The Indian River Lagoon

When we were originally asked to write about our favorite place, I chose to describe the Atlantic Ocean. More specifically however, I would like to talk about the Indian River Lagoon. This is the brackish estuary that runs between the mainland and the barrier island of a large portion of Florida’s Atlantic coast, including the town of Vero Beach, where I grew up. I would spend days at a time out on this lagoon, fishing and diving. Because of this I was always somewhat aware of the biological, chemical, and geological processes that made up the lagoon’s system. However, this awareness was limited to mosty the large and visible phenomenon. I was aware of the seasonal variation in biological activity because the density of seagrass varied and the habits, concentration, and location of fish changed. I was aware of the gradual increase in sediment input because of the increasing cloudiness of the water. I was aware of anthropogenic climate change because it affected the activity and appearance of the life within the lagoon. I was even vaguely aware of the biochemical microbial cycling because of algae blooms. However, this knowledge never really extended beyond the immediately visible.

Learning about the varied and interconnected Earth processes this semester has given me a much deeper knowledge of the activity in the Indian River Lagoon. In particular, learning about microbial cycling and the larger organic carbon cycle greatly affected the way I think about the lagoon. Realizing the fragile cycle that exists between nutrient input and different elemental concentrations added much more nuance to my previous understanding of the system. Now when I think about something as simple as a sunny day on the lagoon, I consider how that speeds up the photosynthetic processes of the organisms at the water’s surface. I consider how this in turn impacts the production of oxygen and removal of CO2 at the water’s surface and how this process is nutrient limiting. I think about how this process then plays its part in cycling organic matter to the deeper parts of the system, creating more nutrients that are then either buried in the bottom sediment or brought back to the top to assist in the process again. Growing up I always saw the lagoon as a constant cycle of large life (plants->crustaceans->fish->birds etc.). Now, however, I see it as a biochemical cycle that involves changes in every living thing, from bacteria to manatee.

More specifically, when I return to Florida and the Indian River Lagoon I would like to think about and observe the anthropogenic implications on the carbon cycle in the estuary. During the few years leading up to my move from Florida, there was a massive state undertaking that inadvertently rerouted excess water from Lake Okeechobee into the lagoon. This water, already of a different chemical composition than the lagoon also acquired agricultural runoff on its path to the lagoon. As a result, the influx of water came with an influx of unnatural fertilizers and warmer water. This caused a massive spike in algae, leading to several blooms and other environmental consequences. I would like to make observations about this event. I would like to take different temperature recordings near and away from the points of influx. I would like to figure out the specific nutrient concentration and composition of the new water and compare it to that of the water upstream. I would like to research historical comparisons before and after the diverting started. This could relate to water level, average temperature, discharge, flux, or animal populations. By doing so, I would like to quantify the visual changes that I have already experienced. Taking this class has both given me the tools and interest in measuring the anthropocene impact of carbon cycle alterations in the Indian River Lagoon.

Considering this aspect of the Indian River Lagoon also makes me consider my personal relationship to it. On the positive side, considering the delicate microbial and carbon-based balance allows me to appreciate the system itself more. Next time I go out fishing on the lagoon, I will consider the fact that this coastal carbon cycle is constantly going on around me. Moreover, It situates my favorite place within a much larger framework. Yes, the lagoon is, to an extent, a self contained system. However, it is linked to the larger coastal system by mutually influential processes and common system inputs. The changes in the lagoon are reflected in the ocean, and the changes in the ocean are reflected in the lagoon. Learning of the carbon cycle has allowed me to think about the Indian River Lagoon at both its smallest and biggest dimensions.

Learning of the carbon cycle has also forced me to consider my role in the anthropogenic influence on the Indian River Lagoon. I always thought of myself, growing up, as being respectful to the river system. I didn’t litter. I was diligent about turning off my motor engine. I always released the fish I caught. However, like my understanding of the lagoon at that time, my imagined environmentalism was only on the macro scale. Learning about the delicate importance of the carbon cycle forced me to realize that many of my other activities on the lagoon may have impacted its health at the microbial level. In other words, I most likely was part of the anthropocene shifts in the system. By the same token, the universality of the processes in question also brings accountability to a larger place. The same disturbances that I was causing were likely caused by countless other boaters and fishers. In a way, leaning of the organic carbon cycle allowed me to universalize my personal contribution to anthropogenic climate change. This by no means absolves me of any blame or responsibility, but it has been helpful in accurately conceptualizing the effects of these processes. And only with an accurate understanding can progress be made.


Grayson Mugford

Surficial Earth Dynamics