Today, we understand that natural systems like the untouched Everglades in Florida provide enormous benefits – water filtration, nurseries for fish and other wildlife, protection from storm surges, even carbon sequestration. But to 19th-century Floridians, all that water – and the mosquitoes and reptiles it harboured – represented an impediment to progress. And so when Florida became a state in 1845, one of the Legislature’s first acts was to pass a resolution asking Congress to survey the “wholly valueless” Everglades “with a view to their reclamation”. Beginning in earnest during the 1880s, humans began draining the swamp. They dug canals east and west from Lake Okeechobee, carrying nutrient-laden water that altered the salinity of coastal estuaries and caused toxic algae blooms. They seeded the wetlands from the air with a thirsty, paper-barked Australian tree called melaleuca. The vast custard apple forest that girded the lake’s southern shore was torched, burning so fiercely that it set the very earth on fire. Peat soils that had accumulated over thousands of years dried up and blew away. Over the course of just the last century, about half of the Everglades’ original footprint has been lost – ploughed under or paved over, never to be recovered, so long as South Florida’s 8 million human inhabitants claim it for their homes, livelihoods and recreation. The glades have been sapped by canals and dams that dramatically changed the landscape and altered animal habitats, polluted by upstream agricultural areas, transformed by invasive species. And now, rising sea levels – this time, caused by man – threaten to undo what it took nature millennia to build. What survives is not so much a natural ecosystem, but a remnant, heavily dependent on – and at the mercy of – a network of more canals, levees and hundreds of floodgates, pump stations and other water-control structures. Catching up with, and catching, invasive snake species in the Everglades What the US Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for creating much of this change, calls a “highly managed system”, others have sardonically labelled a “Disney Everglades”. Now, almost two decades after the start of a comprehensive restoration plan, climate change is causing experts to wonder if it can ever be restored The result: at the University of Florida Research Station in Belle Glade, a concrete marker driven through the organic soil down to the limestone substrate shows the ground has sunk more than 1.2 metres since 1924. And still, the tinkering went on. In the 1960s, the Corps began straightening the meandering, flood-prone Kissimmee River. Lined by wetlands so lush that they were known as “the Little Everglades”, the shallow, 210km river was what one wildlife expert called a “nursery ground for sport fishes”. By 1971, engineers had straightened the once free-flowing stream into a man-made canal. But it was an event in 1928 that, as much as any, altered the Everglades’ course. That year, a hurricane overwhelmed the flimsy dike along Lake Okeechobee’s southern shore, causing a deluge that killed 3,000 people, most of them poor, black farmworkers. The resulting 230km, 9-metre-high Herbert Hoover Dike now nearly completely surrounds the lake, permanently severing its connection to the park. The Corps’ primary mandate was to protect people, not the environment. As the narrator put it in the 1950s documentary Waters of Destiny , the agency saw itself as victorious in a war against nature: “Water that once ran wild. Water that ruined the rich terrain. Water that took lives and land. Put disaster in the headlines and death upon the soil. Now, it just waits there. Calm, peaceful. Ready to do the bidding of man and his machines.” Over the past decade, scientists began noticing an alarming trend in the wetlands near the park’s southwest tip – “potholes” of open water filled with dead vegetation. William Nuttle, a consultant with the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, says sea water was causing vast areas of once-healthy saw grass prairie “to unravel like a moth-eaten wool sweater”. A lack of fresh water from the north and the intrusion of sea water have boosted salinity levels in the marshes, Tiffany Troxler, a researcher from Florida International University, and others say, which appears to be hindering plant growth. Scientists are counting on mangroves and other more salt-tolerant plants to migrate inland into the saw grass plains, establishing a new, natural bulwark against climate change. But that change may already be outpacing nature’s – and man’s – ability to counter it: When the restoration plan was adopted in 2000, its authors were anticipating seas to rise only 15cm by 2050. They’ve since already risen 12.5cm. In its most recent report to Congress, a panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine urged a sweeping reassessment of restoration projects, warning that the current work is lagging behind the pace of climate change and could take 65 years to complete at the current funding levels. “At this pace of restoration, it is even more imperative that agencies anticipate and design for the Everglades of the future,” they wrote. This article was curated by Young Post . Better Life is the ultimate resource for enhancing your personal and professional life.