Gulf Coast Flatlands and Wetlands
From southern Texas to the Florida panhandle, this ecosystem’s coastal marshes, beaches, barrier islands, inland streams, rich deltas, interior coastal wet prairies, longleaf pine savannahs and grasslands function as a diverse ecosystem. The area is a center of plant endemism in the Southeast, and abounds with threatened animals and plants. Migratory birds use it to refuel before flying non-stop over the Gulf to Central America. The wetlands provide breeding sites and nursery areas for commercially fished species, serve as nesting sites for sea turtles and protect coastal communities from storm surge. Unfortunately intense development—agricultural and industrial production, casinos, marine recreation, shipbuilding, international shipping, and oil exploration—have damaged and fragmented the region. With the public attention brought by Hurricane Katrina and the Deep Horizon catastrophe, the time is ripe to restore and protect the ecosystem, for man and nature, particularly in light of forecasted climate change conditions.
A Home for Threatened & Endangered Species
The threatened Piping plover winters in the Gulf beaches and the Snowy plover nests here. The only remaining historical flock of the critically endangered Whooping Crane overwinters in coastal Texas’ Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Reintroduction of a flock on Louisiana marshes planned. The remnant prairies are the only habitat of the endangered Mississippi sandhill crane. Texas coastal grasslands are managed to expand the endangered Attwater’s prairie chicken populations. The northern Aplomado Falcon has been restored to coastal flatlands and barrier islands.
The Gulf ’s five endangered whales and manatee rely on wetlands and marshes to protect water quality. The endangered Mississippi Gopher frog relies on the Gulf ’s upland and seasonally flooded lowlands. Endangered and threatened sea turtles—the Green, Hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, Leatherback and Loggerhead—feed and/or breed here. Coastal Mississippi streams are occupied by the endangered Alabama Red-bellied Turtle. Coastal longleaf pine savannahs have snakes and lizards that take advantage of the burrowing habits of the threatened Gopher tortoise. Gulf Sturgeon move from marine waters into freshwater to spawn.
Climate Change Threats
In the near future, the region is predicted to see increases in the number and intensity of storms, including Category 5 hurricanes. Greater storm damage to offshore drilling platforms is likely to occur, raising the possibility of more oil spills. The storms will erode the coasts—by destroying marshes and sinking barrier islands—causing even small sea level rise to amplify storm surge and habitat destruction. If sea levels rise 1 meter, as predicted by some models, inland habitats will be threatened by storm damage, inundation, salinization, and destruction by humans as we move back from the flooding land areas nearest the Gulf of Mexico.