Hurricanes, extreme weather are increasing in the Gulf

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — 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 increasingly common, and that’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 as humanity somehow manages to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

“The hurricanes that we get have a higher chance of developing into large hurricanes,” said Louisiana climate scientist Barry Keim, agreeing with the report’s claims of more dangerous weather.

The report, an “Atlas of Human Suffering,” outlines numerous ways in which climate change will affect the Gulf. From Texas to Florida, which has the longest coastline of any state, the entire US Gulf Coast is under serious threat from rising seas as the planet’s polar ice caps melt, the UN report says.

The region, home to major oil and gas exploration in Texas and Louisiana and tourist destinations in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, tends to be politically conservative, and its mostly Republican leaders have emphasized climate change adaptation — higher roads, levees, mitigation of saltwater intrusion – more than sweeping efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or promote clean energy.

For example, the Republican-led Florida House of Representatives on Tuesday refused to include clean energy measures in a plan to strengthen the state against sea-level rise and flooding. The bill’s sponsor, Miami-area GOP Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera, said her goal is “to do what we can fix today.”

Democratic Rep. Ben Diamond, who is running for a congressional seat in the St. Petersburg area, was disappointed lawmakers didn’t do more.

Improved resilience to climate change is good, he said, but “then the root causes of these problems in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, in terms of reducing our carbon emissions, must also be stopped.” The Florida House bill doesn’t address that.

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

In Miami Beach, streets are flooded even on sunny days, especially during the so-called king tides, and the report states that the Tampa Bay area, which is surrounded by shallow seas, is considered one of the most prone places in the country to storm surges.

Sea level rise poses an existential threat to much of Louisiana, as much of the Mississippi Delta has subsided due to human intervention. Loss of sediment from damming the river and saltwater intrusion from coastal oil and gas development are two big culprits, Keim noted.

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

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

The report details efforts in the region to adapt to climate change. Miami-Dade released a strategic response plan to sea level rise in 2021, which includes adjusting infrastructure, raising roads, building at higher levels, and expanding waterfront parks and canals.

The city of Miami Beach has already spent more than $500 million installing pumps to flush water off 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 number one 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 news conference. “This is the beginning of a comprehensive plan to answer that question in the affirmative.”

In Louisiana, the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency has a plan with “very specific projects,” according to the UN report, such as dredging to replenish wetlands and rebuilding barrier islands damaged by 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 poisonous organisms originally noticed by the Spanish explorers, have become more frequent and deadly due to warmer air and water, experts say.

The escalating outbreaks are killing more fish and marine life and hurting the tourism industry with smelly, fish-strewn beaches, poor fishing and the possibility of adverse health effects, particularly for those with asthma or other lung conditions.

From 2017 to 2019, tourism sectors lost $184 million in revenue due to the red tide, according to a University of Florida study. The warmer waters are also encouraging algal blooms, caused by pollution from agricultural, urban and other sources, which are getting worse along Florida’s coasts, contributing to the seagrass shortage that has led to record manatee deaths last year. Instead, the state resorted to feeding romaine lettuce to a group of starving manatees.

“You can’t just go out and plant seaweed,” says Tom Reinert, regional director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

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