Ten years ago this week, Hurricane Rita -- the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico -- made landfall on the Gulf Coast, wreaking terrible destruction across the entire Louisiana coast and well into Texas. Rita's storm surge exceeded 18 feet, and the storm caused approximately $12 billion in damage. Rita made landfall less than a month after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,200 people and causing a staggering $108 billion dollars in damage.
Half the world's human population lives within about 40 miles of a coastline. And of course, the world's coasts also harbor enormously productive natural ecosystems. For many of us, life on land is also life at the edge of land.
And so, in an age of sea-level rise, increasingly stronger storms, and densely populated coastlines, a very big, very important question as we consider Sustainable Development Goal 15 is how we will protect people, reverse loss and degradation of coastal land, and preserve biodiversity in ecosystems on the edge?
Today, coastal land is disappearing all over the world, damaging ecosystems and economies and putting people's lives at risk. One of the starkest examples is right here in the United States, along the coast of Louisiana.
Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost nearly 1,900 square miles of land. That's enough land to make up the entire state of Delaware. Rich, productive forests -- once life-saving rest stops for millions of birds that fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico twice each year -- are gone. Coastal prairies and wetlands are gone. Islands are gone. And as the land disappears, the people of the Gulf Coast become more and more vulnerable to the sea. Sixty miles of wetlands can reduce the height of a storm surge by an estimated 20 feet. But if the land is gone, the water roars in.
Several factors are driving the collapse of Louisiana's coast, from saltwater intrusion and erosion caused by the digging of oil and gas canals to the leveeing of the Mississippi River, which has cut off land-building sediment from the river's vast delta in southern Louisiana. Without the replenishing sediment, Louisiana's soft, young soils sink inexorably into the sea.
The dramatic collapse of land across the region contributed directly to the economic damages and human suffering caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. And in something of a vicious cycle, the hurricanes also further damaged Louisiana's fragile land, leaving it even more vulnerable.
For example, Audubon's oldest and largest wildlife sanctuary is the Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in southwest Louisiana. Our sanctuary lost hundreds of acres of marsh because of Hurricane Rita, and many thousands of additional acres were lost across the rest of southwestern Louisiana. The salty storm surge killed vegetation, and subsequent wind and storms simply rolled it up like carpet, leaving open water behind.
Rainey Sanctuary provides vital migratory rest stops and nesting grounds for more than 200 species of birds, including threatened species like Whooping Cranes, Mottled Ducks, Reddish Egrets, King Rails, Piping Plovers, Least Terns and others. It also buffers inland human communities from storms like Rita.
So we knew giving up on Rainey was not an option. In the aftermath of Rita, we set out to rebuild damaged habitat within the sanctuary and to execute an ambitious plan to help address Louisiana's land-loss crisis for the good of birds and people.
We turned Rainey into a living laboratory to help develop science and best practices for restoring coastal wetlands. Eighty-five percent of land in Louisiana's 10-million-acre coastal zone is privately owned, so restoring the coast depends in no small part on solutions that other landowners can apply to their own properties. We developed a two-pronged approach:
1. We partnered with our neighbors and the regional nonprofit Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana to repair and protect one of the worst-damaged areas with a "terracing" strategy that built tiered earthen barriers and planted native marsh grasses to stop loss of land and let it slowly begin to heal.
2. We also began actually building land at Rainey with the John James mini-dredge. The dredge strategically deposits sediment to build land over time. With the support of Louisiana State University, the team planted native marsh grasses to strengthen this new land and help it take root. The dredge has been so successful that it has attracted new partners, new funding, and new technology, and it is providing a model for other landowners to address land loss on their own properties.
We also helped start the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition to advance large-scale, science-based coastal restoration in Louisiana.
Changing course in Louisiana will require unprecedented cooperation among federal, state, and local partners, industry, and individual landowners. Louisiana's visionary 50-year master plan charts a course.
Louisiana is a model for others around the world who face the challenges of ensuring sustainable human use and protecting biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems along the world's coastlines. We must rely on shared knowledge, strategic partnerships, and innovation to build a strong, sustainable future for coastal communities worldwide.
A truck drives down a flooded street on October 30, 2012, in Little Ferry, New Jersey, after Hurricane Sandy left much of the region flooded and without power.
Sea-level rise along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts combined with more frequent and violent storms could increase flooding from the Northeast to Texas by several-hundredfold, according to a new study out Monday.
Over the past century, the East Coast has seen sea-level rise far above the 8-inch global average - up to a foot in much of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, including New York City. It is expected to increase as much as four feet by 2100, mostly due to the melting ice sheets as well as the expansion of the seawater as the oceans warm.
At the same time, several studies have suggest the North Atlantic could see more intense storms, since warmer warmers contain more energy.
"When you look at hazards separately, it's bad enough, but when you consider the joint effects of two hazards together, you can get some surprises," said Radley Horton, a climate scientist at Columbia University's Earth
Institute and study coauthor. "Sometimes, 1 plus 1 can equal 3."
The two factors have in the past mostly been considered independently. But this study, published in Nature Climate Change Monday, scientists from Columbia, Princeton, Rutgers and several other institutions for the first time looked at them together.
The authors analyzed 15 climate models at five locations: Atlantic City, N.J.; Charleston, S.C.; Key West, Fla.; Pensacola, Fla.; and Galveston, Tex. Among the things they looked at was the probability that the two factors could act together to lethal effect. Five models simulated both high local sea-level rises and increases in the strongest storms.
The authors also looked at the extent of the flooding if world leaders, meeting in Paris later this year, take action to cut emissions to stem global warming or if nothing is done. Frustratingly, the flooding is projected to increase even if the world works to cut emissions and keep temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over what they were in preindustrial times.
The reduced-emissions calculations suggest a four- to 75-fold increase in the flood index - that is, the combined heights and durations of expected floods - across the five locations. If no action is taken, the flood index might go up 35 to 350 times.
"It's an aggregate number over a big area - not a specific prediction for any one place," said lead author Christopher Little of Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a company that performs weather and climate research, and related risk assessments. "But these projections help lay the groundwork for more specific research that will be valuable for adapting to climate change."
Climate change isn't what's causing the deadly flash floods in Utah and Arizona this week, but it's part of what's making them so catastrophic, one expert warned.
As of Wednesday evening, at least 18 people have been killed by intense flooding near the Arizona-Utah border that began Monday, while others remain missing, including 6-year-old Tyson Lucas Black.
Flooding that powerful is an example of how the warmer atmosphere turns ordinary weather events into more extreme ones, Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told The Huffington Post.
"The climate change aspect of this is that the atmosphere is warmer, and for every 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature, the atmosphere can hold about 4 percent more moisture," he explained.
"When the right weather system comes along," such as the storm above Utah and Arizona, Trenberth said, "that weather system can be thought of as a device for reaching out -- quite a ways at times -- and grabbing the available moisture and bringing it in and dumping it down."
"Climate change is not the cause, but it is -- I'm tempted to say -- a minor contributor," he added. "Even that minor contribution can be that straw that broke the camel's back."
Prolonged drought in Utah and Arizona, which are facing moderate to severe dryness in about 90 percent of each state, is also partly responsible for the water buildup, Trenberth explained.
"In the case of a drought, the ground is often not receptive to moisture," he said, explaining that lighter, more frequent rains would be absorbed more easily. "Not much of it soaks in, and it all tends to accumulate, and the next thing you know, you've got a flood on your hands."
Such extreme floods are occurring more frequently than in previous decades, Trenberth said, pointing to flooding in Japan this week that killed at least seven people and flooding in Texas and Oklahoma in May that killed at least 21 people.
Michael Mann, a climate scientist and director of Penn State's Earth System Science Center, echoed Trenberth's view that climate change exacerbates these weather events when he spoke to HuffPost in May about the Texas floods.
"There are many factors that came together here -- an incipient El Niño event, and the vagaries of weather," he said. "But human-caused climate change is, in many cases, the straw that broke the camel's back, that extra fuel that takes what would have been a really bad flood and turns [it] into a catastrophic flood."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said on Wednesday that it would extend by another month the deadline for homeowners to request a reopening of their flood insurance claims from Hurricane Sandy.
In May, the agency had invited flood insurance policyholders to refile their claims amid mounting pressure from elected officials and victims of Hurricane Sandy who had complained that their payouts had been too low, and that their claims had been tainted by possible improprieties relating to engineering reports that the insurance companies relied upon.
Revelations that engineers assessing flood damage for insurance companies altered some of their reports, leading to lower insurance payouts, were documented by The New York Times and "60 Minutes," among other news organizations. At least one criminal investigation, started by the New York State attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, is now underway.
For months, the number of policyholders who had requested fresh reviews of their cases has been disappointingly low to many advocates and politicians, who said many residents were simply too beaten down by the prospect of more government bureaucracy.
Some residents also hesitated because they worried that they might, under federal rules, have to pay back some of the relief that they had already received.
But on Wednesday, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would ease its rules, as urged by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, among others, so that any additional flood insurance payments, up to $20,000, would not be treated as "duplicative." As a result, FEMA said it would extend the deadline for people to reopen their cases to Oct. 15.
"We hope by extending the deadline we are addressing any remaining concerns some may have about entering the claims review process," said Roy E. Wright, the agency's deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation. "FEMA is dead set on restoring trust in this important program, and no one should be discouraged from having their claim reviewed."
So far, almost 14,000 people - only about 10 percent of eligible homeowners - have asked FEMA to reopen their cases. Among the 715 refiled cases that have been reviewed so far, the agency has offered homeowners an additional $16,000, on average, with a high payment of almost $104,000 and a low of $130.96.
States should take advantage of major upgrades to roads, bridges and transit systems to better prepare for the effects of climate change, a senior Federal Highway Administration official said this morning.
"When you've got a chance to construct something, reconstruct something, that's the time you need to look at how to ... take things like climate change resiliency, adaptation into consideration," said Gloria Shepherd, the agency's associate administrator for planning, environment and realty. When states object that the price is too high, Shepherd said her response is, "You're going to pay for it now or you're going to pay for it later."
She was among the leadoff speakers at what's being billed as the first international conference on surface transportation resilience to climate change and extreme weather.
The event, whose sponsors include the highway administration and the Federal Transit Administration, is organized by the Transportation Research Board, a part of the National Academy of Sciences. Other speakers come from as far afield as Denmark and Pakistan.
Shepherd, whose office has a Web page dedicated to climate adaptation, also stressed the importance of working with states that have the lead on roadbuilding and maintenance. In parts of the country where mention of climate change remains taboo, Shepherd said, the issue can be framed in terms of the impact on paving materials and long-term maintenance.
"I don't care what we call it," she said, "as long as we do something about it."
Arctic sea ice reached its annual minimum extent on Sept. 11, according to the Boulder, Color.-based National Snow and Ice Data Center - and only three years on record have seen a minimum ice extent that was lower than this one: 2007, 2011 and the current record-holder, 2012.
"The minimum ice extent was the fourth lowest in the satellite record, and reinforces the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice extent," the center said in a statement. The lowest extent this year, reached on September 11, was 1.7 million square miles. That's quite low, but still 394,000 square miles above the low extent that occurred Sept. 17, 2012, when ice only covered 1.31 million square miles at the top of the world.
"The nine lowest extents in the satellite era have all occurred in the last nine years," added NSIDC - yet another clear indicator that declining sea ice is very likely part of a trend tied to global climate change. Indeed, this year's low sea ice extent was nearly 700,000 square miles less than the average from 1981-2010. (Satellite records began in 1979.)
The center warned that this is a preliminary announcement - it is still possible that ice extent could drop further, though this is the "likely" minimum extent for 2015.
The amazing thing about this year, says Ted Scambos, who heads the NSIDC science team, is that it wasn't particularly extraordinary in an atmospheric sense - unlike 2012, when storms broke up a great deal of ice. And yet still, it was the fourth lowest extent on record. "It's showing us that the Arctic is truly evolving from a different state, and far from recovering, even relatively typical summers in the Arctic lead to relatively low sea ice extents," he says.
"The sea ice decline has accelerated since 1996," added NASA in a discussion of the annual low. The agency, which funds NSIDC, went even further in noting how low ice has plunged in recent years, noting that "The 10 lowest minimum extents in the satellite record have occurred in the last 11 years."
As the low was announced, NOAA's Environmental Visualization Laboratory released this stunning image, showing just how much less ice there is this year than the long term average:
On Sept. 11, sea ice in the Arctic most likely reached its minimum extent for 2015. The minimum ice extent was the fourth lowest in the satellite record began in 1979, and continued the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice extent. This image shows the sea ice concentration data from the SSMI/S sensor on the DMSP weather satellite, operated by NOAA/NESDIS. A yellow line shows the historical ice edge (median) for Sept. 11. (NOAA)
The consequences of less sea ice in the Arctic are myriad, ranging from potentially better navigability through sea routes like the Northwest Passage (although recent research suggests that that remains quite challenging) to the loss of habitat for iconic organisms like walruses. Tens of thousands have clustered on the Alaskan coast this year until the sea ice starts to grow again.
"Dwindling sea ice is a stark reminder of the destruction climate change wages on our most vulnerable wildlife and communities," said Margaret Williams, managing director for Arctic programs at the World Wildlife Fund, in a statement. "Recent images of 35,000 walrus literally climbing onto Alaska's shores, paint a dramatic visual of our rapidly unraveling Arctic."
There are also increasingly prominent theories about how the melting Arctic may be influencing mid-latitude weather - perhaps through its effect on the northern hemisphere jet stream. "Having the white cap on the ocean essentially almost disappear for a few weeks in the summer, the fact that it nearly disappears, has to have an impact on atmospheric circulation, and therefore weather," says NSIDC's Scambos, although he says precisely how that is playing out remains debated.
Following the 2012 all-time sea ice low, there had appeared to be something of a rebound - while 2012 saw only 1.3 million square miles of sea ice extent, 2013 saw 1.95 and 2014 saw 1.94. So the drop back down to 1.7 million in 2015 is noteworthy in this respect. The fact that the 9 lowest extents have all occurred in the last 9 years, adds Scambos, "just tells you the Arctic isn't going to recover, is heading in another direction."
Scientists have long predicted that Arctic sea ice decline would be a key manifestation of a warming planet - and further, that it would be self-reinforcing, as less ice cover allows for more absorption of solar energy by the darker sea surface, trapping still more heat.
This is 2015's second time on the Arctic sea ice record books - and perhaps not its most significant entry. In February, the time of year when there is the most ice over the Arctic, there was nevertheless the lowest maximum extent of ice on record, according to NSIDC.