Mississippi River Delta, © NASA

Keeping the Gulf Coast from Slipping into the Sea

Coastal wetlands, (c) Krista Schlyer

From the ever-growing dead zone to last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, it’s no secret that the Gulf of Mexico faces a world of trouble. But here’s something you might not know: every hour, an area of coastal wetland equivalent to the size of a football field disappears into Gulf waters. You read that right – every hour. And as any sports fans will tell you, that’s quite a lot of land. Already, 2,000 square miles of the Mississippi River Delta have slipped into the sea.

For the diverse wildlife that make the region’s coastal wetlands home, this loss is devastating. The wetlands at the mouth of the Delta provide habitat for a range of animals, including endangered species such as the Louisiana black bear, wood stork and snail kite. They’re crucial spawning grounds for fish in the Gulf, and also provide wintering habitat for migratory ducks.

And that’s not all – wetlands are important for people too. From decreasing flooding to acting as a buffer from storm surges, this ecosystem provides a natural defense against some of the worst nature can throw at us. The aquatic habitat also removes pollutants from water and recharges groundwater, providing us with a clean, reliable source of drinking water. Not to mention the financial benefits of healthy fisheries and coastal economies. Failure to protect this resource would be a tremendous loss.

Every hour, an area of coastal wetland equivalent to the size of a football field disappears into Gulf waters.

Fortunately, action is being taken to reverse this alarming trend. Right now, the Gulf Coast Restoration Task Force (created by President Obama in the aftermath of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster) is developing a plan to restore the Gulf shore to its former glory and strengthen it going into the future. How do they expect to tackle such an ominous feat? Well, one strategy is to simply let nature take its course.

Sediment plume from the Mississippi Delta

In this image you can see where water and sediment from the Mississippi is washed into the Gulf of Mexico. Photo courtesy NASA.

Right now, levees direct water flowing from the Mississippi River far out into the Gulf of Mexico, where it carries the nutrients and sediment that result in the dead zone.  The Task Force is looking instead at diverting that river water back into its original destination — the Delta’s vast coastal wetlands. Doing so would not only rebuild previously washed-out habitat, but it would shrink the dead zone as well — simultaneously creating habitat on shore and off. Better yet, this strategy also happens to be the most budget-effective plan of action proposed so far, saving the region hundreds of billions of dollars.

That’s not to say this is a quick fix — restoring the Gulf region will not be easy. But letting this vibrant ecosystem fall into the ocean is simply not an option. By taking advantage of the natural flow of the Mississippi River, we can save time, money and energy, as well as the those who call the coast home.

Learn more:

Get more information about how wetlands are crucial to humans and wildlife. 

Read a more detailed account of the Gulf Task Force’s strategy to save the Gulf.

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