Big, Colliding Problems in Gulf and Elsewhere Need Science-Based Solutions Now

August 28, 2020 | 10:51 am
Thomas Millot/Unsplash
Rebecca Boehm
Former Contributor

Hurricane Laura, one of the most intense hurricanes to hit the Gulf in over a century made landfall along the Texas-Louisiana border early this morning. It is being described as a historic storm because a category four hurricane of this strength has never made landfall in this part of the Gulf Coast.

Until just a few days ago, scientists were forecasting that another storm system, Marco, may hit just days before Laura. Two hurricanes making landfall in Louisiana in such a short period of time would have been unprecedented. Fortunately, Marco dissipated and had only minor impacts.

But even before Laura hit today, 2020 has been a hard year for the Gulf. Many communities along our Southern coast face a multitude of big, colliding environmental and public problems. That includes longstanding ones as well as ones new this year. But regardless of when these problems began or how long they have afflicted the Gulf, they can only be adequately addressed with policies that are firmly grounded in science.

2020 started with a new problem for the Gulf: COVID-19

The US Southeast has had more COVID-19 cases per capita compared to any other US region. According to the New York Times, seven of the top ten counties in per capita cases are in Southeastern states. In the late spring, New Orleans experienced an early spike in cases that was controlled with effective public health measures, but a second wave worse than the first emerged in July. Texas and Florida had major outbreaks this summer, too. Today the virus continues to disparately impact people in the Southeast, disrupting life, schools, businesses and a sense of normalcy.

The pandemic shuttered restaurants and other tourist attractions essential to the economies of Louisiana and other Gulf states. As we noted earlier this summer, COVID-19 dealt a serious blow to the Gulf fishers and shrimpers who sell a large share of their catch to restaurants frequented by tourists. Without this reliable revenue stream many fishers and shrimpers – who are a microcosm of the diversity of people living along the coast, representing Vietnamese immigrants and refugees, members of the indigenous Houma tribe, among others – kept their boats docked, forgoing their only income source.

2020 also brought familiar, yet increasingly challenging problems for the Gulf: Dead Zones and Hurricanes

The dead zone in the Gulf is also a familiar problem for its residents.  While they occur in oceans and lakes all over the globe, the dead zone in the Gulf is one of the world’s largest. As our new report explains, the Gulf dead zone is an area of deep ocean water that contains so little oxygen marine life can die in or are forced to flee from it. These conditions in part are the product of nitrogen pollution originating from Midwestern farms. Earlier this summer, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration forecast that this year’s dead zone would be the size of Delaware and Connecticut combined. But in an ironic twist, the actual size of this year’s dead zone was much smaller than forecast, not because nitrogen pollution flowing to the Gulf was lower than is typical. It was because another hurricane named Hanna dispersed it at the time it was measured.

The Gulf dead zone harms more than just marine life. Commercial and recreational fishing fortunes rise and fall with the health of the marine ecosystem. Combined these industries are worth billions of dollars and provide jobs for upwards of 200,000 people annually.

As our report also documents, there are some sure-fire ways to better manage this recurrent problem. Not surprisingly, they involve science-based policy to help farmers, especially those in the Midwest adopt healthy soil practices that keep nitrogen pollution out of waterways, build long-term soil health, and help farmers adapt to climate change.

Adding insult to injury for these communities, research indicates that climate change will increase hurricane flood hazards along the coast. As my colleagues at UCS have found this increase flooding will inundate many Superfund sites, putting already vulnerable communities at risk of exposure to toxic chemicals. What is worse, climate change puts at risk billions of dollars of real estate along US shores, including in the Gulf. Our new report also notes that climate change will make the Gulf dead zone even harder to shrink in the years ahead.

2020 is sending us a loud, clear message: we need science-based solutions now

But we know the sure-fire way to get climate change under control. It’s the same thing we have to do to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control and the thing we can do to shrink the dead zone: develop and implement science-based policies. The Gulf region, in particular given the multiple threats it faces, needs policy firmly grounded in science and evidence at all levels of government that will mitigate heat trapping emissions, address environmental problems like the dead zone, control the COVID-19 pandemic, and offer all people ways to adapt to the climate change that is already altering our lives. The plan recently announced by Louisiana’s governor that would get the state to net-zero emissions by 2050 is one such example.

These big, colliding problems that the Gulf (and so many other regions of the country) now faces will continue to plague us if our government doesn’t make science-based decisions. This type of policy-making needs to be the norm, not the exception.