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.
"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.