Saturday, September 10, 2005

Global warming and New Orleans

Two op-ed pieces in today's NY Times talk about possible futures for New Orleans. Bruce Babbitt says Make It an Island.
New Orleans will survive only as an island surrounded by miles of open water. It will take a national effort, led by our best scientists, engineers and city planners, to achieve even this reduced vision of an American Venice. We must take the time to redesign the city to function as an island, with an island infrastructure, including relocated streets, highways and utilities. The island will need higher, stronger seawalls and levees sufficient to withstand new threats, including the rising sea levels and bigger hurricanes spawned in warming Atlantic waters.

Sea levels are likely to rise two to three feet in this century. Coastal maps drawn from consensus estimates show that virtually all of the delta lands south of Baton Rouge and below Interstate 10 - some 5,000 square miles - will be submerged by the end of this century. …

In recent years state agencies assembled a $14 billion project called Coastal 2050. One of its proposals was to cut gaps in the Mississippi River levees, which would provide outlets for the river to deposit some of its sediment onshore to help rebuild the delta. This idea may help in a few areas, but it will do little to offset the vastly larger forces of a rising sea.

Other proposals in the package include building coastal barriers, plugging delta channels dredged by oil companies and re-vegetating barrier islands. But overall the Coastal 2050 projects have as much chance of success as King Canute commanding the tides to recede.
Henry Petroski says, Raise the Ground.
As daunting as it may seem to raise a major city, projects of similar scale have succeeded before. Prodigious amounts of material were displaced to build the Panama Canal, a feat accomplished with little more than steam shovels. With modern earth-moving and lifting equipment, raising New Orleans is certainly doable.

Of course, land raising is not the only engineering alternative to levees. The Thames Barrier, which rotates large gates into place when a storm surge is expected, protects London from flooding. The Netherlands has built massive moveable barriers to hold off a swelling sea. That low-lying country, which has more than 10,000 miles of dikes and other barriers to flooding, has looked to alternatives to increasing their height. Among these are houses that can float like houseboats. Industrial buildings can be similarly designed, and the principle of buoyancy places no inherent limits on the size of such structures.

Engineers are ready to come up with whatever it takes to rebuild New Orleans. The real question is how much the politicians are willing to invest.
I have no idea what to do — or why any massive investment is the best use of that money. We have a lot of needs and a lot of land. Why spend money to rescue land from the sea when we have so much vacant land in this country? Why not let nature take its course in lower Louisiana and find some way to live with it? That seems to be what Babbitt is proposing: accept the changes that seem to be inevitable and figure out how we can accommodate ourselves to them.

After all, it isn't as if New Orleans were a paradise like California. Earthquakes make living here dangerous, but they don't make the state uninhabitable. One must just take reasonable (and not overly expensive) precautions. (Does that sound like California parochialism? I do like living here.)

Of course, reducing global warming will slow the rate at which the oceans rise. But we don't seem to be thinking of that solution.

In the mean time Maureen Dowd and John Tierney continue in their roles of self-appointed Democratic and Republican political hacks respectively.

When Paul Krugman or Thomas Friedman write about politics, they write from a perspective of intelligent investigation. They take definite political positions, but they do so with an intellectual honesty that makes their columns worth reading. When John Tierney writes about non-political subjects, he too writes intelligently. But when Tierney or Dowd write about politics, they almost never say anything interesting. The only thing of interest in their political columns tends to be how well they can achieve their goals as attack dogs. That may be fun to read if you agree with the political positions they are taking. But it doesn't make for an interesting or intelligent column.

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