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U.S Rapidly Loosing Shoreline - March 6, 2016

               Here in Maryland, especially on the Eastern Shore, we are no strangers to sea level rise and the resulting loss of land that accompanies it. More often than not, the lands lost are vitally important wetlands. We have seen the last house on Holland Island collapse into the bay and witnessed nearly 5,000 acres of wetland vanish in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge since the 1930s. Due to climate change and the resulting sea level rise and land loss, the Delmarva Peninsula is shrinking at an alarming rate and within the next century could look dramatically different. However, we are not alone in our struggle against climate change, as many coastal states are dealing with the impacts from sea level rise, more severe storms, and more extreme temperature fluctuations.

                Sandwiched between Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi, Louisiana is known for its coastline full of swamps, bogs, bayous, and wetlands. Louisiana is usually portrayed as a boot, with the toes pointing towards Florida in the east, with the majority of the “Sole” consisting of wetlands and the shoreline of the state’s Gulf Coast region. Like Maryland and other coastal states, Louisiana is under severe stress from sea level rise and development, resulting in the loss of hundreds of acres of wetlands on a yearly basis.

                It is often difficult to visualize how much land an acre is, and how quickly it is disappearing along Louisiana’s Gulf coast, so scientists and activists use a metaphor involving football fields. The metaphor goes like this; each hour Louisiana loses about a football field’s worth of land. Each day, the state loses nearly the accumulated acreage of EVERY football stadium in the National Football League (N.F.L.). If this rate of land loss was applied to a different state, such as New York, then land loss would be a lot more noticeable. If the rate of land loss were the same in New York as they were in Louisiana, then Central Park would disappear within a month, Manhattan would vanish within a year and a half, and Brooklyn would be gone within six years.

                As the tides continue to rise, more and more land is being claimed by the ocean, resulting in the loss of homes, businesses, and communities. In addition, southern bays along the coast are growing in size as the coastline shrinks. English Bay, Bay Jacquin, Cyprien Bay, Skipjack Bay, and Bay Crapaud were once all separate bays; however, they have now merged into one big, open water area after the loss of their wetlands buffers. Ultimately, the Gulf coast of Louisiana has one of the world’s highest rates of sea level rise.

                Not all of the coasts’ problems come from sea level rise though. The vast majority of Louisiana was made from sand, silt, and sediment deposits being dumped into the Gulf Coast from the mighty Mississippi river. Over thousands of years the sediments compacted, the river changed course and eventually land was created from the sediment deposits and formed what is roughly modern day Louisiana.

                Over the past century, many dams have been put up along tributaries to the Mississippi, reducing the amount of sediment that flows down the river to the Gulf Coast. Without this sediment, the wetlands have much less accretion, or accumulation, of sediment which means they cannot expand or cope with sea level rise, and erode easily. Levees were built along the river to help mitigate flood damage to human infrastructure; however, they also reduced the necessary flooding of the river delta to help disperse sediment. Canals and ditches meant to help with mosquito control allowed for more tidal action in the upper marsh, which caused erosion and the creation of more open water areas within the marshes themselves.

                We have seen this problem first hand at Assateague Island, as ditches created for mosquito control in the early years of the parks eventually started to widen, damaging the surrounding marshes. Luckily, the National Park Service and Maryland Park Service at Assateague Island saw the damage being done and helped to fill in and restore these ditches to their previous wetland habitat.

                The loss of sediment and the rate of sea level rise have worked in unison to quickly destroy the ecologically and economically important coastal wetlands. These wetlands provide habitat to numerous plants and animals, help to absorb excess nutrients before they enter waterways, and help prevent erosion. With the loss of these wetlands, the rest of Louisiana has become dangerously exposed. Due to the area’s low elevation, flooding and damage from storms are an inevitability. Wetlands help to reduce the energy and speed of large waves from storms and natural disasters, which help to mitigate flooding and damage to in-shore ecosystems and communities. With the loss of these wetlands, inland cities, towns, and homes will have a higher chance of flooding and taking severe damage from hurricanes, large storm events, or natural disasters.

                Even though they are nearly 1,000 miles away, the communities on the Gulf coast of Louisiana are facing very similar problems to us here in the Coastal Bays of Maryland when it comes to climate change, sea level rise, and land loss. U.S. coastlines are steadily shrinking and we must be proactive nationally, regionally, and locally in order to help preserve these ecologically and economically important areas.

 

Jackson is the former Educational Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and current graduate student at Clemson University.     

 



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