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 weathered many hurricanes since it opened 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 mph.
But the water is coming.
From New Jersey to Massachusetts, Virginia to Oregon, education centers and marine laboratories 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 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 into the building.
‘I’ve heard it described as carnage’
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 through the soil into buried electrical cables, at one point causing a blackout. Some floods are accompanied by droves of fiddler crabs that can 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.”
Ursula Emery McClure, senior project designer with Perkins & Will and an architectural researcher at the marine center, said, “It was built to be on the edge of the world,” but “it wasn’t meant to be in open water.”
Alex Kolker, an associate professor at the marine consortium who is studying sea level rise in Morocco, said 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 in Alabama, 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.
At the Louisiana center, 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.
‘Nature gives us the content’
“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 with 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 sloping floors and a parking lot so often flooded that managers have discussed buying a swamp buggy that could transport people to the site from a levee a few miles inland. Other ideas include extending a boardwalk from the center to high-ground parking lots.
“We very much feel like we have to be in Cocodrie,” Kolker said. “We’re marine scientists. We study the ocean.”