Louisiana’s coastline: don’t get too attached to it.

ProPublica has a very informative feature on the rapidly shrinking Louisiana coastline. This is another man-made natural disaster, but surprisingly sea level rise from climate change is only a tertiary factor.  The story goes much farther back than that, and could largely be attributed to naïve good intentions in a time when we thought we could hold our dominion over nature.

The first blow was in the 1930’s, when the Army Corps of Engineers, authorized by Congress, built levees along the Mississippi River to prevent widespread flooding such as what happened in the Great Flood of 1927. Unfortunately, that starved the nearby low-lying land areas of water and sediment. This caused the land to dry out, compact, and sink. It also caused plants to die, which removed an ongoing source of land replenishment (along with the river sediment).

You read that right: the coastline of Louisiana is disappearing because the land is sinking.

The second blow started right after that, when oil companies started large-scale drilling in the southeast Louisiana area. In order to place and service their rigs, they dredged thousands of miles of canals throughout the area — and a thousand miles of canals creates two thousand miles of levees. This further disrupted the flow of freshwater, and in fact allowed more saltwater in, which killed off even more indigenous plant life — all further contributing to sinking land. The Department of the Interior’s estimate is that this caused the additional loss of 369,000 acres of coast.

The third blow is, of course, the ongoing rise in sea level due to climate change.

In the last 80 years, they estimate 2000 square miles of coast have been lost. In some areas around New Orleans, the land is apparently sinking an inch ever 30 months. By 2100, it will have sunk more than 3 feet — and those areas are currently 3 feet above today’s sea level (which is rising at the same time).

There are plans on paper to start addressing these issues, but they are not agreed upon and unfunded.  The stakes are high:  50% of the nation’s oil refineries are in the area, the port is a critical economic resource to 31 states, and the loss of the land would displace 2 million people.

The article is a great read, and I highly recommend it.

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