News Archive: Louisiana Coast Threatened by Wetlands Loss

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
February 9, 2005

Editor's Note, September 8, 2005: In February 2005, National Geographic News reported on the ongoing loss of wetlands along Louisiana's Gulf Coast. At the time, marine biologist Max Schexnayder warned that the disappearance of the marshes made the coastal region—a linchpin in the U.S. oil and gas infrastructure—vulnerable to frequent flooding and severe hurricane damage. Hurricane Katrina has since provided the tragic coda to that forecast. National Geographic News is republishing the article from our archives.

Louisiana's wetlands are being washed away—an area the size of a football field disappears every 35 minutes. Their erosion is more than just an environmental concern, as it exposes the U.S. oil, gas, and fishing industries to harmful flooding and shifting waterways.

"Down here when we speak of wetlands loss, it's actual, physical loss," said Mark Schexnayder, a marine biologist with the Louisiana State University Agricultural Extension and Research Center's Sea Grant Program. "You can't stand on [the land] anymore. It's gone."

Coastal communities, many protected by small levee systems, already feel the brunt. With fewer wetlands to mitigate storm surges, residents and businesses are experiencing increased flooding.

"With the rapidly depleting wetlands, people that have lived in southern Louisiana can tell that, over the last 30 years, large storms now come in faster, and the water rises faster, which gives less time to respond and less time to evacuate," said Denise Reed, a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of New Orleans.

"In the next few years it's going to get worse."

Louisiana is home to more than 40 percent of the U.S.'s salt marshlands. Economic interests, from fishing to oil and gas companies, are dependent on marshlands, making their loss not just a local issue but also a national one.

National Energy Infrastructure at Risk

The Louisiana coast is home to many rigs and pipelines, crucial infrastructure for the domestic oil and natural gas industries and for petroleum arriving by ship from foreign sources.

Wetlands act as a natural buffer protecting such industrial systems from hurricanes and other storms.

Though it did not directly hit the infrastructure area, Hurricane Ivan nonetheless caused extensive damage to infrastructure in 2004.

A more direct hit—resulting in lost oil and wrecked infrastructure—could cause major disruptions to U.S. energy sources.

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