Gulf of Mexico
Coastal marine labs around the world are located on and studying the front lines of climate change, but some, such as the DeFelice Marine Center in Louisiana, are in the foremost line of fire. Photo by Bryan Tarnowski

LA - The Marine Lab in the Path of Climate Change’s Fury?

The DeFelice Marine Center sits on a strip of land that dangles into a bay. Staff is living, working, and adapting to the climate crisis in real time.

As the storm first gathered strength in the Gulf of Mexico, its future path was indecipherable. Its capacity for damage, though, was clear. The water was warm and the air was thick and humid—the recipe for a potentially historic tempest. On Thursday, August 26, 2021, just hours after the system was classified as a tropical depression, Louisiana’s governor declared a state of emergency: Every resident along the state’s coastline needed to prepare for a major hurricane.

Louisiana is protected by a series of levees that zig and zag along the coastline—walls of earth meant to block hurricane-driven waves from reaching the state’s bigger towns and villages. Floodgates clasp shut so that local bayous don’t overflow with storm surge. By necessity, though, the DeFelice Marine Center stands outside this system of defenses.

The building—a roughly 7,000-square-meter concrete fortress that rises amid Louisiana’s marshland—is one of the state’s premier marine labs: a warren of laboratories and classrooms that houses $7 million in equipment and other assets. Sixty staff members assist the center’s eight faculty scientists, who conduct research into the biology, ecology, chemistry, and geology of the state’s coastal environment. The building sits just north of Cocodrie, a village of shrimpers, crabbers, and weekenders near the mouth of Bayou Petit Caillou, on a strip of land that dangles like a loose thread into Terrebonne Bay.

Even before the governor declared a state of emergency, the hurricane threat had set off a clockwork sequence of preparations at the marine center. Staff relocated boats, forklifts, and tractors to Houma, a city that stands on slightly higher ground less than 50 kilometers to the north. Workers dropped sandbags at the bases of the marine center’s ground-floor doors, hoping to keep the force of incoming waves from ripping the doors off their hinges. They strapped down the 50,000-liter tanks, filled with ocean water for research purposes, that are kept under the building. Because the building’s new storm shutters had not yet been finished, contractors placed wood panels over the unprotected windows. Scientists carried their most expensive equipment—portable analyzers used to measure gas fluxes in wetlands, flowmeters, laboratory computers—to the center of the building, away from the windows. Then they draped sheets of thick plastic over everything as further protection in the case of a roof leak.

By early Friday afternoon—two days before the storm, now named Ida, was projected to make landfall—the few remaining employees headed to their homes. Some hunkered down, unwilling to leave the coast; others packed their bags and joined the caravan of cars plugging up Louisiana’s highways, seeking motel rooms and guest bedrooms farther from the storm.

Typically, wherever the scientists are sheltered, they can take measure of conditions in Cocodrie by tuning into the marine center’s weather cameras. But at 2:00 pm on Sunday, August 29, just as the storm made landfall, the marine center’s power failed. The cameras went dark. A nervous day passed before anyone could make it south to assess the damage. Everyone knew it would be grim: Ida had made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, which, per official definition, is capable of catastrophic damage. (Were the wind just a handful of kilometers faster, the storm would have become a “Cat 5,” the highest possible classification.)

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