Gulf of Mexico faces climate change catastrophe, says UN report

Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain on parts of the Texas coast in 2017. Then in 2020, fierce winds from Hurricane Laura destroyed homes on the Louisiana coast. Hurricane Ida hit in 2021 leaving the entire city of New Orleans without power for days.

Such extreme weather is becoming more common, and it’s just one of the warnings for the Gulf of Mexico region in a United Nations report released this week. The devastating effects of climate change in the region also include rising seas, collapsing fisheries and toxic tides, even if humanity somehow manages to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era.

“The hurricanes that we get, there’s a greater likelihood that they could develop into major hurricanes,” Louisiana state climatologist Barry Keim said, agreeing with details from the weather report. more dangerous.

The report, an “atlas of human suffering,” details the many ways climate change will affect the Gulf. From Texas to Florida, which has the second-longest coastline of any state, the entire US Gulf Coast is under serious threat from rising seas as the world’s polar caps melt, according to the UN report. .

The region, home to major oil and gas production in Texas and Louisiana and tourist destinations in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, tends to be politically conservative, and its mostly Republican leaders have put l Emphasis on adaptation to climate change – higher roads, levees, preventing salt water intrusion – more than broad efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or promote cleaner energy.

For example, Florida’s Republican-led House of Representatives on Tuesday declined to add clean energy measures to a plan to bolster the state against rising sea levels and flooding. The bill’s sponsor, Miami-area GOP Representative Demi Busatta Cabrera, said her goal was to do “what we can fix today.”

Democratic Representative Ben Diamond, who is running for a congressional seat in the St. Petersburg area, was disappointed that lawmakers did not do more.

Improving resilience to climate change is good, he said, but “there is also stopping the causes of these problems in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, in terms of reducing our carbon emissions. The Florida House bill does not address this.

People considering 30-year mortgages are already looking for homes and commercial buildings that have less risk of flooding. A study cited by the UN says the trend is evident in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, where some buyers are avoiding expensive waterfront homes.

In Miami Beach, the streets are already flooded on sunny days, especially during the so-called King Tides, and the report says the Tampa Bay area, surrounded by shallow seas, is considered one of the hottest places the country’s vulnerability to storm surges.

Sea level rise poses an existential threat to much of Louisiana, as much of the Mississippi Delta has sunk due to human intervention. Sediment loss from river levee and saltwater intrusion caused by coastal oil and gas development are two big culprits, Keim noted.

“South Louisiana is probably the most vulnerable place to climate change in the United States,” Keim said.

Other parts of the Gulf face different problems, the report warns. Tourism and fishing industries depend on thriving habitats off the coast of Florida and the Yucatan Peninsula, but coral reefs are bleaching due to ‘warming ocean waters interacting with non-climate stressors’ . In Florida alone, reef decline could result in economic losses of $24 billion to $55 billion by 2100, the report said.

The report details efforts in the region to adapt to climate change. Miami-Dade released a 2021 Sea Level Rise Response Strategic Plan that calls for adapting infrastructure, raising roads, building on higher ground, and expanding waterfront parks and canals.

The city of Miami Beach has already spent more than $500 million installing pumps to drain water from the island, with no guarantee that it will keep tourists’ feet dry. The City of Miami is spending potentially billions of dollars to keep the ocean at bay and limit saltwater intrusion into freshwater supplies.

“The most common question I get asked is will Miami be here in 50 years, will it be here in 100 years,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said at a recent press conference. “This is the start of a comprehensive plan to answer that question in the affirmative.”

In Louisiana, the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has a plan with “very specific projects”, according to the UN report, such as dredging to replenish wetlands and rebuilding barrier islands damaged by the storms.

Alex Kolker, associate professor of coastal geology at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie, noted that on Feb. 1, Louisiana also announced a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

Red tide outbreaks, which are naturally occurring poisonous organisms first noticed by Spanish explorers, have become more frequent and deadlier due to warming air and water, experts say.

Growing disease outbreaks are killing more fish and sea life and hurting the tourism industry with smelly fish-strewn beaches, poor fishing and the potential to harm human health, especially in people with asthma or other lung conditions.

From 2017 to 2019, according to a University of Florida study, tourism sectors lost $184 million in revenue due to the red tide. Warmer water also promotes algal blooms, caused by agricultural, urban and other pollution, which is worsening along Florida’s coasts, contributing to the lack of seagrass that has led to mortality. record number of manatees over the past year. The state instead resorted to romaine lettuce to feed a group of starving manatees.

“You can’t just go out and plant a bunch of seagrass,” said Tom Reinert, regional director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Teresa H. Sadler