From 2014 to 2016, images of diatoms flooded through museums, nature centers, and parks across the southern tip of Florida. Students, tourists, and community members were meeting, likely for the first time, the microscopic and magnificently kaleidoscopic organisms on which all life relies.
Diatoms are single-celled algae. Small and prolific, they exist abundantly in water bodies around the world. As a group they produce up to 50 percent of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. The Everglades, a dynamic wetland supporting a major American metropolis and important agricultural industry, is rich in diatoms. Scientists at the Florida Coastal Everglades Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site find diatoms a telling subject because these microscopic algae indicate overall ecosystem health.
Led by Nick Oehm, the Florida Coastal Everglades’s education and outreach coordinator, scientists shared slides of these unicellular algae with the Tropical Botanical Artists, an ensemble of local watercolorists. Collaboratively, these painters and scientists then presented images of diatoms and stories of their ecological importance to the public through a touring exhibit called In Deep with Diatoms.
Oehm has spent his career in science education. He taught biology in Miami’s public schools and Miami Dade College for 15 years and has been with Florida International University and the LTER program since 2006. He is drawn to the universality of art and often incorporated art projects into his science curricula. “Art speaks to students in a different way,” he says, “so I think it’s an important tool in teaching our science.”
Oehm met the Tropical Botanical Artists at an earlier exhibit at Biscayne National Park a few years after he joined the LTER program. Captivated by the watercolorists’ ability to communicate scientific concepts and illuminate the beauty of the Everglades, he brought them into the fold as regular partners in the laboratories to engage and educate the Miami-Dade County community on environmental issues that significantly impact their way of life.
The Florida Coastal Everglades is one of 28 long-term ecological research sites funded by the National Science Foundation. Based at the Florida International University Institute of Environment, the Florida Coastal Everglades was established in the LTER network in 2000 as a series of sites along the two main freshwater drainages in the Everglades: the Taylor River Slough in the east, and the Shark River Slough to the west.
Here, just a few miles west of the Miami metropolis, researchers are studying ecological disturbances over time to help inform critical land and water management decisions. “Hurricanes are a really big deal here and a major influencing factor,” says Oehm. Other common disturbances in the Everglades include sea-level rise, soil decomposition, nutrient imbalances, and wildfire.
Evelyn Gaiser has been a principal investigator at Florida Coastal Everglades since 2007. “Ecosystems are influenced by many factors interacting over many time scales, so long-term data are necessary to interpret observed changes,” she explains. “In the Everglades and many other ecosystems, long-term data also provide guidance on management actions necessary to meet conservation and sustainability goals.”
“Being able to manage the needs of an urban metropolis, next to this World Heritage site, is quite a challenge,” Oehm admits. And members of the LTER program are working across disciplines to meet this challenge. It’s a big group, around 160 researchers in total. This community is comprised of scientists and students from universities, non-governmental organizations, the National Park Service, and various local land and water management agencies. “It’s a great opportunity to be able to have a big impact on those management decisions,” he says, “because the managers are doing the science with us.”
Restoring the Flow
The Everglades ecosystem maintains a delicate balance between freshwater flowing out through the Taylor River and Shark River Sloughs and saltwater pulsing in from Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. This healthy balance has supported life and human development in South Florida for centuries. Over time, however, the diversion of freshwater for agriculture and urban settlement, along with sea-level rise, has led to increased saltwater intrusion in these fragile ecosystems. This intrusion disturbs nutrient balances and intensifies the effects of sea-level rise because it degrades the peat soil and sawgrass marshes, thereby lowering the elevation of the Everglades.
The restoration of freshwater flows in the Everglades could help defer the worst effects of climate change and the swiftly rising sea. To enact the type of restoration necessary to protect one of the planet’s most productive mangrove forests, an intercontinental migratory bird habitat, a globally important agricultural industry, and the wellbeing of six million humans, a transdisciplinary approach is required, Gaiser says in a plenary speech to the Society of Wetland Scientists.
A Transdisciplinary Approach
“Everglades restoration is required to sustain human activity in South Florida,” Gaiser underscores, “so public education about why the Everglades matters is critical.” Enter Oehm, who Gaiser calls “visionary.” It’s his mission to engage and educate the public as he invites and carefully cultivates transdisciplinary artist partnerships at the Florida Coastal Everglades.
Public engagement with the Everglades itself can be difficult, so part of the artist partners’ effort is to bring it to the public. “If you want to see the beauty of the Everglades,” Oehm says, “you gotta get out there and be in mud up to the middle of your thighs, slogging through it.” However, even if an artist were eager, able, and outfitted to slog through thigh-deep mud, reaching the Florida Coastal Everglades research sites is a challenge because they are accessible only by helicopter or airboat, and the real estate on those vessels is limited because of the equipment needing transport to and fro. Oehm and willing Florida Coastal Everglades scientists like Gaiser navigate these obstacles by inviting artists into the laboratories to engage with the research first-hand.
“Pauline’s background is biology,” Oehm explains. Pauline Goldsmith is the exhibition coordinator for the Tropical Botanical Artists. “She understands the science sides of things, and she understands the art side of things. It also helps that Gaiser comes from an artistic family and is artistic, so she helps to bridge that as well. Then, I’m the one that usually comes up with the crazy ideas,” Oehm laughs.
“They are so approachable,” Goldsmith says of the Florida Coastal Everglades research team. “Many of our artists are non-scientists, and they find the research they have to do very difficult, but ultimately rewarding. They can approach our Florida Coastal Everglades friends and ask the silliest of questions. During In Deep with Diatoms, Evelyn Gaiser had us over to her labs on two occasions to see displays of diatoms and peer down microscopes.”
The scientists who find themselves working with the artist partners experience their own form of discovery. Gaiser, who is herself a musician, acknowledges, “Any time you think about anything you are doing from a different or new perspective—like that offered through engagement of the arts—you come out of it having some different notions about the work and its meaning.”
A Decade of Artist Partners
Over the last decade, the Florida Coastal Everglades team and the Tropical Botanical Artists have worked together to organize and execute three exhibitions. The first two, Macroalgae: Hidden Colors of the Sea (2011-2012) and In Deep with Diatoms (2014-2016), were both aimed at raising public awareness for the very small life forms in the Everglades that are so important for the healthy functioning of global ecosystems and society. The third exhibition, The Trail: In the Beginning, paid homage to the 100th anniversary of the Tamiami Trail—the southernmost section of U.S. Highway 41, from Tampa to Miami. The exhibit depicted native flora along the corridor, which, due to the intervention of humans, are now either rare or endangered.
The relationship with the watercolor troupe has paved the way for other artist partnerships, like the Florida Coastal Everglades’s ongoing collaborations with Xavier Cortada, a Miami-based artist whose pieces range from paintings to videos and digital art to performances and installations. Through his spectrum of mediums, Cortada’s art centers on generating public awareness and action on issues like climate change and social justice.
Cortada is a familiar face in LTER programs across the country. Along with his work in the Everglades, he has participated in artist partnerships and residencies at the HJ Andrews Forest LTER in Oregon and at Hubbard Brook LTER in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Cortada’s relationship with Florida Coastal Everglades scientists led to a diatom project coinciding with the Tropical Botanical Artists’s diatom exhibit and also contributed to Cortada’s Clima exhibit. Clima is a dynamic and multimedia experience complete with paintings, digital art, videos, participatory performance, and panel discussions meant to raise awareness on climate change, particularly the effects that will most significantly impact Florida: sea-level rise and the loss of biodiversity. He assembled the exhibit first in 2015 as a response to the Paris Climate Accords, and he has shown it twice more, in 2016 and 2018, as his work, climate science, and the sociopolitical situation of climate change have evolved.
Oehm has also connected with Artists in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE), a private residency program that hosts ten artists or writers a year. Their mission is to empower artists to think creatively and critically about their relationship with the environment and reveal new paths forward. Together, Oehm and AIRIE created professional development workshops for K-12 teachers in the area. “The teachers would have a half day of professional development, learning with some of the scientists,” Oehm explains, “and then they would have the afternoon with the artist, doing a particular art project.” After the workshop, he continues, “they would work on the art project with their students in the classroom, and then they exhibited it at Everglades National Park at the end of the school year.” These programs gave scientists and artists the opportunity to bring local youth in on the work of engaging with the environmental issues that influence their communities.
Collaborations with artist partners have resulted in exhibitions at venues across South Florida. Biscayne and Everglades National Parks have exhibited artwork from these collaborations to international tourists. The Frost Art Museum on the Florida International University campus in Miami regularly shows work developed by Florida Coastal Everglades artist partners, attracting an audience base in the academic community. Another common exhibition venue is the Deering Estate, a museum, preserve, and archeological site south of Miami, which appeals to community members and visitors who are drawn to nature.
An Invitation to Live in Harmony
Life in modern, urban America may feel insulated at times, but the residents of the Miami-Dade County metropolis could not maintain their way of life without the pulse of the Everglades just a few miles to the west. The water residents consume, the food they eat, and their ability to weather a changing climate all depend on the health and restoration of this ecosystem.
Diverse as they may be in scope, audience, and subject, a common thread in Florida Coastal Everglades’s art collaborations is an invitation for residents and recreators to imagine their connection to and influence on the natural world. “Blasting them with science may not work,” says Goldsmith, but engaging them with these interdisciplinary exhibits can.
These partnerships and the works that develop thus are estuaries where human impact and human potential meet. We are not alone, their exhibits bellow. Diving In Deep with Diatoms, community members draw deep breaths with a new appreciation. Experiencing Cortada’s Clima, coastal citizens learn how their lives will be changed when the tide reaches their door before it’s too late. Exploring the Tamiami Trail, residents saw firsthand the effect human settlement had on native flora. As tides and temperatures rise, these collaborations urge us to imagine how we may live in harmony: the Everglades and us.
A growing network of long-term ecological research sites in the United States (and beyond) features collaborations among the sciences, arts, and humanities. From the hardwood forests of New England to the towering old growth trees of the Pacific Northwest, we will introduce you to a handful of these diverse places and explore what happens when environmental scientists and artists hike, live, research, and create together with the long view of decades and centuries in mind.
Emily Grubby is a writer who has been lucky to live in all corners of the country but is especially fortunate to have found home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She interned with the Spring Creek Project for two transformative years while earning her MA in Environmental Arts and Humanities from Oregon State University. She is currently experimenting with poetry and finding it a natural companion in exploring the reaches of gratitude and grief.
Header photo of the Shark River Slough, looking south, by Nick Oehm.