We’ve all been there when Google Maps goes horribly wrong. We’re on our way out to dinner when it tells us to turn onto a ramp that doesn’t exist. Or we’re frantically trying to find an alternative route around the parking lot that is the highway when our GPS has us make a U-turn, on a one-way street, going the wrong way.
Occasionally, it’s the phone’s fault–it gets hopelessly confused and reroutes on its own accord. But, the fault isn’t always on the GPS, no matter how much we yell at our phones.
You see, we as humans have a knack for rapidly transforming the landscapes within which we live, at times making it difficult for Google’s imagery to catch up.
We can erect complex highway structures in a matter of years and reconfigure our streets to include bike lanes within months. All in all, these relatively quick alterations and outdated maps are annoying, but harmless. They add maybe 20 minutes to the drive–and a bit of road rage.
But sometimes, changing our landscapes does worse than causing us to make the wrong turn.
It’s mid-January of 2017 and my research partner and I have taken a two-hour drive south of New Orleans, past the levees and into the bayous. We’re on a powerboat, with Donald Dardar, Chairman of the Poite-au-Chien tribe, at the helm. He’s acting as both a historic and ecological guide to the waterways he’s been navigating his whole life–playing as a child, working as a fisherman, showing visitors like us the ins and outs of life on the water.
According to Google Maps, we should be on land. But we’re not. We’re in a boat. We’ve been snaking through channels in Louisiana’s coastal wetlands for nearly a half hour and have now reached what appears to be open water stretching out towards the horizon. From where we’re standing, there is no visible land between us and the Gulf. Still, it’s no surprise that my phone thinks we’re on solid ground.
Here, in the marshes beyond New Orleans, coastal communities are seeing some of the most dramatic environmental changes happening in America today.
On average, Southern Louisiana loses a football field of land to the Gulf of Mexico every hour. Between 1932 and 2010, Louisiana lost nearly 2,000 square miles, an area as large as the entire state of Delaware. As Louisiana’s landscapes transform into seascapes at an alarming rate, it’s not just land that’s lost. It’s people’s histories, their livelihoods, and their homes.
Along our journey, Donald explains what was once here. He points out where the last house of his community once stood, surrounded by forested wetlands. We stop at the town’s old cemetery, marked by a sole wooden cross, and spot some horses across the way, still owned by Pointe aux Chene residents but abandoned here when the community gradually retreated inland behind the levee system to escape erosion. Although the Pointe Aux Chenes community still thrives up the bayou, it is eerie to traverse a landscape dotted with the carcasses of trees and imagine what was once here: a school building and houses; horses and cattle. A homeland.
Donald’s experience is not unique.
As sea levels rise, coastal communities across our country are watching their homelands disappear, and with them, centuries of culture, tangible history, and family traditions.
Over the past year I’ve been traveling across the United States and U. S. Territories with my research partner to refocus America’s climate change story on the people who are living on the front lines of our eroding edges.
We’re creating a database of hundreds of interviews to better understand how a warmer world is changing the way we live in America, and to better identify what can be done to empower and support people like Donald that are in need of adaptation today.
My expedition began last January, around the same time that another Louisiana community was making national headlines as the site of America’s first climate change refugees.
On January 21, 2016 the state of Louisiana received $52 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to relocate the community of Isle de Jean Charles further inland. That grant money made Isle de Jean Charles the first federally funded town in the United States to move because of the effects of climate change. Isle de Jean Charles, locally known as the Island, is a narrow strip of land about a 10 minute drive from Point aux Chene. It has been home to a resilient community of Native Americans who have lived, subsisted, and commercially fished in the bayou for over 180 years. While the community is strong, the island itself is not. Since 1955, Isle de Jean Charles has lost more than 98 percent of its land, and because of this, many families have been forced to leave. What was once a 350-person community is now down to just 70 residents.
We as humans have a knack for rapidly transforming the landscapes around us. Manmade climate change is arguably the biggest and most catastrophic of those transformations. In a matter of decades, we’ve contributed to the melting of hundreds of miles of sea ice in the Arctic. We’ve helped make entire countries in the Pacific Ocean uninhabitable. We’ve made Google Maps unusable just two hours south of New Orleans.
But while climate change is the impetus for Isle de Jean Charles’s relocation, it is only the very last chapter in a centuries-long story of man-made environmental change along the Gulf Coast.
If there is one takeaway from my travels, it is that climate change in America is, at its core, a story of how we’ve been mistreating our environment since long before greenhouse gas emissions warmed our planet. It’s a story of poor land-use decisions and actions that have degraded our ecosystems, cutting down our only natural defenses to the extreme storms we are experiencing today.
To understand why Isle de Jean Charles, Pointe aux Chenes, and ultimately New Orleans are more vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise, we need to understand how humans have changed the very fabric of Louisiana’s landscapes. That story starts in the 1920s.
Before Deepwater drilling and offshore rigs, oil was first extracted from the marshes themselves. A mile offshore, oil and gas companies would build homemade wooden platforms on oyster shells and drill for the black gold of the Gulf. But in order to get barges and eventually drilling rigs and pipelines through the marsh, companies needed to create water pathways.
Over the past 80 years, fossil fuel companies have cut at least 10,000 miles of canals across coastal Louisiana. These canals gave rigs access to the Gulf. But they also allowed saltwater to flow into the wetlands, killing the very plants and trees that hold the land together. Soon, what was once a stable ecosystem turned into an extensive and expanding network of coastal erosion that gets worse with every storm.
Back in January, I interviewed Curtis Henderson, a member of the Homa Nation that grew up on Isle de Jean Charles, on the second story of the Island’s marina looking out over the now crisscrossed wetlands. As we talk, he points down below to where the oil industry made its first cuts. They now look more like lakes than canals. The water affects everything here. It floods homes during storms, rusts out new cars within a year, and makes growing any food for subsistence nearly impossible.
Curtis Henderson left Isle de Jean Charles in 1978, when the island began to flood beyond what his family could cope with. In his words, “it was g-d’s country before it got all ate up. But now there’s nothing left.”
Even though Curtis has moved away from the Island, he still owns property here–passed down from generation to generation. He’s hesitant about the relocation planning. His grandparents are buried here, and he wants his own grandchildren to be a part of this community. He says, “It’s hard to let go of something that go so deep into your family.” If it weren’t for the flooding and saltwater, Curtis would move back tomorrow.
When we destroy our coastal wetlands, communities like isle de jean Charles and Pointe Aux Chenes are the first to see increases in flooding, but they’re not the last. New Orleans’ safety depends on far more than the levee system. Coastal wetlands help to form a natural barrier against hurricanes coming in from the Gulf, which lose strength as they travel over land. As oil companies cut away thousands of miles of wetlands, that first line of defense moves closer and closer to the city limits of New Orleans, making the threat of severe flooding during the next storm far worse for the Big Easy.
New Orleans is just one city in one state. According to current models, by the end of this century, at least 414 towns, villages, and cities across America will eventually be flooded no matter how much humans decrease carbon emissions. At the minimum, this would equate to 4.3 million Americans displaced from their homes by 2100. And that’s according to low-end NASA sea level rise predictions. At the high-end, over 13 million people along America’s coastlines will embark on a great migration inland.
But humans hold the immense ability to rapidly transform our landscapes–for the worse, or for the better. And that’s what we’re doing in the face of changing maps–we’re adapting our built environments and restoring our natural ones to save homelands from New Orleans to the Chesapeake Bay.
In Pointe Aux Chene, residents are raising houses to allow flood water and storm surges to pass safely below. Farther upstream in Homa, they’re experimenting with salt-resistant crops to ensure culturally appropriate food security in the face of saltwater intrusion. Across state lines in Mississippi, the historic black community of Turkey Creek is using a community-driven watershed plan to protect homes by restoring the ecological functions and natural connections to their ecosystem. And in Miami Beach, the city is restoring their coastal dune system, providing not just protection from storms but also a public recreation space.
We began this project with the goal of telling America’s climate change story. It was a story we thought we knew. A story of disappearing land, flooded homes, and people on the move. Climate change in America is all of those things. But there’s another part of the story we didn’t know until we saw it. This is the presence of strong local leaders who are doing everything they can to adapt their homes to the consequences of climate change we can no longer avoid. It’s the mayor in deep-red Alabama who, once the door to his office is shut, asks how much time his town has and what else can be done to protect it. It’s the activist in Miami who spends so much time hounding local officials about the social impacts of climate change on minority neighborhoods that she ends up on the city’s official sea level rise task force.
At a time when the new administration denies the very existence of climate change, it can be easy to throw up your hands and say we’re doomed. But the spirit of American ingenuity lives on–in New Orleans, in the bayous of Louisiana, across our coastlines. And it is driven by strong, passionate local champions. While we may be changing our landscape beyond what Google Maps can recognize, and we will inevitably see some difficult times ahead, the America I have seen over the past year is creative, inspiring, and not ready to surrender itself to the rising seas.
Victoria Herrmann is the lead Explorer for America’s Eroding Edges, a research and storytelling project on the impacts of climate change on coastal communities, livelihoods, and cultures. She is also the President & Managing Director of The Arctic Institute, where she leads the Institute’s research on climate change and community adaptation in Arctic communities.