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Tropical Storm Isaac is now flooding parts of Louisiana, especially Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans, which seems a replay of Hurricane Katrina just seven years ago. The federal government and private insurance companies will again be asked to limit the financial suffering of many thousands of people, some with water up to the second floors of their houses. At this point, the $14 billion the federal government spent since Katrina to barricade New Orleans is effective against this storm, but Isaac has been much less powerful than Katrina. I repeat the question in my April 2, 2012, post “New Orleans: A Strategic Retreat” – Does it makes sense to spend huge resources stopping a persistently rising ocean and global warming’s fierce storms from flooding low-lying areas?
Development has aggravated flooding problems by destroying wetlands that once served as storm barriers. Scientists at Texas A & M have estimated that, on average, the loss of one acre of Texas’s native coastal wetlands added $1.5 million in flood damages suffered between 2001 and 2005. That’s an expensive acre, even one with a good view of the ocean sunrise. Wetlands disappear when developers fill marshes for new construction; they also die when U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects redirect water upstream, reducing stream flows the wetlands need for their maintenance. Dams on rivers create good bass-boat lakes, but they also cut off sediment renewal, and the starved wetlands recede inland and offer less storm protection.
World wetland takings are part of a larger picture of what’s happening to the ocean, which gave first birth to life on Earth and still nurtures us. An English marine scientist, Callum Roberts, puts ocean acidification, heating, pollution, over-fishing and other human-caused insults to salt water together in his book, “The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea.” He points out that ocean conditions had been fairly stable during the few thousand years while civilization developed, and that the rapid changes our ongoing industrial revolution has forced on the ocean don’t end well for humans. We reflexively think of the sea as invulnerable, unmoved by men navigating its trackless vastness, taking its resources, and using it as the world’s largest sewer. If we listen, the storm waves tell us to cut our pressures on the world ocean, and also to adapt as best we can to challenging new realities man has already created.
Image by Indolences (Indolences) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons