU News. She started her career in public radio as an intern for the Miami-based NPR station, WLRN. Andrea graduated from Florida International University, where she was a contributing writer for the student-run newspaper, The Panther Press, and was also a member of the university's Society of Professional Journalists chapter.