Over the course of the last several decades, people have come to recognize the value of coastal marshlands as both incubators of aquatic birds and marine life and as buffers to floods and storm surges that can quickly inundate valuable real estate. A recent study published on the American Academy for the Advancement of Science’s Science Advances website reached the troubling conclusion that sea level rise is occurring at such a fast pace that the marshes that protect New Orleans and surrounding communities could vanish beneath the waves in the next fifty years.
Scientists studied over 8,000 years of marsh history to determine that the marshes have reached a “tipping point” where they are being consumed by the ocean faster than they can adjust to higher sea levels. The study’s lead scientist, Torbjorn Tornqvist, a professor of geology at Tulane University, told the Washington Post that even with efforts to reduce the production of earth-warming greenhouse gases, the marshland’s fate could be sealed. “We know the rate of sea level rise, even with the best action you can imagine, it’s still going to ramp up further,” he said. “Given the slowness of the ocean responses, it’s going to last for a very long time.”
The ocean has been gnawing away at the protective marshlands for decades. Experts blame the loss on the penning in of the Mississippi River channel, which used to spread land-building sediment broadly across the river delta, and on channels cut through the marshes for petroleum company pipelines. Louisiana is trying to reverse some of the damage by diverting some of the river’s sediment-rich flow out of the manmade channel and onto adjacent lands.
Professor Tornqvist sees this as a way to buy time that ultimately won’t save the city from inundation. “I think a couple of decades is incredibly valuable,” he said, “because it could be the difference between a somewhat managed retreat verses complete chaos.”
The researchers believe their study could prove valuable to all coastal communities that rely on marshlands as a buffer against sea level rise flooding and storm surges. “Our findings highlight the need for consideration of longer time windows in determining the vulnerability of coastal marshes worldwide,” they wrote in their study abstract.
The takeaway for buyers and owners of real estate in coastal areas protected by marshlands is to recognize that they’re not wastelands but a critical part of the ecosystem that protect their property from flooding. With that in mind, it’s important for them to learn about the health of the local marshes as well as their predicted life-expectancy under pressure from sea level rise.