Why Louisiana is the canary in the climate change coal mine (Vice, Nov. 2019)


On especially nice days, I walk with a cocktail out the door of the Old Point Bar in the sleepy Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans and head up the tall grass levee. At the top, as I sip, I look down the Mississippi River side of the levee, down the long angle of cement that leads to the wide grass batture where we often host my daughters’ birthday parties. Sometimes, when the river is extra low, I walk down the sand beachhead that pokes out another 30 feet into the rushing Mississippi. For much of 2019, all of that was under water. For more than six months, I’d climb the levee to drink in peace and arrive at the top to find the river just three feet down from my shoes—the water higher than the first floor of the Old Point Bar.

Especially in recent years, heavier rainfall has combined with melting snow to cause frequent and intense floods along the banks of the Mississippi River. While many experts avoid blaming this phenomenon directly on climate change, coastal scientist John Lopez of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation was fairly blunt on the phone with me. Lopez referenced a study released in March by the National Weather Service for the Army Corps of Engineers. “It found that in the last [three to five decades] that the watershed precipitation on the Mississippi River has increased, and also the frequency and intensity of rain events all along the river,” Lopez told me. “The river’s levels this year derive from flooding outside of Louisiana. Climate change happening in, say, Illinois is affecting what happens in Louisiana.”

Much is made about the perilous state of America’s coasts in the age of climate change, but rising water also threatens the 10 states that lie along the Mississippi River, as well as the 31 states that make up the massive Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin. The Mississippi has topped many a levee just in the last couple decades, including in 2011 when it simultaneously flooded Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. This past summer, Iowa flooded again, and the river crumbled some unofficial levees near St Louis.

Louisiana is lucky and unlucky enough to sit both on the river and near the Gulf of Mexico—making our state both an ecological wonder and a laboratory for climate change problems. “Louisiana is the most vulnerable state in the country when it comes to climate change,” Louisiana State University climatologist Barry Keim told me, “and maybe in the world.”

Though Louisiana is already surreally hot in the summers, according to the States at Riskresearch project completed by the Climate Central science news organization in 2014, the number of days with an over 105-degree heat index in Louisiana will increase from 24 “danger days” in 2000 to 126 in 2030 to 151 by 2050. Research released in 2015 from Louisiana State University determined that, since the 1950s, Louisiana has seen a 62 percent uptick in extreme rain events, the sort of deluges that brought us the massive Baton Rouge floods in 2016 and the summer 2017 flood. If the rain doesn’t wash us out, the sea level is also set to rise around us by almost two feet by 2050, which will also mean ungodly amounts of land loss. Because of climate change, Louisiana could double in its number of droughtswildfires, and heat-related diseases over the next 30 years.

Climate change will cause damage around the world, but it will hit some places harder and sooner than others. The water rushing by my feet as I sip my drink atop the levee reminds me I live in such a place. And as worried as I am for myself and my neighbors, I know that rising water, heat, and storms—the diseases and other harms those things bring—will spread. What is happening in Louisiana is similar to what will happen to so many other states. Including yours. CLICK HERE to continue reading this story at VICE…

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