On Eve of Oscar Bid by “Beasts of Southern Wild,” New Report Finds Louisiana Sea Level Rise Fastest in World

By Tom Yulsman | February 23, 2013 4:43 pm

A USGS map from 2011 shows changes in the extent of land area in coastal Louisiana between 1932 and 2010. The report found a net loss of 1,833 square miles. (Click on the image, and see the key at right of the image for details.) An even newer, unreleased report from NOAA suggests that land loss is happening even faster than previously believed. (Map Source: USGS, http://pubs.usgs.gov/sim/3164/)

I’m hoping that “Beasts of the Southern Wild” wins all four of the Oscars it has been nominated for, because it is an amazing movie, with incredible actors — and also because it dramatizes the plight of southern Louisiana under the influence of sea level rise.

A plight that seems even worse than previously known, thanks to new science uncovered by an enterprising journalist.

The plot of the movie involves residents of a mythical Louisiana bayou community known as the “Bathtub.” A huge storm is coming, and the Bathtub is outside a protective levee. The heroine, a little girl named “Hushpuppy” (and played by the astonishing Quvenzhané Wallis), finds herself in a Quixotic quest to save her terminally ill father, and the entire community.

When he was developing the story, 29-year-old director Benh Zeitlin drew inspiration from the fishing hamlets of Terrebonne Parish, south of New Orleans. It is a place where erosion of wetlands, land subsidence, and sea level rise, have been wiping many square miles of territory right off the map.

And now, as we wait to find out whether “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and Quvenzhané Wallis will win any Oscars, a sobering story by Bob Marshall of The Lens, a nonprofit public-interest newsroom based in New Orleans, suggests that the situation in southern Louisiana is much worse than previously believed. From the story:

Stunning new data not yet publicly released shows Louisiana losing its battle with rising seas much more quickly than even the most pessimistic studies have predicted to date.

While state officials continue to argue over restoration projects to save the state’s sinking, crumbling coast, top researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have concluded that Louisiana is in line for the highest rate of sea-level rise “on the planet.”

The problem is known as “relative sea level rise.” As the seas come up due to global warming, the land of Southern Louisiana is simultaneously sinking — faster than known before, according to the new, unpublished NOAA report.

I highly recommend that you check out Marshall’s story in The Lens. It’s an excellent example of in-depth, enterprise journalism. One of his take-away messages is that plans for restoring wetlands in southern Louisiana are already out of date.

The percent of each southern Louisiana parish that NOAA projects to be below sea level by 2050 and 2100. (Source: http://lagic.lsu.edu/rsgis/2012/Presentations/osborn.pdf)

Marshall’s story was accompanied by this graph, showing the portion of the land in southern Louisiana now projected to be below sea level in decades to come. I found it buried in a pdf copy of a presentation by one of his main sources, NOAA’s Tim Osborn. There are some stunning numbers there, so take a close look.

The news of NOAA’s new calculations comes on the heels a 2011 U.S. Geological Survey report, which found that coastal Louisiana had lost 1,883 square miles of land between 1932 and 2010  — an area almost the size of the state of Delaware. (See the map at the top of this post.) From 1985 to 2010, the report found a rate of wetland loss amounting to 16.57 square miles every year. That works out to the loss of an area the size of one football field every hour.

Nearly half of that wetland loss occurred in the Terrebonne and Barataria wetland basins. These are home to Terrebonne Parish, source of inspiration to Beasts director Zeitlin, and neighboring Lafourche parish. (The latter was in the news in early January, with reports of cemeteries washing away.)

From the 2011 USGS report:

Coastal Louisiana wetlands make up the seventh largest delta on Earth, contain about 37 percent of the estuarine herbaceous marshes in the conterminous United States, and support the largest commercial fishery in the lower 48 States. These wetlands are in peril because Louisiana currently undergoes about 90 percent of the total coastal wetland loss in the continental United States.

Part of the problem comes from damning along the Mississippi, and construction of levees, which prevent sediment from flooding out into the wetlands like they once did. The result: As the mud of the marshes naturally sinks under its own weight, it is not being sufficiently replenished with new sediment. The net effect is subsidence.

This is exacerbated by canals dug for oil and gas exploration, which has allowed saltwater to intrude into freshwater marshes and kill them off.

The death of the protective marshes, along with subsidence, means the sea is coming up faster than anywhere else on Earth — an impact made even worse by strong hurricanes and other extreme storms in recent years.

The 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel Report on Climate Change put the global average rate of sea level rise at about 2 millimeters per year over the past century. More recently, research has shown that between 1993 and 2011, sea level actually rose about 60 percent faster than that – at a rate of 3.2 millimeters per year.

As temperatures continue to rise under the influence of greenhouse gases from human activities, that rate should increase even more. When that is taken into consideration, researchers expect sea level globally to be about three feet higher in 2100, on average, than today.

But along the Louisiana coast, the new, unpublished NOAA report suggests sea level could come up by more than four feet, thanks to the fast rate at which the land is subsiding.

  • Pingback: The Fastest Sea Level Rise on Planet Earth? The Southeast Louisiana Coast | Coastal Conservation Network()

  • TexCIS

    “New science uncovered by an enterprising journalist” = “Person with an
    agenda” . . . “unpublished NOAA report” = “didn’t pass muster.” AND you
    misspelled “damming.” Thanks, but I don’t like to get my facts from
    people who live in Fantasy Land (Hollywood).

    • ashabot

      It is you who have the agenda. It is called a Belief System and is the most fact resistant system known to man.

    • cvalero

      Agreed. For every pessimistic finding you can easily find one that refutes it. Plus the fact the Global Warming advocates have cherry picked data for decades doesn’t help.

      • ashabot

        Of course you can easily find “studies” that refute global warming. Keep up. It’s all over the news. Billionaire industrialists have been secretly funding bogus counter arguments for decades. Global Warming is a FACT. The one thing these men can’t rig is the environment itself. Read the news lately?

        • http://www.facebook.com/john.zulauf John Zulauf

          you might want to check your facts about “skeptic” funding. It’s mostly a “citizen scientist” along with minority reports from frequently emeritus academics. (for better or worse)

          Review Dr. Pielke Sr.’s articles on funding practices for climate related research. Looking into corporate giving to academic and environmental group that are part of the current trend of “responsible” corporatism. Clearly there’s a cynical PR motive as well, but the money goes *green* — predominantly and by orders of magnitude.

  • David Kelly

    Still reviewing the piece in its entirety, but… Anyone take issue with the title’s idea that the sea level rises more in one area or state than another? I realize that isn’t exactly what the piece says, but come on. LOL

    A state that is largely swamp and where buildings and land are actively sinking has lost the most surface area as sea levels change and the ground erodes… truly shocking revelations!

    • http://www.facebook.com/tom.hynes2 Tom Hynes

      The Titanic was a victim of rising “relative sea levels”.

      • http://www.facebook.com/john.zulauf John Zulauf

        and hubris.

    • Lukewarm

      Don’t laugh about it. Greenland isn’t sinking. It’s rising. The coasts of Germany are less affected than the coasts of the Benelux. The eastern coasts of Great Britain are less affected by rising sea levels than the western coasts. Earth isn’t a perfect sphere, and no, I’m not talking about the flattening at the poles. Oceans form mountains and valleys as well, depending on factors like surface of the sea or the gravitational pull. Across hundreds of kilometers the see levels can vary by, I don’t know exactly, maybe even meters. And a meter more or less can make a huge difference for some regions.

      • David Kelly

        I understand what you are saying is factually accurate, but it would be true regardless of changes in sea level related to global warming. These areas would be sinking and eroding due to man made and natural causes either way. Suggesting that this in any way should shape thinking on global warming is really a stretch.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.johnson.7902564 Mike Johnson

    Please explain why it matters whether the lands mentioned are above or below sea level. Why are the seas being painted as the implacable enemy of the Human Race in all these panic mongering articles?
    Human settlement patterns will gradually change over time if the seas rise a few more feet above the 100s of feet they have risen since the most recent peak glaciation. The loss of Doggerland was a terrible tragedy? The systems of Fjords are devastating proof of the dangers of rising sea levels?
    If anything these hard pressed areas will begin to recover once they are beneath the surface where biological activity in such shallow seas will be abundant though different.

    Over the next 100 years all the current residents will have passed away and those who arrive will face different conditions that will be normal to them. We cannot anchor them to the Past in any way whatsoever and should not try.

    • cheeks

      it’s time the infamous Duck Dynasty face the full wrath of God anyways, what with all that fake praying and sloth.

  • Guest

    Wow, you need to do a little research before putting junk like this out. The loss of land is from the diversion of the Mississippi river. The Corp of Engineers have known about this problem for fifty years and made the choice to allow it to happen rather than change the flood plan for the entire state. The sea level in Acadiana is not rising, the land is sinking and no soil is coming down the delta to replace it.

    • GenericResponse

      Did you even read the article?

      “Part of the problem comes from damning along the Mississippi, and construction of levees, which prevent sediment from flooding out into the wetlands like they once did. The result: As the mud of the marshes naturally sinks under its own weight, it is not being sufficiently replenished with new sediment. The net effect is subsidence.”

      Maybe before you go out and embarrass yourself, you should actually read what the article said.

      • Dane Curbow

        Half the people read the title and are jumping into disprove global warming mode before even reading the article.

  • DawnYawn

    We may all be living in “The Bathtub” one day.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.zulauf John Zulauf

    It would be clearer if the title stated it was the *relative* sea level change at issue here. It’s clear from the text that’s the case, but the knee-jerk responses from the unclear title muddle the discussion. OTOH. RTFA, folks!

    The redirection of the Atchaflaya to both support the port (and delay the subsidence) of the NOLA area is clearly contributory, but it’s not clear there is an easy answer. Allow the the natural oscillation (to the lowest part of the delta) of the Mississippi outlet would help the western swamp’s relative sea level, but risk NOLA.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tom.yulsman Tom Yulsman

      John, I’d be more than happy if you’d serve as my editor. You can write the headlines. Just know that you have to write them quickly, and sometimes at 1 or 2 in the morning. 😉



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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