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`Astrology' Blamed for Loss of Louisiana Coast to Rising Seas

Sea-level rise rates for discrete points offshore of southern Louisiana show significant east-west variation. Sea-level rise values are highest offshore of the state's "birdfoot." Data were derived by the U.S. Geological Survey from satellite altimetry data covering 1992-2010. Figures are in millimeters per year. Graphic by Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana /Louisiana Applied Coastal Engineering and Science (LACES) Division Close

Sea-level rise rates for discrete points offshore of southern Louisiana show... Read More

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Sea-level rise rates for discrete points offshore of southern Louisiana show significant east-west variation. Sea-level rise values are highest offshore of the state's "birdfoot." Data were derived by the U.S. Geological Survey from satellite altimetry data covering 1992-2010. Figures are in millimeters per year. Graphic by Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana /Louisiana Applied Coastal Engineering and Science (LACES) Division

Few things are as uniquely unsustainable as southern Louisiana. Astrology last month briefly joined the list of forces blamed for the Gulf of Mexico swallowing the equivalent of a football field of Louisiana land every hour -- about 1,900 square miles since the 1930s.

The Louisiana Applied Coastal & Environmental Sciences Division (LACES) issued a study at the end of January recommending that policymakers plan for an estimated one-meter rise in sea level this century. The report's summary for coastal managers curiously stated that "Sea-level rise is caused by a variety of dynamic interactions, and is influenced by atmospheric, geologic, oceanic, and astrological changes, whether natural or anthropogenic."

It's the kind of disclaimer often added by politicians and bureaucrats to gird against conservative backlash when discussing matters related to climate change.  The full technical report describes the astronomical contribution of 18.6 year lunar cycles on coastal processes, but no suggestion of horoscopes. It seems unlikely that the authors of the technical report -- each with a decade or more of advanced science education and environmental management experience -- would bobble "astrological" and "astronomical."

For guidance on whom to talk to about natural and manmade astrology, I emailed Kyle Graham, deputy director of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority implementation office (and a reliable wit). Graham recommended my next step: "During business hours the appropriate staff to speak with mans our Tarot table. It would have to be an early morning or evening interview--during a waxing or waning gibbous, of course."

The issue here is more serious than the amusing typographical error, which has since been corrected. Land loss is decimating one of the world's great river deltas, a rich source for the U.S. economy and home to culture-rich New Orleans. So I put the question slightly differently to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who happened to walk into the restaurant I was eating at Friday night. He was in Washington for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), being held down the street from the New Heights restaurant in the Woodley Park neighborhood.

Jindal arrived with his wife and a security detail, and fell into conversation with Hogan Gidley, Rick Santorum's campaign communications director, who was dining with John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the authors of the 2010 political blockbuster Game Change. Jindal deferred to his coastal defense chief when I asked about the causes of land loss.  Wearing a tux and holding a garment bag, he instead focused on the need for federal attention to the state's coastline. His sentiment could apply to any of a number of stalled issues in the nation's capital: Many members of Congress say they support action against Louisiana's wetland loss, but little has occurred toward a comprehensive solution, he said. "We need people to have continued interest."

The federal government has played a key role in Louisiana coastal land loss. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers corseted the Mississippi River with levees in the 1930s, after the Great Flood of 1927. With levees pushing sediment flow past the river’s mouth, Louisiana can't fortify itself against the sea by creating new land. Flooding is destructive to farms and cities but necessary for healthy river deltas. The state projects another 1,800 square miles of land to disappear in the next 50 years.

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