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Louisiana Is Going To End Up Underwater Sooner Than You Might Think

This is really happening: A swath of a U.S. state–and an entire culture–is about to be lost underwater.

Southeastern Louisiana is part of a wetlands ecosystem spanning thousands of miles–one that is, according to an investigation from ProPublica, in grave danger. The interactive report, entitled Losing Ground, reveals how a combination of oil and gas drilling, climate change, and the state’s famous levees are creating a situation where 16 square miles of land are washing away yearly. That’s the equivalent of a football field disappearing every hour.

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At the current rate of sea level rise and land sinking, the Gulf of Mexico could rise up to 4.3 feet by 2100, putting the majority of southeast Louisiana (everything outside the levees) underwater. An entire culture–a swath of a U.S. state–buried.

This is all happening because of a confluence of factors. First, there’s the levee system in the Mississippi River, which was built after the Great Flood of 1927. From the report:

By the mid-1930s, the corps had done its job, putting the river in a straitjacket of levees. But the project that made the river safe for the communities along the river would eventually squeeze the life out of the delta. The mud walls along the river sealed it off from the landscape sustained by its sediment. Without it, the sinking of land that only occurred during dry cycles would start, and never stop.

Then came the oil and gas drilling, which led to saltwater moving into freshwater marshes and swamps; crumbling shorelines; and “spoil levees” that buried wetlands. The situation only got worse with offshore drilling.

“Once the oil companies come in and started dredging all the canals, everything just started falling apart,” said Joseph Bourgeois, 84, who grew up and still lives in the area.

From 1930 to 1990, as much as 16% of the wetlands was turned to open water as those canals were dredged. But as the U.S. Department of the Interior and many others have reported, the indirect damages far exceeded that.

Add all of this to climate change, and Louisiana is in big trouble.

This doesn’t just affect Louisiana residents. Half of the country’s oil refineries are located in the region. Pipelines from these refineries dish out 30% of the nation’s total oil and gas supply. And all of the 2 million people living in the region will have to go somewhere else.

Here’s what happens to the coastline if no action is taken:

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And here’s what it looks like if Louisiana’s coastal restoration plan is put into effect (which will only happen if enough money is allotted to it):

For more on Southeastern Louisiana’s situation, check out the ProPublica report.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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