Apr 14, 2023 - Climate

Dramatic sea level rise leaves New Orleans even more vulnerable

A man stands barefoot next to Lake Pontchartrain as waves crest. He is wearing a T-shirt and shorts while holding a rainbow-colored umbrella.

Christian Peterson looks over Lake Pontchartrain as Hurricane Zeta makes landfall on October 28, 2020. Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

A dramatic sea level rise along the Gulf Coast means New Orleans is growing more at risk to major storms and flooding even more quickly than expected, according to new research.

Driving the news: A Tulane University study released this week in Nature Communications reported the sea level in the Gulf Coast has risen about a half-inch per year for the past 12 years.

Why it matters: In combination with the disappearing coastal marshes, swamps and wetlands that protect coastal cities like New Orleans, the trend spells out potentially harsher impacts from future storms, researchers say.

  • In discussing a similar, second study published this week, University of Arizona climate scientist Jianjun Yin told The Washington Post that the impacts of Hurricanes Michael and Ian were more dire because of sea level rise.

What he's saying: "These rapid rates are unprecedented over at least the 20th century and they have been three times higher than the global average over the same period," says the Tulane study's lead author, Sönke Dangendorf.

Before and after: To put the rise into context, The Washington Post reported that federal tidal gauges in Lake Pontchartrain are now measuring eight inches higher than they did in the year after Hurricane Katrina.

Zoom out: Global sea-level rise isn't the same as pouring a cup of water into a bathtub, when the level rises evenly everywhere in the tub.

  • Sea level change is locally impacted by wind and weather patterns, water currents, warming rates and human interference.
  • In the past dozen years, a region encompassing the Gulf Coast, Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean up toward Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, has experienced sea level rise because of "changing winder patterns and continued warming," according to Tulane.

What we're watching: Researchers between the two studies aren't on the same page as to whether this rise will continue at this pace. But even a small change can make a big difference in the eye of the next big hurricane.

Read more from Axios New Orleans: 2023 hurricane season could see 13 named storms


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