With a thunderstorm threatening in the background, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell took a morning airboat tour Friday through the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.
Scheduled to address the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in New Orleans that afternoon, Jewell said she took the tour to get additional information about work going on in coastal Louisiana — and how climate change is affecting the Gulf Coast.
“I know it’s a hard story to tell, and it doesn’t lend itself to simplicity,” she said in urging the journalists to delve deeper into the climate change issue as well as writing more stories about the past 50 years of federal conservation efforts and the upcoming 2016 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
During her tour Friday of the Jean Lafitte preserve, Jewell got a first-hand look at what impact a climate change-related rise in sea level is having on Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.
Research scientists and park officials took Jewell to several areas to show how saltwater intrusion from relative sea level rise — the combination of rising sea level and sinking land — is affecting cypress forests and marsh areas.
Chris Swarzenski, a coastal hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, showed a soil sample from a healthy floating marsh area protected from saltwater intrusion. The soil was a packed mass of root systems that Swarzenski said was stable enough to drive a four-wheeler across.
He compared that to a second soil sample taken from the same type of marsh, but one that had been impacted by salt water. That sample was a mass of organic soil degraded into something that looked more like mud than coastal marsh.
This is what happens in coastal marshes as a delta area changes and evolves, said Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for Global Change Research with the USGS.
“If it’s slow enough, the marsh can keep up,” Burkett said. The problem with coastal Louisiana, she said, is the change is happening so rapidly that the marsh disappears and doesn’t get replaced by anything else but open water.
Jewell was last in the area in December when she announced some additional money to the state through the Deepwater Horizon early restoration fund.
She said that with efforts of conservation professionals and the guidance of the state master plan for coastal restoration and protection, not all is gloomy.
“I saw the impact of some of the risks that we take but also some of the resilience of the ecosystem, which gave me a lot of hope this morning,” Jewell said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.