Gulf Coast - Environment
Of the several components that make up a physical environment, climate has the greatest impact on the human geography of the Southern Coastlands. A humid subtropical climate, a long growing season, mild winter temperatures, and warm, humid summers all contribute to patterns of human activity associated with the region.
Only in southern California, southwest Arizona, and Hawaii is the average length of the growing season equivalent to that in the Southern Coastlands. Measured as the number of days between the last killing frost in the spring and the first frost in the fall, almost the entire region experiences nine months or longer of potential growth for its agricultural crops. Also, almost the entire region receives precipitation abundant enough for most agricultural activities--an average rainfall in excess of 125 centimeters, with most of the rain falling in the summer between April and October, when sunlight is plentiful and warm temperatures support plant growth.
There are two primary consequences of these climatic conditions. First, as long as other agricultural conditions are met, such as fertile soil, appropriate ground drainage, and control of insect pests, farmers can grow their crops without fear of frost until late in the fall. In a few locations, it is possible to harvest two crops in one growing season, and some vegetable farmers are achieving even more. Second, and even more important, is the opportunity for production of specialty crops that can be grown in few other locations in the United States.
Citrus production has been a particularly important contributor to Florida's economy since it was first introduced to the region by Spaniards during the 16th century, although the areas of primary production have gradually shifted southward along the peninsula's interior.
Oranges and grapefruit are the most important of the seven major citrus fruits grown in the state. In 1992 over 6 million tons of oranges were harvested. Since 1945, an increasing share of the orange crop--now at about 80 percent--has been processed rather than sold as fresh oranges. By processing the oranges (mostly into frozen concentrate), a sizable industry has developed in Florida, spreading the benefits of this specialty crop among a larger proportion of the state's population than if only fresh fruit were shipped northward. In addition, processing allows year-round sales instead of limiting returns to the immediate harvest period.
Grapefruit is produced in an area almost coincident with orange production, but total demand is lower and output is only about one-fourth that of the more important crop. Significant orange and grapefruit farming is also found under irrigation in the extreme southern portion of Texas.
Since citrus fruits are tree crops, a major share of their production costs are associated with the harvest. The fruit must be hand-picked, often from the top of a long ladder. Large amounts of short-term labor are required during the citrus harvest, which annually draws thousands of migrant laborers to dense, park-like groves for periods of intense physical effort.
Sugarcane production is exclusive to the Southern Coastlands in the mainland United States. Sugarcane is a perennial crop requiring more than one year for full maturity, and it is not tolerant of frost. In addition, water requirements for cane are high--a minimum rainfall of about 125 centimeters per year. Both temperature and water requirements would seem to preclude growth in the continental United States except under irrigation, but moderately large quantities of cane are grown in Louisiana and Florida.
Rice is less demanding than sugarcane in its climatic requirements. Given sufficient water, rice will mature within one growing season at a rate roughly in proportion to the amount of heat it receives during the summer. Within the Southern Coastlands region, irrigated rice is grown in Louisiana and Texas.
In addition to the specialty crops, portions of the Southern Coastlands are among the country's primary regions of vegetable production. Most fresh vegetables reaching the urban markets during the winter are grown in Florida and the southern margins of the other Gulf coastal states. Also, efforts to eradicate the cattle-fever ticks, upgrade pasturage, and crossbreed hardy Brahman bulls with improved domestic cattle has made the Florida beef industry an important contributor to that state's economy.
Although climatic conditions in the region are favorable for agriculture, soil conditions and quality are much more variable. The soils range from the fertile but poorly drained muck of the Louisiana coast and Mississippi Delta to extremely sandy soils in northern and central Florida. To complicate the pattern, sections of Gulf coastal Florida and the state's extensive Everglades region are largely swampy muck soils or poorly drained sands, while the coasts of Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina may have either marsh soils or sandy soils, depending on local conditions. Areas of muck in Louisiana have proven to be extremely productive, especially for sugarcane and rice, once they have been drained.
In sharp contrast, much of the remainder of the Southern Coastlands benefits from heavy irrigation. The central highlands of Florida, for example, are underlain by sandy soils with moderately poor to very poor water retention capacity. The productive citrus-growing region and vegetable areas have yielded annual output as much as 10 times more valuable when the crops are irrigated than when precipitation is relied on as the sole source of moisture. With this degree of improvement possible and the technological capacity available for its achievement, the distinctive subtropical environment of the Coastlands has been developed agriculturally beyond the levels found in much of the interior Southeast.
Recreation and retirement are also major industries for the Southern Coastlands. Even by the early 1950s, the importance of amenity factors in stimulating the regional growth of Florida and the Gulf Coast was clear; since then their effects have increased.
A direct economic advantage is also generated by tourist activities in the region. Between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama, the coastal section of Mississippi has experienced a tourist boom with construction of numerous hotels, motels, restaurants, and artificial beaches.
The most dramatic tourist magnet in the region, however, has been Florida. With long beaches facing both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, this state has drawn winter vacationers for decades. The demand for subtropical amenities has become so strong that the development of recreation resources has spread well north along the Atlantic margin into coastal Georgia and coastal South and North Carolina.
Not all tourist attractions depend on resources provided by nature. The construction of Disneyworld has brought millions of out-of-state visitors to south-central Florida. Many other new attractions were drawn to this part of the state, especially around Orlando, by the promise of tourist traffic and the possibility of tourist expenditures. This central Florida recreation complex is expected to become the inland link between Florida's east coastal and west coastal urban clusters.
Although the Southern Coastlands' subtropical environment has many advantages, this environment is not entirely beneficent. Agriculturally, successful vegetable production has encouraged growers to attempt to produce crops year-round. Thus, when an occasional midwinter frost reaches into southern Florida, considerable crop damage can occur. Similarly, Florida citrus is harvested between October and late May, and a winter freeze can hurt the ripening fruit. Less well publicized is the potential damage of these untimely wintry blasts for sugarcane growers in Louisiana.
More erratic, more sporadic, more dramatic, and locally more destructive are the region's hurricanes--large cyclonic storms generated by intense solar heating over large bodies of warm water. Because these storms are an accepted feature of the region, and weather satellites and other forecasting tools are available, preparations to withstand the greatest force of the wind and rain can be made early. And because the heaviest damage is usually limited to a relatively narrow swath as the storm moves onshore, many portions of the region have not been affected for years. On the other hand, because hurricanes are so variable in occurrence and strength, settlements have spread in spite of warnings into coastal areas that are very much exposed to the dangers of a large storm.
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