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TBEP, UF scientists study sea level rise with drone radar

TIERRA VERDE — Across the road from a snack shack in Fort De Soto Park, Gary Raulerson searches until he finds a gap in the cabbage palms. He ducks inside, branches creaking on a bright February morning. He plods a few steps past an orange survey flag.

Sunlight slashes through dead Brazilian pepper trees, brought here more than a century ago for decoration, now invasive. Raulerson tries to avoid poison ivy. Sweat pricks his back.

In the parking lot, University of Florida researchers prepare a spider-like drone, which will fly an $80,000 laser radar device to collect data on the vegetation.

Scientists are studying nine places like this around Tampa Bay, where water meets land and where they believe the region’s present will meet its uncertain future as seas rise.

An ecologist for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, Raulerson, 52, wears transition lenses under long gray hair and cinches a bucket hat at his neck. He hopes this study, still in its infancy, will outlast him by decades. Climate change, he believes, is legacy work.

“We think about the impacts it’s going to have on our houses, on our infrastructure,” he said — on places like the sugar-sand beach across the street, rated among America’s best. Just a Frisbee toss away, the tangled wedge of the barrier island where Raulerson stands lacks such glamour, but he worries about it just the same.

He wonders what will become of the mangroves and marsh grasses that share the shore, squeezed somewhere between the pavement and rising tide.