Calling New Orleans “the canary in the global warming coal mine,” two Tulane University professors say their city must embrace unconventional thinking to recover from Hurricane Katrina in a sustainable way, while withstanding continual threats from rising sea levels, diminishing wetlands and future storms.

Louisiana’s No. 1 priority should be to combat global warming and accelerated sea-level rise, they wrote in a commentary published in Nature Geoscience. New Orleans must also concentrate more of its population on the 50% of its land mass that lies above sea level.

“New Orleans could accommodate more than 300,000 residents above sea level, which by U.S. Census Bureau estimates is approximately the current population of the entire city,” write Torbjörn E. Törnqvist, PhD, an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, and Douglas J. Meffert, DEnv, MBA, deputy director of the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research. “The population density in New Orleans immediately before the exodus caused by Hurricane Katrina was only about 2,500 residents per square kilometer. By comparison, the present-day population density in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, a city in a broadly similar environmental setting, is almost 4,500 residents per square kilometer.”

Drs. Törnqvist and Meffert also point out that much of the city’s above-sea-level land remains vacant and undeveloped, while urban sprawl continues in flood-prone areas. The latter should be banned in New Orleans, they say, as well as in vulnerable areas nationwide, such as St. Louis. On the other hand, rebuilding efforts in floodplains should be restricted to raised, storm-resistant structures like those featured in actor Brad Pitt’s Make it Right project.

Efforts at wetlands restoration are currently “miniscule” and need to be ramped up, they contend, along with gaining a better understanding of rising sea levels’ role in exacerbating the devastation brought on by hurricanes. New Orleans offers an unprecedented opportunity to find more effective ways to make urban coastal areas safer around the world, they note.

“A concerted effort to restore and transform a coastal urban center whose functioning is inextricably tied to its surrounding natural ecosystem can only lead to new knowledge and understanding that will prove critical once comparable conditions confront Shanghai, Tokyo and New York City,” they write.

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Photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA