I am told that after penetrating the Everglades ten or fifteen miles, there remains only a grassy sea, broken occasionally by a plant or shrub...the water is deep and clear as crystal. -Mary E. Woodward, 1896
The geography of Palm Beach County can be divided into six physical zones, most of which are defined by water: the Atlantic Ocean, barrier islands, lakes and lagoons, sandy flatlands, swamps or marshes, and Lake Okeechobee. On the county’s eastern border is the Atlantic Ocean, and flowing within that ocean is the world’s largest warm water current, the Gulf Stream. Because it comes closer to land in Palm Beach County than anywhere else, the Gulf Stream is an important influence on the county’s climate.
Along the southeast coast of Florida lies the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, which forms a natural barrier to prevent drainage of water from inland areas, and protects the coastline from the powerful ocean. In Palm Beach County the ridge is visible as a chain of barrier islands—formed when humans changed the terrain—including Jupiter Island, Singer Island, and Palm Beach. The ridge varies here from two to five miles wide and eight to 47 feet above sea level.
Just to the west of these islands are the Lake Worth Lagoon, the Intracoastal Waterway, and other lakes and lagoons, which often contain their own islands, many of which are also manmade. Openings in the barrier islands, or inlets, allow water, people, and boats to pass between the ocean and the lagoon.
The lower sandy flatlands to the west were once wet. This area—and the reclaimed Everglades still further west—is where much of our development has occurred. Today here and there a scrubby flatwood
or remnant of a high pine forest displays its multi-layered
canopy in the deserts of Palm Beach County.
At the western edge of Palm Beach County and lower still in elevation are Lake Okeechobee and the swamps or marshes, which were once part of the northern extension of the Everglades.
Each of these geographic zones has its own physical characteristics, plant and animal life, history of development, and needs that must be met for its continued survival. Each zone affects and is affected by the human population that visits, does business in, or lives in Palm Beach County. This interaction has often resulted in harmful changes to the natural world, which may also be harmful to humans in the long term. For example, the wetlands of the Everglades were once far more extensive, until humans drained much of it to farm and build on. Increasing awareness of this situation in recent years is slowly triggering positive action by both private interests and government bodies to restore the health of our environment.