Wednesday, 12 November 2014

New Orleans is Sinking... No, Seriously

A couple weeks ago we took an internet-fueled trip to China to learn about the Gobi Desert, which is threatening to consume Beijing. The Chinese government and its people are hard at work trying to erase the environmental degeneration that has led to their battle with the so-called “yellow dragon” but they aren’t the only people who are at risk of losing their homes to a pissed-off planet. You may not realize it, but the people of the state of Louisiana are up against their own dragon, only it is bluer, wetter, and a whole lot bigger.

Since 1932 the slow but steady lapping of water from Gulf of Mexico against Louisiana’s shores has caused around 1,900 square miles (almost 5,000 km2) of land to fall beneath the waves. If the current trend of erosion continues, geologists expect that the total loss of land could grow by another 1,750 square miles (4,500 km2) in the next 50 years. That number is kind of ridiculous. The projected land that could be lost by mid-century is bigger in size than the state of Delaware combined with the greater Washington, DC/Baltimore area, just gone.

Ironically enough, what is causing Louisiana to drown is pretty much the same thing that is drying out China. As the population of the state has grown and industrial interests have mowed over environmental concerns, trees have been cleared and wetlands have been paved over or cleared out to make room for people. When that happens, the root systems of plants wither away and with them goes the stabilizing effect they have on soils. When the ground is only loosely held together, it doesn’t take much in the way of waves to break it apart completely.

Unfortunately for Louisiana, their waves have also gotten stronger. If we completely set aside the idea that climate change could be making storms stronger by warming ocean temperatures, and if we decide to forget recent whoppers like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, we are still left with a state that has lost its buffer against the waves. When Europeans first showed up in Louisiana and set to work perfecting the way people cook seafood, they caught their shrimp and craw-daddies in a huge network of swamps and wetlands. What they probably didn’t realize as they cleared those wetlands was that they were basically taking the shocks off their car. See, when a really big storm nears land it kicks up a lot of water and generates what is called a storm surge. A storm surge is a massive wave that hits shore ahead of a hurricane. What swamps and wetlands do is absorb most of the blow and contain some of the energy, protecting the spaces further inland.

All-told, Louisiana is in a little over its head with all this. Fortunately for southern environmentalists, there was a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago… Okay, actually it was a terrible ecological disaster that the region is still recovering from, but it came with a silver lining. Court rulings in the wake of the Deep Horizon spill have forced BP to fork over as much as $18 billion in penalties for negligence. 80 percent of those dollars are designated for coastal restoration. With the total cost of restoration plans falling somewhere between $50 and $100 billion there will still be a chunk of change unaccounted for, but picking BP’s pockets is a great start.

If the 19th and 20th centuries were characterized by people plowing over nature in a mad dash to acquire as much personal comfort as possible, the 21st century is shaping up to be one where we make amends. Between trees getting planted in China, wetlands being restored in Louisiana, and a score of other massive environmental efforts underway all over the world, humans are repairing damaged environments on a scale never before conceived of. It’s going to take more than flowers and a box of organic, fair-trade chocolates to get mother nature to forgive us for our wrongs, but at least we are beginning to apologize.