New Orleans ... the new Atlantis?

January 18, 2000

With predicted sea level rise, wetland loss, subsidence, and the absence of restoration programs, the future of New Orleans appears bleak. Research from University of New Orleans scientists examine the processes driving catastrophic coastal conditions and the breakdown of the Mississippi River Delta.

(New Orleans)--By the year 2100, the city of New Orleans may be extinct, submerged in water. A future akin to the fabled sunken city of Atlantis? Yes, according to Dr. Chip Groat, Director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Washington, D.C., "With the projected rate of subsidence (the natural sinking of land), wetland loss, and sea level rise," he said, "New Orleans will likely be on the verge of extinction by this time next century."

University of New Orleans coastal geologist Dr. Shea Penland and coastal geomorphologist Dr. Denise Reed have spent their careers (combined 40 years) figuring out exactly what is driving this catastrophic condition. Their research has identified the specific problems jeopardizing the future of New Orleans and southern Louisiana. "We have the greatest coastal land loss problem in North America. This is more than a serious problem . . . it's a catastrophic one. We're living on the verge of a coastal collapse," warns Dr. Penland.

Currently, 40% of all coastal wetlands in the United States are located in Louisiana, and 80% of all wetland loss in our nation occurs in Louisiana. From 1930-1990, the Mississippi River Delta lost more than 1,000 square miles of land, approximately the size of New Jersey.

Over the last 50 years, land loss rates had accelerated from 10 miles to 40 miles per year by the 1970s, with the current rate being approximately 25 square miles or 16,000 acres of wetlands a year. Coastal Louisiana is poised to lose more than 10,000 acres per year for the foreseeable future.

New Orleans is sinking three feet per century--eight times faster than the worldwide rate of only 0.4 feet per century. Currently, New Orleans, on average, is eight feet below sea level--11 feet in some places.

Many of the low-lying barrier islands will disappear by 2050.

UNO scientists suggest that, without appropriate restoration efforts, Louisiana faces continued wetland loss, the deterioration of the Mississippi River Delta (the largest and most economically profitable in the nation), and the possible collapse of the entire ecosystem.

However, Penland, Reed, and other researchers have shown that the coastal ecosystem, while damaged, is sufficiently intact for restoration efforts to succeed in managing the problem. They, along with other University of New Orleans scientists, continue to work in close concert with state and federal agencies to create, evaluate, and monitor restoration strategies and coastal management solutions. There work is included in: the Coast 2050--a new multi-agency, $14 billion restoration report/plan for coastal Louisiana.

Today, Penland, Reed and other university scientists continue to work on the issue: restoring barrier islands; working on a $5 million contract with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to document and assist in the beneficial use of dredge material; studying the biochemistry of the waterways; detecting and measuring water stratification such as that associated with the "Dead Zones" offshore in the Gulf; engaged in the long-term establishment and preservation of grassbed populations; designing restoration projects; training the next generation of students with coastal restoration courses; and much more.
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For more information, contact Joseph White at 504.280.6622, or jewhite1@uno.edu .

University of New Orleans

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