Marine Labs on the Water’s Edge Are Threatened by Climate Change
AdvertisementContinue reading the main story By John Schwartz Photographs by Bryan Tarnowski
Jan. 7, 2020
COCODRIE, La. — A marine laboratory 85 miles southwest of New Orleans was designed to be a fortress against extreme weather. But it might be defeated by climate change. Sitting at the end of Louisiana State Highway 56, where dirt dissolves into wetlands and then the Gulf of Mexico, the laboratory, the W.J. DeFelice Marine Center, has successfully weathered many hurricanes since it opened its doors in 1986. It stands 18 feet above the ground on pillars with pilings that extend more than 100 feet underground. Its walls can withstand winds of up to 250 miles per hour. But the water is coming. Around the country, from New Jersey to Massachusetts, Virginia to Oregon, education centers and marine laboratories like this one are bracing against rising seas and a changing climate. The assault from climate change is slower but more relentless than any storm, and will ultimately do more damage. It threatens researchers' ability to study marine environments up close at a time when it's more vital than ever to understand them. Bob Cowen, head of the National Association of Marine Laboratories, sees climate change as a challenge, but also a scientific opportunity. "We're feeling it, and we're also studying it at the same time as best we can," he said. If labs like this one have to shut down, decades of on-site measurements could be disrupted — and, researchers say, academic budgets might not allow replacements to be built, or built on a comparable scale. The parking lot at the DeFelice Marine Center, the heart of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium of some two dozen institutions, was once high and dry. It now floods several dozen times a year, occasionally causing the facility to close because of the difficulty of getting across the lot and into the building. Officials predict that, without action, the lab might need to shut down several dozen days each year within the next 10 to 15 years. The corrosive saltwater attacks the structure and has risen up through the soil into buried electrical cables, at one point causing a blackout. Some floods are accompanied by droves of fiddler crabs that sometimes find their way into the elevators. "They smell," said Murt Conover, the associate director of education and outreach. "I've heard it described as carnage. Rotting carnage." "It was built to be on the edge of the world," said Ursula Emery McClure, senior project designer with the architecture firm Perkins & Will and a longtime architectural researcher at the marine center, but "it wasn't meant to be in open water." Alex Kolker, an associate professor at the marine consortium who is currently studying sea level rise in Morocco, said in a telephone interview that because south Louisiana's land is subsiding while the oceans are rising, the region has what may be the highest relative sea level rise in the country. "We're just 10 to 30 years in front of the curve of everybody else," he said. Fox Island Environmental Education Center, a Virginia institution that has opened up the wonders of the natural world to young people for more than 40 years, shut down in November. Between erosion and sea level rise, so much of the island's salt marsh had disappeared that "it made it unsafe to run the program," said Tom Ackerman, vice president for education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which owns the island center. And what is lost is not just a building and its bunks, but inspiration: a number of the young people who stayed on Fox Island and gained a love of nature and the environment have gone on to be scientists. One, Kenneth M. Halanych, a professor of biological sciences at Auburn University, now researches topics including climate change and shifts in the ranges of marine organisms. "If I hadn't had those formative experiences in the Bay, I might have ended up doing something totally different," he said. Many marine labs are preparing to meet similar challenges, though they are in locations that are not yet facing the level of threat that Louisiana is. At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, Robert S.C. Munier, the vice president for marine facilities and operations, said that the facility was feeling the effects of climate change already in a battering of the existing dock. The institution is planning an $80 million renovation of its waterfront with higher docks and an adjacent buildings complex. "It's part of our DNA, getting access to the sea," he said. But the planning is tricky, he said: projections of sea level rise suggest that it could be 2.5 feet in the next 50 years, or as much as four feet. "Which one do you pick? Those are pretty fundamental questions." In New Jersey, the Rutgers University Marine Field Station has put climate change into its 30-year plan as "a long-term experiment to learn how infrastructure and people will react to the rising sea, and how the rising sea will interact with human development," said Oscar Schofield, acting director of the field station and chairman of the Rutgers Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences. Already, he said, sea level rise and subsidence leave the road to the station frequently flooded at high tides. At the Louisiana center, Ms. Conover sees educational value in their problems. Along with its mission as a scientific research facility, it is also a center for environmental education with visits from some 5,000 students each year. "If our parking lot is flooding when a group is here, we definitely talk about why we're flooding on that given day, when five years ago we wouldn't, given the same conditions." That example, she said, "gives the perspective of what our coastal communities are dealing with." In an office packed with toys and a sign reading "Mischief Managed" — a reference to the Marauder's Map in Harry Potter — she said "nature gives us the content we need to teach." Yes, the fiddler crabs are gross, she acknowledged, "but awesome in their grossness." Officials at the Louisiana facility are making plans to stick around, despite some perceptibly sloping floors and a parking lot so often flooded that managers have discussed the purchase of a swamp buggy that could transport people to the site from lots on the dry side of a levee a few miles inland. Other ideas include extending a boardwalk from the center to high-ground parking lots closer to the slightly higher road. "We very much feel like we have to be in Cocodrie," Dr. Kolker said. "We're marine scientists. We study the ocean." Brian Roberts, associate director of science at the consortium, said, "there are so many opportunities you lose if you just pack up and leave." Longtime measurements from the site would be disrupted by a move, he noted. The facility has already raised the height of docks for its two research ships and renovated the facility to move equipment to higher floors. In a recent article about the challenges to conducting marine research in an age of coastal inundation for theirs and similar facilities, Dr. Roberts and colleagues concluded: "Global sea-level rise is one of the greatest challenges facing society in the 21st century, and understanding how this phenomenon impacts coastal systems, infrastructure and the people who use them requires a regular coastal presence." Dr. Kolker, who is also an author of the report, said that future improvements for the facility included incorporating some of the infrastructure used on offshore oil terminals, like saltwater-resistant electrical cables, but noted that adaptation is expensive. The consortium is also building an additional facility on higher ground, about 30 miles to the north in the city of Houma, La., which could handle operations on days when the DeFelice center can't be used. Ms. McClure, the architect, said that the encroaching seas had helped set her on her current area of study: "how buildings get decommissioned as the oceans begin to take them." For a field that could be called unbuilding, she noted, "If you decide you're going to let the ocean take it, taking it down will cost a lot of money." Worse, she said, looking even farther ahead, "What happens when it's entire communities?" For more climate news sign up for the Climate Fwd: newsletter or follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.