New Orleans Wetlands Now the Fastest-Disappearing Land Mass on Earth

An aerial view of New Orleans disappearing wetlands.

Alicia Lee / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Over the last four years, 340 square miles of wetlands around New Orleans have vanished, causing biologists to call the wetlands around the city the fastest disappearing land mass on the planet. 220 of those square miles have been lost due to hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The rest has been a victim to erosion caused by man. It's now thought that if the wetlands had been better protected before Katrina had hit, the damage wouldn't have been nearly as severe--and that those same vanishing wetlands are preventing New Orleans from rebounding from Katrina. Here's why.Ravaging New Orleans' Wetlands
According to Bloomberg,

The erosion is caused largely by decades of building canals, levees and dams to control flooding, ease navigation and facilitate oil and gas exploration. Such projects choke off the flow of Mississippi River sediment that sustains the wetlands.
As a result, wetlands are either becoming barren, or being submerged underwater. One such dam once willingly released salt water over 27,000 acres of wetlands, which destroyed them. And these practices were weakening and eating away at the wetlands long before Katrina came through and cleared 80 miles of them out--perhaps the greatest one-day loss of land in the history of the US. If they had been controlled, it's now thought that perhaps 1,800 people wouldn't have perished in the storm:
Wetlands rank with rain forests and coral reefs in ecological importance ... They harbor plants and wildlife and function as natural sponges to buffer coastlines against water erosion and floods. Katrina would have been less devastating if wetlands hadn't disappeared.

And since the wetlands continue to be devastated, and largely unprotected, New Orlean's social and economic recovery from Katrina has been slowed.
Vanishing Wetlands Halting New Orleans' Recovery from Katrina
The wetlands secure and protect some of the most vital industries and communities in not just New Orleans, but in the nation. As Bloomberg notes, the "coastal areas also help sustain a hub of U.S. energy production, fishing and shipping. The continued ravaging of the wetlands threatens those industries as well as dozens of coastal communities and a storied 300-year-old city."

Which means, as industries and communities are trying to rebuild themselves in the aftermath of Katrina, the vanishing wetlands are eliminating opportunities and security, making the process even more difficult.

Restoring the Wetlands
While both the Bush and Obama administration have now been criticized for not acting strongly enough to help restore the wetlands, Obama has recently addressed the issue, and appointed a task force to begin assessing the problem. So there's hope. The trick is, of course, to re-develop the industries and communities that rely on the wetlands sustainably, so as not to exacerbate the problem. It's an "overwhelming" task, as James Carville says, but here's to hoping the vital ecosystem can be made to thrive once again.