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LSU researchers give Louisiana citizens and policy makers a clear vision of what a sustainable Louisiana coast can be

Louisiana’s coastal wetlands are on life support. Scientists estimate that every 30 minutes 100 yards of coastal landscape is converted to open water, becoming part of the Gulf of Mexico. That is approximately two football fields every hour.

A recent study finds 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita accelerated the rate of coastal land loss in Louisiana, resulting in 140 square miles of wetlands being turned into open waters. That is almost a quarter of the 513 square miles of net loss anticipated by the year 2050.

For policymakers and the public, the billion-dollar question is how does a society restore an ailing coast that is important to the nation’s production of oil and gas, seafood, port and tourism industries, and protecting lives and infrastructure from storm surge flooding?

The task of rehabilitating one of the largest river delta ecosystems in the world is a formidable one. But it is a charge that LSU scientists are attacking on a daily basis.

Combating the Problem

Using highly advanced computational technologies capable of processing and storing enormous amounts of data, LSU scientists are able to simulate the effectiveness of restoration alternatives that protect and rehabilitate the natural resources of coastal Louisiana.

This computational research is run through the Shell Coastal Environmental Modeling Laboratory, or Shell CEML. Shell CEML was made possible though a $600,000 grant by Shell Oil Company to LSU’s School of the Coast & Environment. The lab was established for the purpose of conducting ecosystem forecasts.

According to Robert Twilley, director of Shell CEML and professor of oceanography and coastal sciences, ecosystem forecasts describe how physical, geological, chemical, and ecological changes from both natural and human disturbances affect ecosystem structure and function.

Twilley, however, said these forecasts are not exact predictions of ecosystem response; rather they describe the probability of change based on scientifically defensible assumptions of how ecosystems work.

The results of models generated through the Shell CEML are interpreted as coastal maps and summary statistics. Some of the models conceptualize changes in hydrodynamics, biodiversity, or geomorphology of the delta systems that comprise Louisiana’s coast. The forecasts help to answer questions about what will happen if a change occurs.

“The model output that Shell CEML helps us generate gives people a vision of what Louisiana’s coast can look like in 10, 20, or even 50 years,” said Twilley, who is also LSU’s associate vice chancellor for Research & Economic Development. “The value of ecosystem forecasting is that it brings scientists, resource managers, and decision makers together to solve resource management problems.”

Planning the Attack

In 2006, the Louisiana Recovery Authority – a state governing body of Louisiana leaders charged with developing a plan for a sustainable Louisiana post Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – utilized the Shell CEML-generated maps during public planning meetings held in six south Louisiana cities.

During these sessions, the participants were armed with information about storm protection, timetables, cost factors, and habitat impacts of different strategies.

“Participants were able to discuss what they liked and disliked about the proposed coastal alternatives featured within the maps,” Twilley said.

The workshops resulted in more than 80 table maps consisting of preferences for coastal restoration and levee protection. Other topics discussed included land use patterns, transportation investments, economic development actions, and outcomes. The data gathered at these sessions has since been compiled and presented to the general public for them to review and comment on through the Louisiana Speaks Web site, www.louisianaspeaks.org.

“The Shell Coastal Environmental Modeling Laboratory represents the type of partnership among corporate, education, and government institutions to meet the challenges of implementing integrated science, engineering, and management programs necessary to truly realize ecosystem restoration goals,” Twilley said.

Michelle Spielman | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Spring 2007

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