Two years ago, Colin Donihue, a biologist, released a sober scientific paper along with a series of endlessly GIF-able videos. They showed Caribbean anole lizards flailing in the wind from a leaf blower, holding on to a stick for dear life, not unlike the kitten in the classic “Hang In There, Baby” poster.
No lizards were harmed in Dr. Donihue’s experiment. Video by Colin DonihueCredit
No anoles were harmed. But by proving how a lizard would try to grit its way through hurricane-force winds with sheer grip strength, those whimsical experiments led Dr. Donihue, now at Washington University in St. Louis, and a team of other researchers to a profound suggestion: Extreme weather events may bend the evolutionary course of hundreds of species. A paper published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers deeper evidence of their earlier finding.
Across Central and South America and the Caribbean islands, scientists found that lizards with larger toe pads seem to be more common in areas that have been hit by storm after storm in the last 70 years. That suggests that severe but fleeting cataclysms don’t just leave lasting scars on people and places. They also reshape entire species.
“We racked our brains for alternate explanations for this pattern,” said Dr. Donihue. Could it be temperature? Precipitation? Taller or shorter trees in different locations? “Nothing we tried explains that variation as strongly as hurricane history.”
Not long after Dr. Donihue had been lassoing Anolis scriptus lizards with a loop of string at the end of a fishing rod on a pair of small islands in Turks and Caicos for what was supposed to be just a local conservation project, the same islands were blasted by a one-two punch of extreme weather.
First came Hurricane Irma, a screaming maelstrom of 160-mile-per-hour winds. Two weeks later came Hurricane Maria. When Dr. Donihue returned, trees were down and lizards were scarce. On average, he found the surviving anoles seemed to have much bigger, grippier toe pads than the population had averaged before, as if those with less sticky feet had been carried away by the storms.
That initial finding came out with the leaf blower videos. But the team kept digging. Eighteen months after the storm, Dr. Donihue went back to Turks and Caicos a third time to find a new generation of lizards scampering across new plant growth. Those carefree children of the survivors had kept their parents’ generation’s bigger toe pads.
Dr. Donihue and his colleagues then zoomed out, using high-resolution photos from natural history collections to perform the digital equivalent of a sneaker-fitting for 188 different anole species.
Then they compared those measurements to seven decades of historical hurricane data. The same pattern holds: On average, lizards on Caribbean islands slammed by two, three or even four recent direct hits have bigger toe pads than those dwelling on the mainland and other locations that have dodged storms.
Before this, the strongest evidence for how evolution can be shaped by the gauntlet of extreme climate events came from watching Darwin’s finches bounce back after droughts. But that work focused on a single island in the Galápagos.
“Studies like this are still rare,” wrote Peter and Rosemary Grant, the pioneering husband-and-wife research team from Princeton behind that Galápagos research in an email, praising it as “well done.”
Craig Benkman, an ecologist at the University of Wyoming who was involved in peer review of the paper for the journal, said he was confident in the conclusions. And given that climate change is fueling ever stronger storms, he said, more evidence might not be too hard to find. “We need more such studies,” he said. “And unfortunately, we are likely to be overwhelmed with opportunities in the coming decades.”
Now that his team has unveiled the fuller pattern in anoles, Dr. Donihue said he’s hoping other biologists will chase down leads in organisms they study.
“It could also be in plants, trees, snails, who knows?” he said. “I think we’ll see more and more that there are other species whose evolutionary histories, and evolutionary futures, are impacted by survival of hurricanes.”
RAINBOW FLAT, Australia — Standing in thick mud between burned trees and a concrete slab where his house had been, Peter Ruprecht admitted that he was not sure how or when to rebuild.
He was still dizzied by what Australia’s increasingly volatile climate had already delivered: first a drought, then a devastating bush fire, then a foot of rain from a tropical storm.
“It’s unstoppable,” said Mr. Ruprecht, a former dairy farmer. “We speak about the warmth of Mother Nature, but nature can also be vicious and wild and unforgiving.”
Australia’s hellish fire season has eased, but its people are facing more than a single crisis. With floods destroying homes not far from where infernos recently raged, they are confronting a cycle of what scientists call “compound extremes”: one climate disaster intensifying the next.
Warmer temperatures do more than just dry out the land. They also heat up the atmosphere, which means clouds hold more moisture for longer periods of time. So droughts get worse, giving way to fires, then to crushing rains that the land is too dry to absorb.
One result of that multiplier effect for Australia — a global bellwether for climate change’s effects — is that rebuilding after a disaster becomes far more complicated. Many Australians in disaster zones complain that their government, after dismissing climate change for years, has yet to outline recovery plans that are clear and that take future threats into account.
At the same time, the economic costs of a changing climate are skyrocketing. Philip Lowe, the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, warned recently that Australia was already paying a price, and that it would only go up.
“Addressing climate change isn’t something that is any responsibility of the Reserve Bank of Australia, but what we do have a responsibility to do is to understand the economic and the financial implication of climate change,” he said. “The economic implications are profound.”
Tourism has already taken a major hit. In the longer term, Australia should expect agricultural output and property values to suffer, according to a recent study by the Climate Council, an independent advocacy group. It said property losses related to climate change could reach 571 billion Australian dollars ($384 billion) by 2030, and 770 billion ($510 billion) by 2100.
The insurance industry is already scrambling to adjust. The drenching storms of the past month led to a rush of damage claims and left tens of thousands of homes without electricity, prompting insurers to declare a catastrophe for the sixth time in five months. Such declarations, which speed up payouts, have become more frequent and more costly in recent decades.
Now, more disasters are threatening to overlap.
In Conjola Park south of Sydney, where fires over the New Year holiday destroyed 89 homes, the lake recently flooded, causing still more damage. Up and down Australia’s east coast, trees killed by drought, charred by flame and toppled by thunderstorms have crushed cars and homes.
Neither insurers nor residents are sure which disaster to blame. One thing that’s clear is that the stacking crises put people at risk and multiply their anxieties.
“I don’t like going anywhere,” said Karen Couzins, who lives in Nattai, about 95 miles southwest of Sydney. School has been canceled because of blocked roads, and simply getting groceries has become dangerous, she said.
“The trees are just falling across roads all over the place,” Ms. Couzins said. “I’ve just come back from a drive on the road. I saw a car with the front end all damaged; a tree fell on their car.”
The extremes have been especially severe north of Sydney, where Mr. Ruprecht and his wife are living in a converted metal shed, for now.
First came the drought, which wore on for years, leaving farms and forests dusty, brown and brittle. When the fires arrived in October and November, before summer had even officially started, anyone with knowledge of the bush knew there would be months of pain and struggle.
“It was a bomb ready to go off,” said Ian McMullen, 56, a third-generation timber owner, who estimates that he lost a half-million Australian dollars to the fires.
He was sitting on a bench near the shore in Hallidays Point, talking to a friend from childhood, Tim McNamara, who owns a nearby cattle farm. They said they had been discussing climate change even before I arrived, because they could not help it.
In front of them, huge waves rose like muddy mountains, the usually clean water full of ash and debris from the fires. Cyclone Uesi had weakened before drifting so far south, but its mere appearance pointed to yet another climate trend: the drift of tropical weather into areas where it had not been before.
Up the road, in a shop for local artists, 63-year-old Jenny Dayment said, “Change is certainly happening all around us.” She cited little things, like rising humidity and shifts in the bird population.
After so many years of people praying for rain, the recent downpours have been bittersweet, Mrs. Dayment said. Even as they have turned the ground green again, they have brought the ominous crack of falling trees.
“Maybe we’ll get some normalcy back in our day-to-day routines,” she said. “But people are going to be wary for a very long time. I don’t think we can ever be the same.”
Her daughter’s house had burned to the ground, she said. She pulled up a photo of what was left: a fireplace surrounded by crumpled chaos. Her daughter was not sure what to do next; she and her husband were thinking about buying temporary container housing.
The Ruprechts also cannot decide on the next step. Mr. Ruprecht said the biggest challenge had been “the absence of structure in government.”
“Most inhabitants of first-world countries view themselves as being quite resilient,” he said. “This has tested that.”
Like many others in areas affected by climate-induced extremes, the Ruprechts have listened carefully to federal and local officials, but they hear mixed signals. Sometimes there are hints of “don’t rebuild, it’s too dangerous”; at other times, moving quickly and keeping the economy humming seems to be the priority.
“It’s really affected our confidence to rebuild,” Mr. Ruprecht said. “Without some sort of vision and leadership, we’re not quite sure what to do.”
Scientists say Australia should have been better prepared, because what is happening has long been predicted.
In 2015, to take one example among many, the country’s Academy of Science declared that “for Australia, a warmer future will likely mean that extreme precipitation is more intense and more frequent, interspersed with longer dry spells.”
“We’ve been writing about climate change being a stress multiplier for many years,” said Lesley Hughes, a climate scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney. “It’s absolutely been foreseen that our climate is becoming more variable and more severe.”
Lucinda Fischer, 32, the Ruprechts’ daughter, said the government was “kind of the blind leading the blind.” The only way forward, she said, is for the public to get more involved, and for officials to step back and assess what went wrong, and what needs to happen next time.
“It’s not a question of if we’re going to have another disaster,” she said. “It’s when, and how we’re going to deal with it then.”
Michelle Elias contributed reporting from Sydney.
SYDNEY, Australia — Schools were closed, commercial flights were canceled and at least four major ports had been shuttered along Australia’s western shoreline on Friday in preparation for a severe tropical cyclone headed its way.
Tropical Cyclone Damien appeared as a Category 1 storm on Thursday in the northwest reaches of the state of Western Australia before moving offshore and gaining speed, said Brad Hall, a forecaster with the state’s Bureau of Meteorology. It was expected to make landfall on Saturday morning as a much stronger Category 4 storm, he said.
Mr. Hall said it would bring hurricane-force winds and a dangerous storm tide that could lead to severe flooding. “We’re expecting destructive winds of 150 kilometers per hour to develop as it approaches the coast,” he said, with wind speeds as high as 230 kilometers per hour — about 140 miles per hour — near the storm’s center on Saturday.
Tropical cyclones are expected at this time of year on Australia’s western coast, and this one — the third of the season — is likely to be the most intense yet. Tropical Cyclone Blake did not rise above Category 1, and Tropical Cyclone Claudia reached Category 3 but never made landfall. Some reports have said Damien could be the region’s most intense storm since 2013.
Mr. Hall said the storm was likely to thrash small West Australian towns like Karratha and Port Hedland through Sunday before weakening as the weekend tapered off. He did not expect it to become a Category 5 storm.
Mining companies with operations in the area, including Rio Tinto, said they were evacuating nonessential employees and monitoring weather developments. Residents of towns expected to be in the cyclone’s path have been told to move to shelters and prepare emergency kits including flashlights, radios, food and water.
The western storm follows a summer of wild weather in Australia’s east and southeast, where drought and months of scorching summer temperatures led to unprecedented fires that still burn in some places. Last month, many of the same areas endured severe hail storms, with some places seeing hail the size of baseballs.
On Friday, Sydney, its surrounding suburbs and towns in northern New South Wales received much-needed rain. Some places got as much as 11 inches, and there were flash floods in some areas long unused to so much rain.
WASHINGTON — Senior officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration privately disavowed an unsigned statement issued by the agency last year that rebuked its own weather forecasters for contradicting President Trump’s false warnings that Hurricane Dorian would most likely hit Alabama, new documents show.
Emails obtained under public records laws show top leaders scrambling to do damage control in the days after Mr. Trump appeared in the Oval Office on Sept. 4 with an altered map of Hurricane Dorian’s path, and forecasters in the Birmingham, Ala., office of the National Weather Service then contradicted him by assuring the public they were safe.
Multiple people familiar with the matter have said the White House pressured NOAA to “clarify” that forecast. On Sept. 6, the agency’s communications office issued an unsigned statement suggesting that the president was right all along, and that Alabama forecasters had acted improperly by suggesting otherwise.
“The Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time,” NOAA said in the statement.
The backlash from the government’s own scientists was fast and furious, according to internal emails.
In response to one angry scientist, both Neil Jacobs, then the acting director of NOAA, and Tim Gallaudet, a retired Navy admiral who is assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere at NOAA, emailed responses privately walking back the statement.
Mr. Jacobs wrote that “the forecast office did the right thing to calm the nerves of citizens.”
And Mr. Gallaudet, in the clearest indication yet that the statement rebuking National Weather Service scientists came from political overseers, assured the scientist that Mr. Jacobs’s reply served as “a sincere acknowledgment of a news release we did not approve or support.”
NOAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment about that email.
Mr. Jacobs was copied on that email, as were other senior Trump administration political appointees like Stuart Levenbach, who at the time was chief of staff at NOAA. Both NOAA and the National Weather Service operate under the Commerce Department. Several people familiar with the matter told The New York Times that Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, ordered NOAA to rebut the forecasters’ contradiction of Mr. Trump or face firings. Mr. Ross has denied that he threatened to fire anyone in connection with the incident.
In a separate email to a colleague, Mr. Gallaudet confided he was close to quitting.
“I’m having a hard time not departing the pattern right now,” he wrote to John D. Murphy, the chief operating officer at the National Weather Service, using aviation lingo to describe his desire to leave.
“Hang in there, sir,” Mr. Murphy replied and suggested the agency needed strong leadership to counteract the creeping political influence on science. “Is this battle to die for or better to stay and fight for what’s right. It’s latter for me … we can do more in pattern.”
The stress the White House moves placed on rank-and-file NOAA employees was evident in the reaction of Dennis Feltgen, a normally unflappable spokesman for the agency’s National Hurricane Center. In response to an inquiry by the news media about the president’s altered map, he wrote a one-word email to higher-ups: “HELP!!!”
The documents released Friday under the Freedom of Information Act offer the clearest picture to date of the turmoil brought about by Mr. Trump’s initial remark and subsequent false statements about the path of Hurricane Dorian, as well as his decision to trot out a map in the Oval Office that appeared to have been altered with a black marker to suggest Alabama was in the potential path of the storm.
The emails show top NOAA officials knew full well that the map Mr. Trump presented had been altered, even as days later the agency issued an unsigned statement essentially chastising the Birmingham forecasters for having contradicted the president.
“The chart shown in the briefing is old and doctored to extend the cone to Alabama,” Corey Pieper in NOAA’s press office told colleagues on Sept. 4, as the agency received a barrage of requests from the news media to understand the source of Mr. Trump’s comments.
“Are you sure it was doctored? Was Alabama never in the cone to that extent?” asked Susan Buchanan, another communications officer.
“Yes, that was doctored,” Mr. Pieper replied.
Two days later, after Mr. Trump had continued to insist on Twitter that he was right about Alabama lying in Hurricane Dorian’s path, NOAA issued its unsigned statement rebuking Birmingham forecasters. Staff hit back immediately.
“You are not going to believe this BULL,” Maureen O’Leary, a longtime public affairs specialist at NOAA, wrote to a colleague. She followed up, relaying some of the most choice public comments she was finding including, “Should I call the White House for my weather forecasts from now on?”, adding an expletive.
Others made their concerns about the situation known to those higher in the chain of command.
“This statement is deeply upsetting to NOAA employees that have worked the hurricane and not fully accurate based on the timeline in question,” Alek Krautmann, who works with NOAA’s satellite and information service office, told communications officials.
Craig McLean, NOAA’s acting chief scientist who later filed a complaint with the agency alleging the unsigned statement violated its scientific-integrity policy, took his concerns straight to the top.
“What’s next? Climate science is a hoax?” he asked in an email sent to Mr. Jacobs and other top political appointees at NOAA and the Commerce Department. “Flabbergasted to leave our forecasters hanging in the political wind.” He signed off, “Embarrassed, Craig.”
Mr. Jacobs, who has since been nominated to formally lead the agency, spent several days afterward trying to calm the waters.
Gary Shigenaka, a NOAA marine biologist, emailed Mr. Jacobs urging him to address “this crisis of moral leadership our agency is facing” and asking for reassurance that “we are not mere pawns in an absurd game” pitting science against politics.
“You have no idea how hard I’m fighting to keep politics out of science,” Mr. Jacobs replied.
Lisa Friedman and Mark Walker reported from Washington, and John Schwartz from New York.
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is about to distribute billions of dollars to coastal states mainly in the South to help steel them against natural disasters worsened by climate change.
But states that qualify must first explain why they need the money. That has triggered linguistic acrobatics as some conservative states submit lengthy, detailed proposals on how they will use the money, while mostly not mentioning climate change.
A 306-page draft proposal from Texas doesn’t use the terms “climate change” or “global warming,” nor does South Carolina’s proposal. Instead, Texas refers to “changing coastal conditions” and South Carolina talks about the “destabilizing effects and unpredictability” of being hit by three major storms in four years, while being barely missed by three other hurricanes.
Louisiana, a state taking some of the most aggressive steps in the nation to prepare for climate change, does include the phrase “climate change” in its proposal in one place, an appendix on the final page.
The federal funding program, devised after the devastating hurricanes and wildfires of 2017, reflects the complicated politics of global warming in the United States, even as the toll of that warming has become difficult to ignore. While officials from both political parties are increasingly forced to confront the effects of climate change, including worsening floods, more powerful storms and greater economic damage, many remain reluctant to talk about the cause.
The $16 billion program, created by Congress and overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is meant to help states better prepare for future natural disasters. It is the first time such funds have been used to prepare for disasters like these that haven’t yet happened, rather than responding to or repairing damage that has already occurred.
The money is distributed according to a formula benefiting states most affected by disasters in 2015, 2016 and 2017. That formula favors Republican-leaning states along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, which were hit particularly hard during that period.
Texas is in line for more than $4 billion, the most of any state. The next largest sums go to Louisiana ($1.2 billion), Florida ($633 million), North Carolina ($168 million) and South Carolina ($158 million), all of which voted Republican in the 2016 presidential election.
The other states getting funding are West Virginia, Missouri, Georgia and California, the only state getting money that voted Democratic in the presidential race of 2016. California hasn’t yet submitted its proposal, but in the past the state has spoken forcefully about the threat of climate change, in addition to fighting with the Trump administration to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars.
Half the money, $8.3 billion, was set aside for Puerto Rico, as well as $774 million for the United States Virgin Islands. The Trump administration has delayed that funding, citing concerns over corruption and fiscal management.
Not every state has felt compelled to tiptoe around climate change. Florida’s proposal calls it “a key overarching challenge,” while North Carolina pledges to anticipate “how a changing climate, extreme events, ecological degradation and their cascading effects” will affect state residents.
The housing department has itself been careful about how it described the program’s goals. When HUD in August released the rules governing the money, it didn’t use the terms “climate change” and “global warming” but referred to “changing environmental conditions.”
Still, the rule required states that received money to describe their “current and future risks.” And when those risks included flooding — the most costly type of disaster nationwide — states were instructed to account for “continued sea level rise,” which is one consequence of global warming.
A spokeswoman for the housing department did not respond to requests for comment.
Stan Gimont, who as deputy assistant secretary for grant programs at HUD was responsible for the program until he left the department last summer, said the decision not to cite climate change was “a case of picking your battles.”
“When you go out and talk to local officials, there are some who will very actively discuss climate change and sea-level rise, and then there are those who will not,” Mr. Gimont said. “You’ve got to work with both ends of the spectrum. And I think in a lot of ways it’s best to draw a middle road on these things.”
Texas released a draft version of its plan in November. That draft said the state faced “changing coastal conditions,” as well as a future in which both wildfires and extreme heat were expected to increase. In response, the state proposes better flood control, buying and demolishing homes in high-risk areas and giving counties money for their own projects.
But state officials in Texas, where Republicans control the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the Legislature, were silent on what is causing the changes. The report does not cite climate change or global warming, though “climate change” pops up in footnotes citing articles and papers with that phrase in their titles.
Brittany Eck, a spokeswoman for the Texas General Land Office, which produced the proposal, did not respond to questions about the choice of language or the role of climate change in making disasters worse. In an email, she said Texas would distribute the funding based on “accepted scientific research, evidence and historical data to determine projects that provide the greatest value to benefit ratio to protect affected communities from future events.”
Some local politicians in hard-hit areas of Texas are outspoken. Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat and the top elected official in Harris County, which includes Houston and which suffered some of the worst effects of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, said that addressing the effects of climate change was a top issue for her constituents.
“Harris County is Exhibit A for how the climate crisis is impacting the daily lives of residents in Texas,” Ms. Hidalgo said in a statement. “If we’re serious about breaking the cycle of flooding and recovery we have to shift the paradigm on how we do things, and that means putting science above politics.”
In South Carolina, which like Texas is controlled by Republicans in both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, the state’s proposal likewise makes no mention of climate change. It cites sea-level rise once, and only to say that it won’t be addressed.
The state’s flood-reduction efforts “will only address riverine and surface flooding, not storm surge or sea-level rise issues,” according to its proposal.
That is despite the fact that sea levels and storm surges are increasing across the coastal southeastern United States because of climate change, federal scientists wrote in a sweeping 2018 report. The report’s authors noted that Charleston, S.C., broke its record for flooding in 2016, at 50 days, and that “this increase in high-tide flooding is directly tied to sea-level rise.”
Megan Moore, a spokeswoman for South Carolina’s Department of Administration, said by email that the proposal “is designed to increase resilience to and reduce or eliminate long-term risk of loss of life or property based on the repetitive losses sustained in this state.” She did not respond to questions about why the proposal did not address climate change.
One of the states acknowledged that weather conditions were changing and seas were rising, but still mostly avoided the term climate change. Louisiana, whose location at the mouth of the Mississippi River makes it one of the states most threatened by climate change, intends to use the $1.2 billion it will receive to better map and prepare for future flooding — a major peril for countless low-lying areas — said Pat Forbes, executive director of the state’s Office of Community Development, which is managing the money.
“We realize we’ve got to get better, because it’s going to get worse,” Mr. Forbes said.
The state, where both the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans but the governor is a Democrat, submitted a proposal that makes references to climate change, noting that the risks of flooding “will continue to escalate in a warming world.”
Still, the 91-page report uses the phrase “climate change” only once, at the end of an appendix on its final page.
Mr. Forbes called climate change “not that important a thing for an action plan,” and said that mostly leaving the phrase out of the document was not intentional. He said the purpose of the proposal was to demonstrate to the federal government that Louisiana knows what it wants to do with the money.
“Our governor has acknowledged on multiple occasions that we expect the flooding to be more frequent and worse in the future, not better,” Mr. Forbes said. “So we’ve got to have an adaptive process here that constantly makes us safer.”
Other states used their proposals to emphasize the centrality of climate change to the risks they face. “Climate change is a key overarching challenge which threatens to compound the extent and effects of hazards,” wrote officials in Florida, where Republicans control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office.
In North Carolina, which has a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled Legislature, the proposal argued that the state was trying to anticipate “how a changing climate, extreme events, ecological degradation and their cascading effects will impact the needs of North Carolina’s vulnerable populations.”
Shana Udvardy, a climate resilience analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the failure to confront global warming made it more important for governments to at least call the problem by its name.
“We really need every single state, local and federal official to speak clearly,” Ms. Udvardy said. “The polls indicate that the majority of Americans understand that climate change is happening here and now.”
Others were more sympathetic. Marion McFadden, who preceded Mr. Gimont as head of disaster-recovery grants at HUD during the Obama administration, said the department was responding to the political realities in conservative states. She described the $16 billion grant program as “all about climate change,” but said some states would sooner refuse the money than admit that global warming is real.
“HUD is requiring them to be explicit about everything other than the concept that climate change is responsible,” said Ms. McFadden, who is now senior vice president for public policy at Enterprise Community Partners, which worked with states to meet the program’s requirements. Insistence on saying the words raises the risk “that they may walk away.”
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.”
Fiddler crabs overran LUMCON last summer. Video by Murt ConoverCredit
“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?”