Evangeline and Mathilda: Louisiana is Our Netherlands

Published: 8:36 PM GMT on August 23, 2016

Evangeline and Mathilda: Louisiana is Our Netherlands

Thank you for the comments and suggestions from the last blog. Presently, I think that this blog will evolve into a monthly article / analysis – something that I can cross post in a few places. The comments on the WU site are some of the best I see on climate change, and, well, perhaps better than the blog.

The flood in Louisiana is another one of those floods that just stays there for a while. My hands-on flood and hurricane experiences are all with floods that happen, and then, they go away. Hurricane Katrina was a flood that didn’t go away, especially in the bowl in which New Orleans sits. Here’s another one. I would be forlorn.

As has been recounted in hundreds of venues, we are on a streak of one hot month after another. Looking at the map that NOAA released in their monthly report, Figure 1, there are only three little blue spots, one on the northern edge and two on the southern edge. Over North America, there are no blue spots. The blue spots are various degrees of “cooler than average.” What this figure tells me is that the trend in temperature is getting to the point that it is obscuring the natural variability. For the past, say, 18 months, we have seen the warming pulse of an El Niño added to the persistent global trend in warming. In the absence of the trend, there would be something of a balance of red (warm) and blue (cool) areas. Here, we see only three small areas, where it is cool enough to show cooler than average. It still gets cold, but in July of 2016, it was a rarity.

Figure 1: July 2016 Blended Land and Sea Surface Temperature Percentiles. Based on global temperature data from1880 to current (137 years).

I am confident that there will be some relief from this march of one record warm month after another. Likely a La Niña event, when the eastern Pacific cools, will lead to a cooler month. However, if the trend of the last, more than thirty, years continues, the cooling signal will be less than the effect of any previous La Niña.

The floods in the U.S., this year, are also remarkable in their extent and intensity. I saw an article or blog about a record number of 500 year floods, but I can’t find it. (Hope it was not Masters and Henson.) I can’t count them all. Texas, Lousiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, West Virginia, Ellicott City, MD, and now Louisiana. The oceans are warm; the atmosphere is warm. The amount of water in the air that is possible rain is very high. With the warm water and air, the evaporation rate is high, and the atmosphere has replenished, abundant water to lead to record rain. In the case of Louisiana, there is the possibility that the rising seas make it harder for the water to drain. We are being offered one climate case study after another – opportunities to learn. We are being told one week after another that the past weather is no longer the right way to think about the weather of the future. One climate event after another is more, say, outlandish than the previous. It makes it easy to move on, to not learn the lessons that there are to learn.

The Louisiana floods lead me to a number of thoughts.

First, there is my recent blog that briefly highlighted the Dutch effort on sea level rise. There is a need for state and regional planning on how to manage floods and sea-level rise. The infrastructure that is in place needs to be imagined in scenarios of future rainstorms and future storm surges. The policies and incentives that motivate people to live, and to move back to, where they live – those policies and incentives need to have the changing climate woven into their evolution. Inland rivers need to be considered together with rising seas and sinking land. The challenge is to bring together all of the stakeholders, their fragmented interests, goals, and to find budgets for integrated actions. (see Integrated Ecosystem Restoration & Hurricane Protection in Coastal Louisiana: Fiscal Year 2017 Annual Plan, and also Water Marks: Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration News.)

Second, this event brings me face to face with the idea of necessary losses. If I were in a flood that did not go away, I would lose my emotional hold on land and geography. I would want to move. Perhaps, it is already happening, but I think that we need plans and lands for major relocations. All along the seacoasts of the U.S., we have millions of people and trillions of dollars of built infrastructure that are in peril. In the better-than-a-scientist-saying-it department, the real estate business, Zillow, says, “If sea levels rise as much as climate scientists predict by the year 2100, almost 300 U.S. cities would lose at least half their homes, and 36 U.S. cities would be completely lost.” (see also, Miami faces $3.5 trillion loss.)

Over my life, I have seen increasing pressure for governments to run like a business, with more attention to cost and the bottom line. I have spent much time, when I was a government manager, to improve business practices and to bring the alleged efficiencies of market forces to science and policy. There is benefit to be had; however, the market often proves to be shortsighted. The bottom lines of government are not always easily placed into dollars. Good government includes a longsighted vision. What is the investment that should be made for protection or abandoning of the present seacoast? We need to think about where and how people will land. We need to think about when and where to rebuild. South Carolina, West Virginia, Ellicott City, and Louisiana, these are not just one isolated event after another. They are vignettes of our future; they affirm the trends of climate change, and they tell us that we will have to have far more agility in the future.


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I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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