August 29, 2014

Say goodbye to Louisiana's bayou—and everything that lives there.     Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services

Louisiana Is Sinking Fast

Bayou expected to disappear in the next 50 years

An investigation by ProPublica and the Lens found that coastal Louisiana, which in the past 80 years has lost 2,000 miles of land to the Gulf of Mexico, stands to lose much more than wetlands and at a much faster rate than previously thought. The drowning of this coastline—at a rate of 16 square miles per year—will not only erase species, environments, and a rich Louisiana culture from the map, but also affect those well beyond the bayous.

According to ProPublica, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) believes the Gulf could rise as much as 4.3 feet over a landscape with an average elevation of three feet—drowning everything outside of southeast Louisiana's levees. Wetlands that took 7,000 years to evolve—and are a locus of American commerce and shipping—could be underwater in the next 50 years, leading to "one of the greatest environmental and economic disasters in the nation’s history … so far unabated and largely unnoticed."

By the numbers, the area of Louisiana bayou under threat houses half the country's oil refineries, 40 to 45 percent of the nation's wetlands, a port vital to 31 states and a watershed vital to seven, and two million people.

It's no secret that rising seas threaten U.S. shores. The 2014 National Climate Assessment suggests coastlines will rise between one and four feet by 2100. Louisiana hasn't been exempt from the trend, and visibly so—two years ago, NOAA removed 31 bayou features from its listings and can't say how recently they disappeared.

The process through which the Louisiana bayou became an economic linchpin is also the reason it's sinking.

The delta was created over thousands of years by the slow buildup of detritus, or dead leaves absorbed into the soil. The resulting nutrient-rich wetlands were kept in check by the seas that wash away excess dirt; in times of drought, the land sinks because this soil becomes concentrated and heavy. As people moved into the bayou, they dismantled wetlands by engineering the Mississippi River for commerce, building levees to protect against floods from that same river, and drilling into oil reserves found beneath the winding sediment.

With levees cutting off access to sea currents that keep the ground from sinking into bedrock, the oil industry weighing down wetlands with soil dredged from canals, and wetlands that held the shoreline intact dying from exposure to saltwater, "the sinking of land that only occurred during dry cycles would start, and never stop." Add rising seas from climate change to the mix, and you've got yourself a problem. 

There's no easy answer. Even if Louisiana took restoration matters seriously and held the oil and gas industries accountable for putting its coastline under threat, the state stands to lose more land well into 2060.

For the entire interactive investigation, visit ProPublica's website.

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Google's delivery drone lowers packages to the ground on a thin cable. The company tested the vehicle by delivering dog treats, candy bars, and other small items to ranchers in Australia.     Photo: Google/YouTube

Google Gets Serious About Drone Delivery

Secret project will revolutionize our stockpiling ways

Amazon has been making noise about implementing drone-powered package delivery over the past year, but Google dropped a game-changing piece of news on Thursday when the company revealed it's been secretly exploring its own drone delivery system for the past two years. Project Wing has already developed and tested a drone that could fly a package across a city in as little as two minutes.

Google's Project Wing researchers explained to the Atlantic why they're getting behind drone delivery with such force. There are the obvious benefits of small unmanned vehicles taking over delivery: They're environmentally friendly, faster, and safer. But in typical Google fashion, researchers also envision a fundamental social change. If we could have anything delivered to us almost immediately, we wouldn't need to stockpile goods in our homes or produce as much of the stuff. Society could shift from one of ownership to one of access and sharing, says Astro Teller, director of Google X's laboratories.

The company's small delivery vehicle looks like a pod with wings. When it reaches its destination, the drone's "belly" opens and lowers the package to the ground on a thin cable. Google has successfully tested it through 31 flights in mid-August.

Looking forward, Thursday's Project Wing reveal could accelerate the rate at which drone delivery becomes a reality. "Google simply showing interest in flying drones legitimizes all these efforts by people who are trying to marshal much greater resources than they currently have to make their initiatives work," according to the Atlantic. After all, one of the biggest barriers for Amazon and others has been convincing the Federal Aviation Administration to let their drones fly. 

It's partly because of the FAA that Google can't pinpoint when its drones could start landing packages on doorsteps, but now that the Internet giant has spoken in favor of drone delivery, it seems almost inevitable. "I'm cautiously optimistic that everyone wants the same thing," Teller says. In the meantime, watch the Google drone deliver a package to Australian cattle farmers:

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