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Gulf of Mexico

Look out for lionfish

Hey, it’s another destructive invasive species, aided and abetted by climate change.

Scientists battling coral reef deaths caused by warming ocean waters 100 miles off the coast of Galveston might now have another climate change problem to fight in coming decades: a proliferation of zebra-striped lionfish.

Lionfish — brought to the U.S. from their Indo-Pacific home to stock aquariums and later dumped by owners unable to care for the constantly hungry vertebrate — have no known North American predators to stop their spread. As a result, they’ve been decimating reef populations from New York to Florida since the 1980s, arriving at the Gulf of Mexico’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in 2011.

And a recent study published in the Wilderness & Environmental Medicine journal suggests that venomous creatures like lionfish will become more prevalent as the oceans warm.

”They are the cockroaches of the sea,” said Michelle Johnston, a sanctuary research biologist. “They reproduce every four days and every four days they can release up to 50,000 eggs. Plus, nothing really eats them, they have venomous spines and the native fish are terrified of them.”

[…]

Between 2011 and 2017, researchers have recorded nearly 3,500 lionfish in the [federal Stetson Bank] sanctuary, NOAA stated, though experts believe that number is low.

And just as the lionfish did in household aquariums, they started eating everything in sight. A single lionfish can eat up to 5,000 fish per year, Johnston said.

In the Indo-Pacific, lionfish predators include sharks, grouper, frogfish, large eels and scorpionfish, according to Lionfish Hunters, a group that promotes the removal of lionfish from the Western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf.

But fish native to the Flower Garden Banks don’t know lionfish are predators, Johnston said, which makes the venomous fish’s food gathering that much easier.

“The lionfish are virtually unchecked” in Flower Gardens, Johnston said. “The ones we’ve collected are extremely large, they’re obese, and some of them have fatty liver disease. They’re eating themselves into oblivion.”

Here’s the NOAA page on lionfish. The Chron article is long and detailed, and one we’ve heard before for other species. Scientists are looking for solutions to control the population so as to minimize the damage these invaders cause. (Turning them into human food is another idea.) In the meantime, if you or someone you know owns an aquarium, don’t add a lionfish to your collection, and if you do then for crying out loud don’t just dump it somewhere if you decide you’re done with it. Let’s at least not add to the problem.

Will we build the right Ike Dike?

Not everyone thinks the best design was chosen.

Jim Blackburn, a Rice professor and co-director of [Rice] university’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, says the Corps’ initial Ike Dike study was incomplete because it did not account for the more powerful storms that have swept through the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean in recent years. The Corps’ coastal plan, called the Ike Dike, is named for the 2008 hurricane that caused more than $30 billion in damages to the Houston-Galveston region.

Hurricanes more powerful than Ike, including Harvey, Irma and Maria all in 2017, had unique characteristics rarely seen in major storms, Blackburn said.

“The storms that are being analyzed by the Corps are, in my opinion, too small,” Blackburn said. “They’re just not making landfall at the worst locations, with the type of wind fields and characteristics we’re seeing. I can’t remember if it was (Hurricanes) Irma or Maria, it was an Ike-like storm with Category 5 winds. That’s not supposed to happen.”

Larry Dunbar, a project manager at the SSPEED Center, added that the modeling system the Corps used to predict the effects of storms on its proposed barrier was outdated and that the study did not account for the worst possible storm tracts that could hit the Houston area.

“We said we’re using the updated information because that’s what we do, and (the Army Corps of Engineers) said, ‘That’s fine, we’re gonna use the old model because that’s what the flood insurance study work was based on and we want to be consistent with that,’” Dunbar said. “I can’t argue with that, but we at least now know what’s the difference between the two models, what effect it has, its effect on larger storms, you know it, I know it.”

Blackburn also believes the Corps’ proposed barrier leave parts of Harris County — most notably the Port of Houston and the sprawling industrial and petrochemical facilities along Galveston Bay — vulnerable.

“We think that there is too much remaining surge exposure, and it’s a valid concern, both with regard to the ship channel, to the Bayport Industrial Complex and with regard to the Clear Lake area,” Blackburn said.

The Corps’ alternative proposal includes a navigation gate placed along the Houston Ship Channel and smaller gates built near Clear Creek and Dickinson Bayou, but does not go as far as the SSPEED Center’s proposal for a mid-bay gate to protect Galveston Bay.

The Galveston Bay Park plan, first proposed by the SSPEED Center in 2015, includes similar protection features as the Corps proposal for protecting Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston, but adds a vital component: a 25-foot, mid-bay barrier system that would protect the industrial complexes and densely populated areas in the west and northwest sections of Galveston Bay.

Blackburn views the mid-bay gate as part of a bifurcated system — an internal barrier and a coastal barrier — that would not preclude the Ike Dike concept favored by the Corps and political leadership on the local, state and federal levels. He called the gate a “highly complementary” feature to the extensive barrier the Corps put forth, but one that could be built in half the time at a fraction of the cost — estimated from $3 billion to $5 billion.

“We think this alternative needs to be permitted,” Blackburn said. “We’re going to be urging Harris County to investigate filing a permit application. We are going to argue that to any governmental entity that is interested. I think we need options. If all of our eggs are in a $30 billion federal appropriation, that just sounds too risky to me.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the documents that are up for public review. There are a series of public meetings scheduled for this, and you can offer your own feedback at one of them, via email to CoastalTexas@usace.army.mil, or via good old fashioned snail mail to:

USACE, Galveston District, Attn: Ms. Jennifer Morgan, Environmental Compliance Branch, Regional Planning and Environmental Center, P.O. Box 1229, Galveston, TX 77553-1229

Deadline for snail mail is January 9. Whatever the best solution is, I hope everyone who wants to have a say does so, and that the Army Corps listens to Professors Blackburn and Dunbar.

We have an Ike Dike plan

Now we need a plan to pay for it.

A decade after Hurricane Ike devastated the Texas Gulf Coast, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday that a more ambitious version of the proposed “Ike Dike” — a 70-mile-long coastal barrier that could cost as much as $31 billion — is the preferred choice for protecting the state’s coastline from future storm surges.

The decision moves the project closer to ultimately being built, but leaves unanswered how to pay for it, especially with the estimated cost skyrocketing to between $23 billion and $31 billion — two to three times above original estimates.

The option backed by the Army Corps and the Texas General Land Office is similar to the original “Ike Dike” proposal developed by researchers at Texas A&M University in Galveston after Ike hammered southeast Texas in 2008, with some subtle differences.

“This study actually incorporates both coastal storm risk management features and ecosystem restoration features up and down the coast and some coastal storm risk management down on South Padre (Island),” said Kelly Burks-Copes, the project manager for the Army Corps’ study. “It’s a comprehensive study so it’s looking at the entire coast of Texas, much bigger than the Ike Dike per se.”

[…]

The coastal barrier would be a system of levees and sea gates beginning on high ground north of High Island and running the length of the Bolivar Peninsula. It would then cross the entrance of Galveston Bay and extend the length of Galveston Island, incorporating the existing seawall. It would end at San Luis Pass.

At the entrance to Galveston Bay, a system of storm surge gates would be constructed to protect the coastline during storm events but otherwise allow for navigation to the ports of Galveston, Texas City and Houston. A large navigation gate would also be placed along the ship channel. These gates are modeled after similar structures in London on the River Thames and on the coast of the Netherlands.

A “ring levee” would also be placed around Galveston to protect the bayside of the island, a densely populated area, from surge and flood waters. Gates and other barriers would be built near Clear Creek as well as Dickinson, Offatts and Highland bayous.

The plan also includes beach and dune restoration along the lower Texas coast, and nine ecosystem restoration projects to increase resilience.

Bill Merrell, a Texas A&M University Galveston professor who proposed the Ike Dike concept more than nine years ago, noted some minor differences between his original plan and the one backed by the two agencies.

Merrell’s plan included a gate at San Luis Pass, which is south of Galveston, and a mix of gray and green infrastructure along the coast, most notably a series of 17-foot high dunes on Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston in lieu of a seawall. Built after the catastrophic 1900 Galveston hurricane, the 17-foot-high seawall spared the island from many storms but was overtopped by Ike’s storm surge and waves.

He also did not include any protection for High Island, nor a ring levee around Galveston, which he called an “extreme” measure that would require a sophisticated pumping system in the event of heavy rains.

“It’s a fishbowl effect. You have to pump it, and if your pumps work, you’re happy, and if your pumps don’t work, you drown,” Merrell said. “You’d have to pour a lot of maintenance money into it.”

Burks-Copes said that dunes and beach nourishment are “still in play” as options for Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula as opposed to a more hardened barrier.

See here for the background, here for the four alternatives that were under consideration, here for the plan that was chosen, and here for the related documents for public review. I just want to stress that the federal government absolutely, 100%, no questions asked can afford this. We may need to chisel back a tiny portion of the massive giveaway to the rich known as the Trump tax cuts to make us feel like we can afford it, but we can afford it. What we can’t afford is to do nothing.

Army Corps to present Ike Dike options

About time.

Later this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will recommend a multi-billion-dollar plan to help protect the Texas coast — the Houston area in particular — from hurricanes. When it will become a reality, however, is anyone’s guess.

The more than 200-year-old agency — in partnership with the Texas General Land Office — embarked on the largest study in its history in 2014 to determine how best to guard the Bayou City and other coastal communities from devastating storm surge.

Four years later, the agency has devised four proposals for the Houston area; it will announce which one it thinks is best on Oct. 26 and open a 75-day public comment period, according to Kelly Burks-Copes, a project manager at the Army Corps’ Galveston District.

The plans are distinctly different — one of them has an alternate variation — but all include a mixture of new levees, improvements to existing levees and seawalls and the installation of so-called “navigation” gates, which would be closed ahead of storms to protect densely populated areas southeast of Houston and the city’s port — home to the largest refining and petrochemical complex in the nation, which saw significant flooding during Hurricane Harvey — from the deadly swells generated by a hurricane’s strong winds. That storm surge can result in major flooding even before a storm makes landfall.

One of the plans calls for the construction of a 17-foot-high levee along the entirety of Galveston Island, which is about 27 miles long, and the barrier island to its north, Bolivar Peninsula — a concept that has been dubbed the “coastal spine.” Another includes a levee through most of Bolivar but not Galveston. Others call for the construction of new levees and floodwalls further inland. All the plans include the installation of navigation gates in various places and the construction of a so-called “ring levee” around the heart of the Galveston that would protect the island’s backside from retreating storm surge.

Here’s the study. The four proposals are:

Alternative A: Coastal Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Galveston Ring Levee
Alternative B: Coastal Barrier (Modified)
Alternative C: Mid Bay Barrier
Alternative D: Upper Bay Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Bay Rim

Click over to read what they mean. There are also nine Ecosystem Restoration proposals to go along with this. As the story notes, both the original “Ike Dike” idea, proposed in 2008, and the more recent SSPEED Centennial Gate, or maybe the even more recent mid-bay gate, I’m honestly not sure, are in the running. Like I said, go see for yourself what’s on the table. One winner will emerge, and we’ll get a public comment period after that, and then we just need to solve the trivial problem of funding. No big deal, right?

Galveston, ten years after Ike

Overall things are better now, but not for everyone, and nothing can ever truly be the same as before.

Galveston has a long and storied history dealing with epic storms, and the destruction Hurricane Ike wrought was no different — a Category 2 storm that battered the island and the Texas Gulf Coast with 100 mile-per-hour winds and 17-foot storm surges, killing 43 people across the state and causing nearly $30 billion worth of damage, the third-costliest storm in U.S. history.

A decade later, post-Ike Galveston looks a bit different. Island landmarks like the Flagship Hotel and Balinese Room, which sat perched on piers overlooking the Gulf of Mexico off of Seawall Boulevard, have been demolished, casualties of the storm surge that leveled parts of the island.

University of Texas Medical Branch, the island’s main hospital and a huge employer, underwent $1 billion worth of updgrades to make it more resilient to major storms, but also ceased providing indigent care.

Galveston’s beaches were restored with 500,000 cubic meters of sand, and tourism rebounded after a sluggish few years in Ike’s wake. In 2007, Galveston raked in $7.5 million dollars in hotel tax revenue from June through August. By 2012, the island exceeded that total with $8.3 million in hotel receipts.

Eighty percent of the city’s homes and much of its critical infrastructure were damaged by Ike’s high winds and devastating flooding, forcing building code changes that led many residents on Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston’s West End to raise their homes on stilts. The city’s population has about 50,550 residents today, per 2016 U.S. Census estimates, still shy of the 57,000 from before the storm.

[…]

And yet a vast swath of vacant land dotted with palm trees on the north side of Galveston, where the Oleander Homes, a public housing complex, used to sit, serves to remind that the legacy of Ike did not reach its most vulnerable populations.

The 10 to 15-foot waves that laid waste to single-family and vacation homes also damaged the island’s four public housing developments — located in low-income neighborhoods with high percentages of people of color. Four months after the storm, the Galveston Housing Authority decided to demolish all four developments — 569 housing units — due to extensive damage to the buildings.

Under a state and federal government mandate, the city is required to rebuild every unit, but fewer than half of the units have been reconstructed — delayed by a toxic combination of bureaucratic red tape, racially-tinged public outcry, political inaction and the housing authority’s lack of financial capital to manage and maintain the new housing.

“It’s just tragic that a decade after the disaster when the money has been available for all of that time that most of the public housing has not yet been rebuilt,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service, a statewide housing advocacy group.

There were serious concerns about UTMB’s ability to exist after Ike. It’s a major employer for the city, so the fact that it’s still there is a big deal. I’d still be very concerned about Galveston’s future – not to mention the future of much of the rest of the Gulf Coast – until some form of the Ike Dike gets built. After Harvey and Maria and Irma and Florence I have to wonder what else needs to happen to get that approved, but here we are anyway. I’m rooting for Galveston, but in a very real sense we’re all in the same boat with them.

What the Texas State Aquarium is up to after Harvey

They’re doing what they need to do, which they should be doing.

During Harvey, aquarium officials took in other birds and marine animals from the University of Texas-Austin Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas and the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor — both areas that were devastated by the storm. They rescued pets such as Macaws, goats and chickens abandoned by owners who were fleeing Harvey’s torrent of wind and rain. And after the storm passed, they took in and cared for injured Brown Pelicans, turtles and other marine life.

Most returned to the wild. Others, like Storm, never will.

This kind of rehabilitation work is nothing new for the aquarium; it has been part of its mission, along with conservation, since it opening almost 30 years ago. It’s become such an important part of their work, officials said, they plan to open a new rehabilitation facility on their campus as early as 2021. Officials expect it will cost up to $20 million.

A new state-of-the-art building is important, aquarium president and CEO Tom Schmid said, because it’s only a matter of time before the Gulf of Mexico has another environmental disaster like Deepwater Horizon. When that oil rig exploded in April 2010, nearly 3.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, harming animals, marine life and coral.

“We need to make sure we are ready for any environmental issue out there,” he said.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. Storm, by the way, is a Magnificent Frigatebird that the aquarium rescued right after Harvey. They’re doing a lot of good and necessary work at the Texas State Aquarium, and they deserve our support. I love aquariums and have visited several in my travels on the west coast, but I need to find a reason to call on this one.

Busy hurricane season predicted

Welcome to summer, y’all.

The nation’s climate agency on Thursday predicted an above-normal 2017 hurricane season with 11 to 17 named storms, five to nine of them hurricanes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a 45 percent chance of the hurricane season that begins June 1 being above normal, a 35 percent chance of a normal season and a 20 percent chance of a below-normal season. An average season is 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

The agency said it expected two to four of the hurricanes to be Category 3 or higher.

“The outlook reflects our expectation of a weak or non-existent El Niño, near- or above-average sea-surface temperatures across the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea and average or weaker-than-average vertical wind shear in that same region,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

Bell said a strong El Niño causes more intense wind shear, which tends to break up tropical disturbances before they can grow into a hurricane. He cautioned that chances were 50-50 that a stronger El Niño could develop later in the hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30.

[…]

The United States has had a long run of good luck, said Ben Friedman, acting NOAA administrator. “It’s been a record 12 years since a Category 3 or higher storm has hit the United States, Friedman said.

And it’s been nine years since Hurricane Ike, which caused a lot of problems even if it wasn’t nearly as bad a storm as it could have been. It’s not unreasonable to think that people have relaxed a bit recently, given how mild the storm seasons have been since then. Be prepared, don’t panic, and if you live in Katy go ahead and start evacuating now. Texas Monthly has more.

Texas asks for Ike Dike money from the feds

Good luck with that.

Almost a decade after Hurricane Ike killed dozens of people and caused $30 billion in damage, a group of Texas politicians and business leaders say they finally have “all the support necessary” to break ground on a massive coastal barrier that would protect the Houston area from another devastating hurricane.

Now they just need $15 billion to build it. And that’s what they urged the federal government to provide in a recent letter to President Donald Trump.

Signers of the letter include Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, more than 20 area mayors, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and several Houston-area members of the Texas Legislature.

[…]

Even for a president that has pledged to restore the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, the barrier will be a tough sell. Such an ambitious public works project has never been built in anticipation of a natural catastrophe. It took the Great Storm of 1900, which killed thousands of people in Galveston, to get a seawall constructed on the island; New Orleans’ failing levee system was not fixed until after Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people in 2005; and only after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York did Congress allocate a significant amount of money to pay for storm protection studies.

The massive projects that do get funding also usually require years of planning and federal studies. In December, then-President Barack Obama signed a law that might help speed up that process for the Ike Dike, but there is still no official consensus plan on exactly what to build. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will have the final say on what plan to pursue and is conducting its own study of the issue, has estimated that construction on any such system for Texas couldn’t begin until 2024 at the earliest.

And it might take far more than $15 billion to get the coastal spine up and running. Some have estimated it will actually cost twice that to build it, not including the money necessary for continued maintenance and operation of the barrier system.

We know what Trump’s promises are worth, so take that “pledge” with an appropriate amount of sea salt. That said, there’s no real precedent for this as noted in the story, and it’s not like the Republican Congress is inclined to spend money on anything but the Pentagon and tax cuts for the rich. So yeah, go ahead and ask – it costs nothing to ask – but don’t get your hopes up. The Chron has more.

What is the environmental impact of building an Ike Dike?

Maybe we should try to figure that out.

Plans for building a massive storm-surge protection system for the Houston area are rushing ahead before officials determine whether the project could harm Galveston Bay, environmental groups say.

The Sierra Club and the Galveston Bay Foundation, the environmental groups most closely watching the planning process, worry that there’s been too much focus on how to build the so-called Ike Dike and not enough on its impact on the bay.

“The Ike Dike has gained traction and local government support,” said Scott Jones, spokesman for the Galveston Bay Foundation. “We understand that, but we don’t think the environmental questions have been answered.”

Brandt Mannchen, spokesman for the Sierra Club’s Houston Regional Group, agreed. “We really need to look at the environmental impacts and, from our standpoint, should have looked at them first. We are kind of doing this backward.”

[…]

The groups are concerned that political momentum for the existing proposal may be so strong by then that the study results will have little influence.

“Maybe the Ike Dike is the best thing since Wonder Bread, but right now we don’t know because we haven’t looked at it,” Mannchen said.

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. I guess we need someone to create some models of the various proposals, to simulate what the effects of building them are, as well as the effect of having them or not having them in place when a big storm hits. It may be that even with some negative effects from the construction, the mitigation in the event of nightmare hurricane is more than enough to make it worthwhile. Or not. Who knows? It sure would be nice if we did.

Obama signs Cornyn flood mitigation bill

The title to this post is a bit of an overbid, but this is still a good thing.

President Obama on Monday signed into law a bill that could help expedite the long process of constructing a hurricane protection system for the Texas coast, including the particularly vulnerable Houston region.

The “Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation,” or WIIN, Act contains a major provision of another bill U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed in April — the month after The Texas Tribune and ProPublica published an interactive report exploring the dire impacts of a monster storm hitting the nation’s fourth-largest city and its massive petrochemical complex. Scientists are still fine-tuning plans to protect against such an event, which they say could kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people and cripple the economy and environment.

Most agree on the need to build a project known as the “coastal spine,” a massive floodgate and barrier system, but there is no official consensus plan. (State lawmakers have asked scientists to settle on a plan to protect the coast, but they’re still in disagreement.) The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will have the final say on what plan to pursue and is conducting its own study of the issue, has estimated that construction on any such system for Texas couldn’t begin until 2024 at the earliest.

The bill Cornyn filed in April, called the “Corps’ Obligation to Assist in Safeguarding Texas,” or COAST, Act, was designed to hurry things along by requiring the Corps to take local studies on the issue into account (one by a six-county coalition, in particular) and by eliminating the need for Congress to authorize construction of whatever project the Corps ends up recommending.

The bipartisan WIIN Act includes only the former provision requiring the Corps to account for local studies, meaning Congress still will have to sign off on any plan. (The COAST Act passed the Senate in September but never passed the House.)

See here for some background. We’re still a long way from something being built, as we lack such minor details as consensus on what to build and a funding mechanism for it. But this is a step forward, so credit to Sen. Cornyn for shepherding the bill through and to President Obama for signing it. The Current and Space City Weather have more.

Climate change will not be kind to Houston

It could be even worse, if that’s any consolation, but it will be bad as things are going now.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5105566

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5105566

Houston’s brutally hot summers, persistent humidity, floods and hurricanes never have been much of a selling point. It’s been something to endure.

In 50 years, scientists predict Houston’s climate will look a lot like what it does today, but amplified – more hot days, more downpours, more hurricanes, and more sea-level rise.

The frequency and ferocity of those events is the subject of scientific debate. But make no mistake: Climate change will alter Houston over the next century.

“I think the last year gave us a pretty good insight into the next decade,” said Gavin Dillingham, a Houston Advanced Research Center scientist working with the city to develop a sustainability plan. “There’s going to be significantly more flooding, summers that last longer, more vector-borne diseases. Zika could be just the beginning.”

The federal government’s most recent national climate assessment paints a rather grim portrait of Texas by 2100: a increase in the number of days over 100 degrees and more drought, particularly for West and North Texas.

Likewise, oceans are expected to continue to warm, adding fuel to potential hurricanes that come into the Gulf of Mexico.

Presumably, Houston will have some kind of hurricane protection system in place in 50 years, but that seems far from certain given the current pace of the “coastal spine” project. To better protect the Houston-Galveston area, the concept involves combining barriers and gates to lessen the effects of storm surge. For example, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Greater New Orleans Barrier was built to protect the city from storm surge.

Either way, climate science now suggests there will be less of the coast to protect in the future due to sea level rise. By 2100, estimates range for sea levels to increase on the Texas coast anywhere from a foot and half to 6 feet. At five feet, roughly 68 percent of Galveston would be underwater.

[…]

So just how hot will Houston get in the future?

The good news is Houston always will enjoy breezes from the Gulf of Mexico. The bad news is Houston is Houston.

“It will be warmer,” said state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon when asked what Houston might be like in 50 years. “One thing you’ll see is warmer minimum temperatures in the winter time. It won’t be as cold as it is now.”

So one day you might only need those sweaters you like to wear in the winter for when it’s overly air-conditioned. Sure is a good thing climate change is all a hoax, isn’t it?

Two Ike Dike updates

Ike Dike could be hidden by dunes:

The “Ike Dike” that is being proposed to protect the Galveston-Houston area from a potentially catastrophic hurricane storm surge could take the form of undulating sand dunes hiding a steel or concrete core.

The proposal to craft a storm barrier that would blend in with the environment and potentially strengthen beaches against erosion is one of three proposals for where and how to build a surge barrier, an idea that has gained considerable political momentum and is likely to be the subject of some form of action when the Legislature convenes next year.

The six-county Gulf Coast Protection and Recovery District, known as the storm surge district, has looked at placing the surge barrier landward of the highways that run along the coast on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula. Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (or SSPEED) has recommended raising the highways as the most economical way to build a surge barrier and still ensure an evacuation route as storm water rises. Several people died during Hurricane Ike in 2008 as rising tides isolated them on the highway.

Placing the surge barrier on the beach, as has been done successfully in the Netherlands, is a proposal being pushed by the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University at Galveston. Engineering the storm barrier to be part of the natural landscape would create habitat for plants and animals and protect homes between the beach and the highway that otherwise would be left to the mercy of the storm, said Sam Brody, who teaches marine science at the center.

Brody conceded that it will be more expensive to build the barrier along the beach and will increase the estimated $5.8 billion cost. “The added cost of restoring and enhancing the environment is worth it over the long term,” Brody said.

The idea is getting no resistance from the SSPEED Center and the storm surge district. “We don’t have a strong position one way or the other,” SSPEED Center Co-director Jim Blackburn said. Chris Sallese, program manager for the storm surge district, said his agency looked at building the barrier landward of the highway because SSPEED and Texas A&M were looking at the other alternatives and the district wanted to make sure all possibilities were examined.

Coastal barrier plan ‘Ike Dike’ draws support, needs funding:

If there is a lesson from the devastation of Hurricane Ike eight years ago, it is that the Houston-Galveston region is extremely vulnerable to a catastrophic storm surge, and the next hurricane could send the regional economy into a deep tailspin.

But plans to protect the region from such a storm surge have lagged as officials and experts argued about whether to build a major coastal barrier called the “Ike Dike” or a series of smaller projects that could be completed more quickly.

Now, there is strong support for building the $11.6 billion Ike Dike plan, designed to keep a massive storm surge from rushing into developed areas. A six-county storm surge district recently recommended a plan that calls for 277 miles of coastal barriers, including raised seawalls, levees and surge gates.

[…]

Planners have completed studies showing that the Ike Dike could prevent $38 billion in losses and save 151,000 jobs over a 50-year lifespan.

Unlike earlier proposals, the plan now backed by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, also known as the storm surge district, recommends raising the Galveston seawall by 4 feet, building a levee on the bay side of Galveston and a gate at Clear Lake. A proposed gate at San Luis Pass on the west end of Galveston Island was eliminated.

Differences remain over how to block a storm surge inside Galveston Bay and how close to the beach to build the surge barrier. Some also worry about the environmental effect of a proposed surge gate between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

Larry Dunbar, project manager for Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center, told legislators that it was better to move ahead with smaller projects, such as the center’s proposal for a gate inside Galveston Bay, that could be financed locally.

“Are we going to sit back and wait for the federal government to give us the $10 billion we need?” Dunbar asked. “We believe … it can be built in pieces if necessary.”

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. I don’t have a point to make, I just wanted to note this stuff before it got completely lost in the 2016 election hole. Actually, I will say that if Sen. John Cornyn wanted to propose some kind of funding mechanism for this, I’d bet President Hillary Clinton would be amenable to working with him on it. Just a thought.

Turner endorses Ike Dike

Interesting.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has endorsed the “Ike Dike” storm surge protection proposal, raising the possibility that Houston could be one of the last cities in the Galveston Bay area to endorse the $6 billion project.

If the Houston City Council passes a resolution endorsing the Ike Dike concept, the Bayou City would become the 27th municipality in the region to back the plan aimed at protecting Harris, Galveston and Chambers counties.

A Houston City Council resolution supporting the plan would give important political momentum to the Ike Dike concept, which would need federal money to be undertaken.

“I look forward to advancing this effort with my colleagues on the Houston City Council,” Turner wrote in his Aug. 5 letter to state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, and state Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Port Arthur, the co-chairman of the Texas Joint Interim Committee to Study a Coastal Barrier System.

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. There have been two main hangups to getting something done for hurricane mitigation – agreeing on a single plan, and funding it. Mayor Turner’s endorsement of the Ike Dike consolidates support for that particular idea, and consolidating political support behind one plan makes it more likely that Congress will eventually be persuaded to cough up some money to pay for it. Getting the Lege behind that plan, which is what the Mayor’s letter alludes to, would help with that as well. Another thing to keep an eye on next spring.

Another bad year for Kemp’s ridley turtles

This does not look good.

The nesting season for the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is ending with zero nests found on either Galveston Island or the Bolivar Peninsula for the first time in at least a decade, although the number rose for the entire coast.

The decline in nesting on the Upper Texas Gulf Coast comes as a recent study shows that the nest numbers for Texas’ official sea turtle, whose primary nesting grounds are in Texas and Mexico, are at less than one-tenth of their historic levels.

Only five Kemp’s ridley nests were found on the upper Texas coast – four at Surfside and one at Quintana Beach – during the nesting season that runs from April until the middle of July, although there are always a few late nesters.

“We’ve had some extremely high tides and a lot of flooding this year, and many times the ocean was right up to the base of the dune,” which could have discouraged turtles from digging nests, said Christopher Marshall, lead turtle researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Nesting numbers were up for the entire Texas Gulf Coast and at the main nesting grounds in Tamaulipas, Mexico, near the Texas border. But scientists and conservationists remain concerned that the increases are far below those prior to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

“We’ve got two years of increases, however it’s discouraging that we have not gotten back to the numbers we were at in 2009,” said Donna Shaver, chief of the division of sea turtle science and recovery at Padre Island National Seashore.

So far this season, 185 Kemp’s ridley nests have been found on the Texas Coast, said Shaver, who tallies every discovered nest and oversees a turtle egg incubation program on Padre Island. The real indicator of the health of the Kemp’s ridley is the number of nests at the main nesting grounds in Rancho Nuevo, Tamaulipas. The count this year is 17,000 nests, up from 14,000 last year but still far short of the record 22,000 in 2012. The record that year was barely higher than the 2009 number and far less than what scientists expected.

“It came up, but it didn’t come up anywhere close to what we hoped it would if it had grown at the same rate as in 2009 and it didn’t keep going,” said Thane Wibbles, a biologist at the University of Alabama. Wibbles said there should have been more than 30,000 nests in 2012.

“It’s still not back to its historical levels where we were seeing a 12 to 15 percent increase every year,” said Pat Burchfield, who heads the U.S. contingent of the Binational Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Recovery Project and is director of the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville.

[…]

Most scientists speculate that either the oil spill caused a temporary pause in Kemp’s ridley reproduction and that it will rebound, or that conditions in the Gulf have become inhospitable for the turtle’s historic population size, Wibbles said.

“It may be that the carrying capacity of the Gulf of Mexico may not be what it used to be,” Wibbles said. “I would say in five years if it hasn’t got on an exponential recovery trend then we have to look at the possibility that the Gulf of Mexico is not allowing them to come back.”

If the Gulf can’t support as many Kemp’s ridleys as it once did, he said, then the Gulf may be in trouble. Said Wibbles, “The ridley could be considered a metaphoric canary in the coal mine.”

See here for some background. I sure hope things start to look up, but it’s getting harder to feel optimistic. I don’t care how much that oil spill cost BP. It wasn’t enough.

Another floodgate proposed

Third time’s the charm, right?

Academic leaders have long beseeched government officials to learn from the damage caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and harden the upper Texas coast against future threats.

Finally, on Monday, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the feasibility of projects to limit flood and storm surge damage.

“It is time to take action,” said Bush, who came into office in January. “This has been a priority of mine since the campaign.”

That effort will build upon several previous studies, including one to be released Tuesday, which have found that a gate system in Galveston Bay, costing less than $3 billion, could provide protection from future hurricanes for $37 billion in chemical and other facilities along the Houston Ship Channel, as well as$9 billion in residential property.

These academic studies, funded by the Houston Endowment and managed by academic leaders from Rice University, the University of Houston, Texas A&M University at Galveston and other institutions, have presented a range of options to protect the coast.

The latest possibility calls for building a floodgate across the Ship Channel near San Leon.

This “mid-bay” gate would be tied to an extensive network of man-made reefs and island berms, most of which already exist, to safeguard not only industry along the Ship Channel but also homes in rapidly developing areas such as League City along the west side of Galveston Bay.

See here, here, and here for the background. Credit where credit is due, Bush is the first public official to get behind this idea, and if he can take it somewhere it will be a good thing. Cost has always been the main obstacle, but as the Trib reminds us, it’s not the only one.

Everything about the $2.8 billion plan from the Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, or SSPEED, screams compromise.

The proposed location is roughly halfway between the upper-bay Centennial Gate and the lower-bay Ike Dike — and borrows certain features from the latter, including some new levees and elevated roadways. Its estimated price tag also falls somewhere in the middle, but closer to the $1.5 billion Centennial Gate than the $4 billion to $8 billion estimate for the Ike Dike.

The “mid-bay” plan — contained in the first of three annual reports from the center, and so far lacking a catchy moniker — calls for installing a storm surge-deterring gate as tall as 25 feet across the nearly 700-foot-wide Houston Ship Channel near the community of San Leon. The manmade channel connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Houston, the busiest seaport in the U.S. by some measurements.

SSPEED Center officials say sophisticated storm modeling shows the structure would — in a Category 3 hurricane with wind speeds about 15 percent higher than those during Ike — “significantly reduce storm-surge flooding in both the Houston Ship Channel and in the heavily populated west Galveston Bay communities that are difficult to evacuate.”

That’s a direct response to the main criticism levied against the Centennial Gate, which coastal residents argued shielded the refineries along the ship channel at the expense of surrounding neighborhoods. (As for the Ike Dike, it has been criticized for its high cost and potential environmental impact.)

The mid-bay plan “is a much superior alternative in my mind at least than what we had previously looked at,” said Rice University professor Jim Blackburn, noting that “the consensus was that the Centennial Gate did not offer sufficient protection to the public and so we went back to the drawing board.”

Sometimes compromises satisfy everyone, and sometimes they piss everyone off. If this is more the former than the latter, then there ought to be some consensus to move forward, however slowly, towards a funding mechanism. If not, I figure we’ll see another story about another floodgate being proposed sometime next year. We’ll see how it goes.

BP settlement cash

Nice.

BagOfMoney

The city of Houston, Harris County and Metro netted $23 million in compensation from BP for revenue they could not collect in the wake of the company’s 2010 Gulf oil spill, officials announced Thursday.

Houston will pocket about $12.2 million from the costliest environmental lawsuit in U.S. history to cover hotel and sales tax shortfalls. The Metropolitan Transit Authority will receive more than $9.2 million for lost sales tax revenue, and Harris County will get $2.1 million for lost hotel occupancy tax revenues, officials announced in a joint statement.

However, expenses for the case and fees for two outside lawyers who represented the city, county and Metro will carve off nearly 40 percent of those totals.

Nearby communities and government entities, including the city of Galveston, Jefferson County, the city of Beaumont, and Orange Port Authority also are among the 511 entities that said the spill caused an economic shortfall.

The payouts are part of the $18.7 billion that BP agreed to pay earlier this month for damages and penalties resulting from the Deepwater Horizon spill – the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

[…]

Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Harris County Commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Morman said they were satisfied with the settlement. Commissioners Court has not yet determined how the county will split the money.

“Frankly, I wish we would have gotten more, but certainly it was a worthwhile lawsuit,” Radack said.

Several commissioners received a total of 1,700 identical emails from BP employees, via a server in United Arab Emirates, urging them not to pursue legal action against the company, according to Soard at the County Attorney’s office.

County Judge Ed Emmett, who voted in Commissioners Court against seeking damages, said, “I thought it was a stretch to say that we lost so much revenue because people didn’t rent hotel rooms here because of the BP spill.”

“Am I glad the county won? Sure. Would we have been part of the lawsuit if it had been just up to me? Probably not.”

He said he was disappointed the county would only to realize $1.3 million after the lawyers took their cut. Commissioner R. Jack Cagle had also voted against entering the lawsuit, in his case because he thought the county attorney could handle the case.

As to whether it was appropriate to seek damages, Janice Evans, spokeswoman for the mayor, said, “We raised the same exact issues as more than 500 other governmental entities and all parties have agreed to this, as has the court, so we would not characterize it as opportunist.”

Whether the amount that these three entities will receive is “enough” is not one I can answer, nor can I answer it for the 500 others involved in the litigation, not to mention BP itself. It’s something, and I’m quite sure it will be put to good use.

Your annual “don’t get complacent about hurricanes” warning

You should know the drill by now.

It’s been seven years since a large hurricane – Hurricane Ike – threatened the Gulf states, and increasingly there’s talk among scientists that the Atlantic Ocean may be moving toward a more “quiet” period.

Hurricanes tend to come in bunches, and since about 1995 the Atlantic Ocean has burned hot with storms, spawning monster years in the 2000s when hurricanes like Katrina, Rita and Wilma pounded Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

Before then, in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, the Atlantic was comparatively quiet, with fewer named storms each season.

Now, after a 20-year, frenetic period, the cycle may be swinging back down. For the first time in a long time, sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic where hurricanes commonly form are cooler than normal. Seasonal forecasters predict fewer than 10 named storms this year, far below the 15 or more storms that have formed in most years since 1995.

[…]

[Chris Landsea, a senior scientist at the National Hurricane Center] says we need a few more hurricane seasons to know whether we really have entered a quiet period. Phil Klotzbach, a Colorado State University scientist known for publishing seasonal forecasts for hurricanes, is a little more confident.

The hurricane cycle is known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, or AMO, and it reflects changes in sea surface temperatures from the equator to the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic Ocean. Periods of increased hurricane activity correlate to warmer sea temperatures, and slower periods correspond to cooler temperatures.

Klotzbach tracks the AMO closely, and it has essentially been negative – cooler than normal – since 2012.

“I would say at this point that my confidence that the AMO has flipped to negative has grown somewhat,” he said. “If this hurricane season ends up being as quiet as we are predicting, that would make three below-average seasons in a row. The odds of three below-average seasons in a row in a positive AMO would be quite unlikely.”

You can see the NHC’s 2015 forecast here. As the story and the NHC scientists take pains to remind us, it only takes one storm to make a given season a catastrophe. Hurricane Alicia in 1983 hit during a similarly “quiet” period. So remember the lessons that have been drilled into us all over the years – have bottled water at hand, know your evacuation route or be prepared to shelter in place, and stay on top of the news. And if you live in Katy, run for your lives.

A better year for seaweed

Good news for Galveston beachgoers.

In a lucky break for Galveston beachgoers and the Gulf Coast’s tourism industry, the masses of seaweed that plagued the area last summer seem to be turning toward the Caribbean and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

The mats of Sargassum, now carefully tracked by a NASA app unveiled Thursday, drift in from the Atlantic on Gulf currents. At a crossroads near the Yucatan Peninsula, the seaweed either turns toward the Texas Coast or is swept back to the Atlantic Ocean, Robert Webster, a marine science researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston, said at the 2015 Gulf Coast Sargassum Symposium.

“Most of the Sargassum has made that right turn,” Webster said. “They are getting killed in the Yucatan.”

Last year the seaweed took the Texas route, landing in volumes believed to be the largest inundation in history, possibly because massive flooding from Venezuela’s Orinoco River swept so many nutrients from floodwaters into the Gulf that it caused the Sargassum to flourish. The Orinoco is one of South America’s largest rivers and its mouth, although flowing into the Atlantic, is close to the Caribbean.

[…]

Although it may have its good attributes, cities want to get as much warning as possible to prepare for Sargassum landings. A new app developed by NASA, also unveiled at the symposium, uses satellites to spot seaweed and predict where and when it will land. Anybody who wants to know how much seaweed is on its way to Galveston beaches and when it will arrive can go to sargassum.tamug.edu to see orange dots representing seaweed floating across a satellite map of the Gulf of Mexico.

The automated system will replace a manual system, called the Sargassum Early Advisory System, developed by Texas A&M University at Galveston and maintained by students, said Duane Armstrong, chief of the applied science and technology products office at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center.

The original SEAS website is here. It points to a new website here, which is where I found that embedded image. The sargassum.tamug.edu didn’t have anything on it but a license agreement when I looked at it, but it may not be fully ready yet. In any event, I just thought this was cool.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle in trouble

Dammit.

Texas’ official sea turtle is on a slide that could eventually lead to extinction after a spectacular comeback and years of effort to save it, according to figures released Tuesday at a gathering of scientists and environmentalists.

“It was on a rapid road to recovery and the recovery came to an abrupt halt in 2010 and we don’t know why,” Selina Heppell, professor at Oregon State University’s department of fish and wildlife, said in comments before a presentation. “What the modeling suggests is that something very dramatic and unprecedented happened to the survival and reproduction of the species.”

Scientists had worried about the meaning of decreases in the number of turtle nests for 2010, 2013 and this year, the only decreases in the new century. But Heppell, who developed the method used to calculate the turtle’s nesting population, offered the most definitive numbers showing that the Kemp’s ridley was again in trouble.

To understand the reasons for the decline, some say, it’s important for the federal government to restore money it took away this year for the Mexico/U.S. Binational Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Population Restoration Program.

An earlier story has some more details.

The first symposium in Galveston in 1985 came at a time when the Kemp’s ridley was at the edge of extinction and efforts to protect the main nesting grounds in Mexico seemed to make little difference. A series of new efforts followed the symposium, including new laws protecting the turtles from being killed by fishermen. The efforts began to show signs of success by 2000, and by the middle of the last decade the population was increasing by 12 to 17 percent per year.

Then in 2010, a fiery explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform killed 11 workers and dumped an estimated 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil boiled into the Gulf just as the Kemp’s ridley nesting season got underway. Oil fouled the area near Louisiana where female turtles normally forage after nesting at the main nesting grounds in Mexico or along the Texas Gulf Coast. Scientists found scores of dead Kemp’s ridley juveniles floating in oil scum in the deep sea among clumps of seaweed. Kemp’s ridley turtles spend the first year of their lives floating at sea in islands of sargassum seaweed.

Scientists count the number of nests laid by sea turtles to determine their long-term prospects rather than estimating the species population. Although the number of nests set a record in 2012, the trend has been downward since 2010 and scientists are worried.

Presentations at the symposium may help explain whether the oil spill is connected to the Kemp’s ridley decline. Donna Shaver, chief of the U.S. Park Service’s sea turtle science division at Padre Island National Seashore, is one of three scientists involved in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment on the Kemp’s ridley since the BP spill who will offer information from the damage study. Kimberly Reich, Sea Turtle Research Laboratory director at Texas A&M University at Galveston, will make public for the first time information about turtle foraging habits in relation to the oil spill.

A later version of the first Chron story linked above adds some more information about that 2010 oil spill and its effects.

A study presented at the Second International Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Symposium found oil in the carapace, or shell, of 29 sea turtles that returned to feed in the spill area in 2011 and 2012.

And while experts say the only way to say with certainty that the oil came from the spill would have been to test the turtles’ blood right after they came in contact with the oil, the finding provides powerful evidence that the environmental disaster dealt a blow to turtle recovery efforts, including a downward trend in nesting since 2010.

“It was on a rapid road to recovery and the recovery came to an abrupt halt in 2010, and we don’t know why,” said Selina Heppell, a professor at Oregon State University who developed the method used to calculate the turtle’s nesting population. “What the modeling suggests is that something very dramatic and unprecedented happened to the survival and reproduction of the species.”

[…]

Kimberly Reich, Sea Turtle Research Lab director at Texas A&M University in Galveston, conducted the study that was discussed Tuesday. She pointed out that because turtles nest about every two years, those exposed to oil in 2011 and 2012 would have nested in 2013 and 2014, years that saw steep declines in nesting numbers.

Reich’s study is the first information released from a three-year damage assessment conducted to find out whether the spill affected the Kemp’s ridley, the smallest of five sea turtles found in the Gulf.

Much of the information gathered by Reich is being kept under wraps for use in legal proceedings to determine BP’s liability for the spill. Reich and other researchers signed confidentiality agreements, but she was able to release her study with special permission from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Other studies are underway that are being done either independently or as part of the damage assessment.

“We hope that when we come together, all our research will paint a picture,” Reich said.

So far the picture is dismal, according to an analysis of the Kemp’s ridley nesting numbers presented by Heppell.

That’s just deeply depressing. Here’s the website and Facebook page for the symposium. I sincerely hope that Texas’ elected officials pay heed to this and do their part to take whatever action is needed to help these animals survive.

Two environmental stories

Some good news, and some bad news. The bad news: We have an oyster shortage.

Add an oyster shortage in Texas Gulf Coast to the problems exacerbated by the state’s years-long drought.

But Texas’ dry spell isn’t the only reason the slimy delicacies are harder to come by lately. What was once an abundant supply of oysters in bays from Port Aransas up past Galveston has taken a succession of hits, including sediment dumps from Hurricane Ike in 2008, continually increasing water temperatures – as well as hyper-salinity due to drought and thirsty inland cities with fast-growing populations.

Heightened saltiness encourages the spread of parasites and disease.

“Drought plus a growing population equals no water entering the bays,” said Bryan Legare, a natural resource specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “The reservoirs aren’t releasing as much water as they need to for environmental concerns.”

[…]

Legare, meanwhile, has been working to re-create habitats for oysters by pouring tons of river rock into viable locations such as Sabine Lake and the East Bay. With spat, or juveniles, already settling in, there’re hopes for market-size oysters two years from now.

For now, Legare’s take on the state of the Texas oyster habitat is that it’s “a combination of change – and not good.”

Nor is the situation much better for the Gulf’s other oyster- producing states.

“Overall, the Gulf Coast’s just been hit with a number of negative events that seem to have cumulatively depressed production,” said Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries in Bon Secour, Ala.

The events have included floods, droughts, hurricanes and precautionary harvesting bans in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill.

In one case, the flood was man-made, caused by the state of Louisiana’s release of Mississippi River water in attempt to push the oil away from sensitive coastal areas. The gush of river water may have saved marshlands, but it flushed out oyster beds. To make matters worse, reefs were further depleted by a naturally occurring flood in 2011.

On the other side of the Gulf in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, the problem has been continuing drought.

Nelson said there hasn’t been a good harvest since 2007, before Ike barreled in. “The impact of all these different problems, challenges along the Gulf Coast have led to an historical low point in the production of oysters,” he said.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t just limited to the Gulf of Mexico. But don’t worry, climate change is still just a fairy tale invented by Al Gore. I’m sure this will all work itself out.

For the good news, the pine trees of East Texas are doing a lot better now.

From Texas 327, the two-lane highway that cuts a straight east-west line though Hardin County, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.

There are sweetgum and Texas hickory, loblolly pine and bluejack oak in the blur of green. But just beyond the dense thicket is one of the state’s last stands of longleaf pine, a towering tree that dominated these sandy flatlands before the area was heavily logged a century ago.

This remnant of a once common landscape is the centerpiece of the 5,600-acre Sandyland Sanctuary, a Nature Conservancy-managed property some 100 miles northeast of Houston. It’s also part of a new push to preserve and restore a key piece of the Southeast’s environmental heritage.

Across the eight-state region, timber companies, conservation groups and government officials are working to revert millions of acres to longleaf-pine forests and keep them free from development. It’s no small task because most of the land is privately owned, but there seems to be real interest in bringing back the native hardwood throughout its historic range.

That’s because the open piney woods are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems outside of the tropics. The red-cockaded woodpecker, bobwhite quail and eastern wild turkey – as well as nearly 900 plant species found nowhere else – live among the majestic trees.

[…]

Estimates vary, but many experts figure the Southeast has lost up to 97 percent of its longleaf-pine forest. The all-time low of 2.8 million acres came in the 1990s.

Since then, the amount of longleaf-pine forest has increased to an estimated 3.4 million acres, mostly because of a federally funded effort to restore the woodlands. Several states, including Texas, have set a goal of 8 million acres over the next 15 years.

At least half of the new acreage will come from 16 targeted areas, known as significant landscapes. In Texas, the restoration work mostly will be done in and around the Sabine and Angelina National Forests and the Big Thicket National Preserve.

“The good news is that it’s already hit rock bottom and it’s rebounding,” said David Bezanson, who leads the Nature Conservancy’s efforts to protect Texas land through the purchase of easements. Under such deals, timber companies hold onto ownership but agree to some restrictions on how the property is used.

It’ll never be as it was, but it’s better than it used to be and it’s headed in the right direction. That counts as a win.

Ike Dike versus Centennial Gate

It’s an academic storm surge mitigation smackdown!

Lawmakers on Monday told representatives of two of Texas’ most distinguished universities to stop feuding and come together on a plan for protecting the Houston region from a storm surge similar to the one spawned by Hurricane Ike six years ago.

At a hearing at Texas A&M University Galveston, members of the Joint Committee on a Coastal Barrier System expressed frustration that the universities who took the initiative to devise a storm protection plan – Texas A&M Galveston and a Rice University-based center – were still arguing over the best approach.

“The fact is that Hurricane Ike was six years ago and we are still talking about how to come to a consensus,” said Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood and the co-chairman of the joint committee. “We’ve got to move forward.”

Legislators said they wanted a proposal they could turn into legislation soon. “You have to come up with a plan that can be passed,” said committee Co-Chairman Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont.

If the two sides fail to come together by the time the committee reconvenes in September, legislators said, they will take steps to bring about an agreement. “We’ll do something to encourage them,” Taylor said, adding that it could include picking a person or a committee to work out a deal.

“We have ways of making you achieve consensus,” Sen. Taylor did not say, definitely not twirling his mustache while not saying it. Sorry, got carried away for a minute there. Won’t happen again, I promise.

Texas A&M is backing a storm protection barrier proposal known as the Ike Dike, which would stretch from San Luis Pass at the western end of Galveston Island to High Island on the eastern end of the Bolivar Peninsula. Skeptics have said the idea is too costly.

Texas A&M marine scientist William Merrell proposed the concept soon after Ike caused an estimated $25 billion in damage to the Houston area, making it the costliest storm in Texas history.

The SSPEED Center, which draws on ideas from all over Texas, originated the proposal for the Centennial Gate at the head of the Houston Ship Channel. That plan calls for a ring barrier around the populated portion of Galveston Island, and a storm levee along Texas 146 to protect the western edge of Galveston Bay.

After the hearing, Jim Blackburn, a professor at the SSPEED Center, said he was confident that an agreement could be reached. But when Merrell was asked if there was a chance of a compromise, he responded, “No.”

“We’ve got a concept, we think it’s a good one and we are going to keep doing it,” Merrell said. “The Centennial Gate never did hunt.”

Merrell said he would welcome the backing of the SSPEED Center.

“Save time, see it my way,” Merrell did not say. Yeah, I know I said I wouldn’t do that again, but sometimes it’s just too easy.

See here and here for some background. I don’t know what the “right” answer is here. It’s a matter of how you calculate the risk and how much you’re willing to pay to mitigate that risk. There is such a thing as too much insurance, but there’s also such a thing as too little. What’s it worth to you? How will you pay for it? Answer those questions and you’ll answer the other one. Lisa Gray is right, that’s the Legislature’s call.

It’s hurricane season prediction time

And this year’s forecast is for a fairly quiet summer.

On Thursday, forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released their seasonal outlook for 2014, predicting eight to 13 named storms would form. This means, most likely, the Atlantic season total will fall below the normal 12 tropical storms and hurricanes during a given year.

Like NOAA’s, other seasonal forecasts issued this spring have predicted 75 to 90 percent of normal activity levels this year. The season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

[…]

Principally, they expect El Niño to develop this summer in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño, a rise in tropical Pacific sea temperatures, has global weather effects including stronger wind shear in the Atlantic tropics, which reduces the number and intensity of tropical systems.

“Atmospheric and oceanic conditions across the tropical Pacific are already taking on some El Niño characteristics,” said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal forecaster.

Other factors are suggested as well. A number of signs suggest water temperatures in the area of the Atlantic Ocean where storms most commonly form, between Africa and the Caribbean Islands, will be a bit cooler than normal later this summer.

“Cooler water means less heat content available for hurricanes to intensify, resulting in fewer strong hurricanes than normal,” said Chris Hebert, a hurricane forecaster with ImpactWeather, a Houston-based company.

See here for the official NOAA forecast page. Last year’s prediction of a busy season didn’t work out so well, but even the best are going to strike out now and again, and if the process is sound then the results will be there more often than not. Of course as noted even in an otherwise very light season, all it takes is one hurricane to hit where you are and the rest doesn’t matter. So be prepared and remember that if you live in Katy it’s never too early to start evacuating.

Shark Week in the Gulf

You got your goblin sharks.

Goblin shark

Shrimpers fishing in the Gulf of Mexico have pulled up an incredibly rare, almost prehistoric looking goblin shark. It’s only the second sighting of such a beast in the Gulf.

The freakish shark is one of the least-known of the shark family, usually living in deep waters off the coast of Japan. The goblin is so rare that the first Gulf sighting of one over 10 years ago resulted in a scientific paper being written.

The new shark, estimated to have been 18 feet long, was accidentally hauled up by shrimpers off the coast of Key West, Florida.

The crew had a net down in 2,000 feet of water and were shocked when they pulled up the usual barrel-load of shrimp. Mixed into their catch was the bright pink giant, which preceeded to thrash around on deck.

“I didn’t even know what it was,” said lifetime fisherman Carl Moore. “I didn’t get the tape measure out because that thing’s got some wicked teeth, they could do some damage.”

Instead, Moore quickly hoisted the creature back into the water. It was only luck that any photos were taken as Moore had only just bought a cell phone with a camera.

“My 3-year-old grandson, he just loves sharks so I’ve been taking pictures of every one we find, when I showed him this one he said, ‘Wow, Pappa!'” Moore said.

I can’t stop looking at the photos in that news story. That is a creature from your nightmares, no doubt about it.

Speaking of nightmares, you’ve also got your great whites.

Gonna need a bigger boat

Divers taking a dip in the Gulf have captured amazing video of a Great White shark that paid them a visit as they explored a wreck about 80 miles off the coast of Florida.

The video shows the group at depths of around 100 feet, looking down through a school of fish. A dark shadow can been seen swimming by with diver Dane Kelly’s brother madly trying to point it out to his dive buddies.

“My brother’s going crazy because he realizes what it is before we do,” Dane Kelly explained to NBC2 News in Sanibel, Florida.

At times, the giant fish is hard to make out but the shape of a shark is as distinctive as it is ominous. Scientists say there is no doubt it was a Great White.

“Fortunately, most other sharks in the Gulf do not resemble white sharks at all,” said Nick Whitney, staff scientist and manager at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota via email.

“About the only species that looks similar is the shortfin mako shark, which does not get as long or as girthy as the white shark. And the shark in the video is long and girthy,” Whitney said.

Whitney estimates the shark in the video is about 12-14 feet long, saying that the body proportions and tail beat give away the fish’s massive size.

I don’t have anything to add here. I just think sharks are cool.

The Galveston oil spill

This is just awful.

While the oil spill resulting from Saturday’s collision between a ship and barge was small by global standards – less than a third of what it would take to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool – the local impact is proving far more than a nuisance.

The heavy marine fuel oil is washing up on nearby beaches, killing or injuring waterfowl that come into contact with it, and keeping commercial traffic bound for local ports at a standstill.

The commercial ships should get relief soon as a fleet of oil-skimming vessels continues to scoop up what remains of the estimated 168,000 gallons of oil from the waters near the southern mouth of the Houston Ship Channel. Shipping operations were suspended immediately after the accident to prevent vessels from spreading the oil and getting it stuck to their hulls.

By late Monday, some of the oil could be seen floating in patches in Galveston Bay. But a large portion of the spill was driven by wind, waves and currents into the Gulf of Mexico and was headed southwest, Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer, captain of the port, said at a Monday news conference. An aerial survey will determine where and how far the oil had spread, he said.

[…]

The waterfront oil made its way from the Texas City Dike to the eastern end of Galveston Island, and a small amount reached beaches frequented by tourists on the Gulf side of the Island, said Charlie Kelly, Galveston emergency management director.

Kelly said a number of tar balls had washed ashore between 29th Street and eastern end of the island, but the amount was so small that it was easily picked up. No tar balls could be seen on the beaches Monday afternoon.

“I’m not worried about anything,” Galveston Mayor Lewis Rosen said.

Less sanguine were environmentalists who noticed oil covering a section of island beach that fronts the Ship Channel. Mort Voller, who heads the Galveston Island Tourism and Nature Council, said several oiled birds, all dead, were seen on an area near the Galveston jetty known as Big Reef.

“Big reef is hugely natural, a wonderful collection of salt water lagoons, sand flats and intertidal marsh and prairie-type uplands,” Voller said. It’s far enough away from the tourism beaches that animals are largely unmolested, he said.

The potential impact on wildlife is tremendous.

The heavy oil spilled into Galveston Bay showed signs Monday of harming one of the nation’s great natural nurseries, with biologists finding dozens of oiled birds on just one part of the Bolivar Peninsula.

Scientists found the birds on a wildlife refuge just two miles from where a partially sunken barge leaked as much as 168,000 gallons of thick bunker fuel oil after colliding with another vessel Saturday.

“We expect this to get much worse,” said Jessica Jubin, a spokeswoman for the Houston Audubon Society, which manages the Bolivar Flats preserve where the birds were found.

The concern comes as tens of thousands of birds are passing through the upper Texas coast on their annual flight north. But the worry also extends to the bay’s oyster reefs and the shrimp, crabs and fish that rely on the coastal marshes for shelter and food.

Scientists said that while the spill’s damage will be magnified by its awful timing, it could take years for a fuller picture of the ecological toll to emerge.

Galveston Bay was under stress from development, drought, pollution and storms. But its oil spills are typically small, averaging about 100 gallons per incident, according to an analysis by the Houston Advanced Research Center. The latest spill is the largest in the Ship Channel since a facility leaked 70,000 gallons of bunker fuel in 2000.

For now, the primary concern is the marshes, which have declined over decades because of sea-level rise, erosion and subsidence, a condition caused by sinking soil.

Here’s the optimistic view.

Officials believe most of the oil that spilled Saturday is drifting out of the Houston Ship Channel into the Gulf of Mexico, which should limit the impact on bird habitats around Galveston Bay as well as beaches and fisheries important to tourists.

“This spill — I think if we keep our fingers crossed — is not going to have the negative impact that it could have had,” said Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, the lead state agency on the response to the spill.

The best-case scenario is for most of the slick to remain in the Gulf for at least several days and congeal into small tar balls that wash up further south on the Texas coast, where they could be picked up and removed, Patterson said. Crews from the General Land Office are monitoring water currents and the movement of the oil, he said.

Let’s hope that it’s not as bad as it could be. There’s a great irony in this happening almost exactly 25 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the effects of which are still being felt today. I pray that isn’t the case with this spill. Statements from the Environmental Defense Fund are beneath the fold.

(more…)

What happened to the hurricanes?

This had been predicted to be one of the busier hurricane seasons of recent years. It turned out to be one of the quietest. What happened?

“A combination of conditions acted to offset several climate patterns that historically have produced active hurricane seasons,” explained Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal hurricane forecaster. “As a result, we did not see the large numbers of hurricanes that typically accompany these climate patterns.”

[…]

Prior to the beginning of this season, which started June 1, forecasters were expecting to see higher-than-normal water temperatures and lower-than-normal pressure in the deep tropics, where most tropical systems form. Forecasters also expected water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean would remain in the cool or neutral range through the season.

All of these factors tend to boost hurricane activity in the Atlantic.

And during this season all of these things happened. And yet, there were no big storms.

“It turns out that there is an additional parameter that was not generally considered when making seasonal predictions,” said Chris Hebert, a hurricane forecaster with ImpactWeather, a company based in Houston.

Hebert said earlier this year, after it became obvious that the Atlantic activity would be well below normal, he searched for other factors at play and discovered that moisture levels in the midlevel of the atmosphere, about 18,000 to 25,000 feet above the surface, were well below normal.

I forget who said it, but as someone once said, true scientific advancement comes not with “Eureka!” but with “That’s funny…” This was one of the latter experiences, and with it the science of hurricane forecasting has advanced. This is how it’s supposed to work. Failure is a great learning experience. SciGuy has more.

The drought affects the coast, too

Even more reasons to hope for rain.

A growing body of research into the effects of the state’s ongoing drought, which began in late 2010 and peaked in 2011, reveal a coast deeply affected by the prolonged dry spell.

“Coastal areas don’t get much attention during a drought,” said Anna Armitage, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University at Galveston. “But we have found a significant effect on the coastal ecosystem.”

Since 2009, Armitage has been studying an estuary – an area where the current from rivers and streams mixes with sea­water – in the Sabine Neches area along the upper Texas coast.

As the drought peaked and freshwater flows slowed to a trickle, the salinity of the estuary spiked from 3 to 5 parts per thousand to around 30 parts per thousand, making it nearly as salty as water in the Gulf of Mexico.

This wiped out much of the plant and marine life living in these brackish waters, Armitage said.

“The reason I’m so interested in all of these tiny plants, tiny fish and shrimp is that they provide food for other more important fishery species,” she said. “This is the base of the Galveston Bay food web, and I’m worried about the stability of the food web.”

[…]

It’s not clear when the drought will improve to the point of restoring the Texas coast to more normal conditions.

John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, noted that Texas’ reservoirs are only about 65 percent full, the lowest they have been in a long time.

“The reservoirs are a good indicator of streamflow into Texas bays and estuaries,” he said, noting that the flows from the Brazos to the Guadalupe “are already at record or near-record low levels for this time of year.”

Absent substantial rain, this summer will bring the most severe drought conditions to Texas bays and estuaries since at least the 1960s and probably the 1950s, he said.

The drought has had the effect of helping to beat back one invasive species that couldn’t handle the increased salinity. On balance, though, it would be better to have more rain. More rain, please.

Drinking water from the Gulf

Well, there is a lot of water there.

The wicked drought gripping Texas has made one thing clear to Bill West: There is not enough water to meet new urban demands and competing environmental needs.

So in his search for new sources of water, the general manager the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority is looking in another direction. West plans to tap the Gulf of Mexico.

The river authority has launched a two-year, $2-million study into the economic viability of building a seawater desalination plant by the Texas coast, a technology being used in Australia, Singapore and the Middle East that has been slow to take hold in North America.

[…]

The cost of desalting seawater is usually many times more than that of conventional water sources, such as rivers and reservoirs.

The Texas Water Development Board has estimated that water from a desalting plant will cost about $2,000 an acre-foot, roughly enough water to satisfy two or three families a year. The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which supplies water for a fast-growing corridor between Austin and San Antonio, now sells water from the Canyon Lake reservoir for $125 an acre-foot.

Energy is the primary driver, accounting for as much as 70 percent of the operating costs of a seawater desalting plant, said Tom Pankratz, the Houston-based editor of the Water Desalination Report.

“In a number of places, desalination always has been too expensive,” he said. “But now the cost of developing conventional supplies is rising, making the cost of desalination more viable.”

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority would build the desalting facility with a power plant near Victoria, about 130 miles southwest of Houston. The power plant likely would be fueled by cheap and plentiful natural gas from the nearby Eagle Ford play, though the feasibility study also will look at renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.

“The energy part of the equation has changed over the years,” said Les Shephard, director of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which will help the river authority on the project. “Now is a good time to look at natural gas.”

See here for previous blogging about desalinization. Most of what has been talked about so far has involved brackish water, of which there is plenty in Texas. It’s cheaper to process, since it’s not nearly as salty as seawater. I get the impression that things must be getting desperate if using water from the Gulf is looking like a viable option.

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s idea “seems awfully Herculean for what we need,” said Amy Hardberger, a water policy and law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. “It does not get to the heart of the matter.”

Hardberger said the river authority should look more closely at using water more efficiently before building a big desalting plant that could cost more than $1 billion. She is among those who are skeptical of the state’s projected needs, saying the estimate overstates demand by assuming each Texan will use the same amount per day in the future.

Others are bullish on a brackish desalination. The groundwater is much less salty than seawater, so purifying it is much less expensive. The San Antonio Water System, for one, is building a $145 million desalting plant above the Wilcox Aquifer, about 30 miles south of the city.

There are 46 brackish desalination plants across Texas, with nearly 40 more facilities included in the state’s long-range water plan. The state holds 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, which is 150 times the amount of water Texans use each year, according to the state water board.

But West said the Gulf is more attractive than a salty aquifer because he can avoid the often nasty permitting fights with the special districts that oversee groundwater. What’s more, the river authority’s project is an important piece in an “all-of-the-above” water portfolio, especially with climate models showing Texas getting less rainfall as global temperatures keep rising.

See here for more on what San Antonio has done, and here for all my previous blogging on desalinization. I’m curious about putting a desalting plant in Victoria – wouldn’t you also need to build a big pipeline to get the water there in the first place as well? Most of the previous stuff I’ve seen on desalinization had to do with brackish water, which is found all over Texas, but in browsing my archives I didn’t see any indication of how much it cost to desalinate brackish water, so I don’t have a basis for comparison. I do agree with Prof. Hardberger that conservation has to be the first priority, as that is always the cheapest option, but in the long term I suspect desalinization will be a part of the equation. I don’t know how much of that will be Gulf water, though.

One thing I’ve yet to see mentioned in any story about desalinization is what to do with all the excess salt – technically, the brine water that is left over, which can be 15 to 25 percent of the intake, from what I can tell. If you take salty water and extract all the fresh water you can, you’re going to have to do something with the extra super salty residual water, right? Fortunately, the Sierra Club of Texas has done the heavy lifting on that, and you can read all about it here. If we’re going to go down this road – and I believe we are – we need to make sure we have sufficient environmental controls in place so that we don’t create bigger problems than the ones we’re trying to solve.

Do you want more information about potential hurricanes?

The National Hurricane Center is giving you what you want.

Sometime during this Atlantic hurricane season, which began Saturday, forecasters will start issuing five-day outlooks – that is predicting where storms may form five days in advance.

The expanded outlook is one of several new products being developed by forecasters as computer modeling of hurricane formation and movement improves.

The five-day outlook will be similar to the hurricane center’s existing graphical tropical weather outlook, which provides an overview of tropical activity anticipated within the next 48 hours. This information, which has proven accurate, in text and graphic form shows areas of possible tropical development and assigns a percentage chance they will become a tropical depression or storm within two days.

The new tool will assign probability that a certain area of disturbed weather will become a tropical depression or storm over a five-day period, said Dan Brown a senior forecaster at the National Hurricane Center and its coordinator of warnings.

In addition to longer-range outlooks on storm formation, forecasters are also considering issuing warnings for systems that have not yet developed into a tropical depression or tropical storm.

With some storms, it is apparent they will develop into a tropical system, but by the time they eventually do such a system will be too close to land for the warning to have that much practical effect. An example is Hurricane Humberto, which rapidly developed off the Texas coast in 2007 before moving inland north of Galveston.

“Watches and warnings before formation are likely several years away,” Brown said. “It will likely require another one to two years of in-house testing.”

Don’t look for these until after 2015, at the earliest, Brown said.

Hurricane Humberto formed as a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico, and came ashore as a hurricane the next day. If there had been any need to evacuate, there would not have been the time to do so, it was that quick. If what the NHC is doing can give a little extra notice for events like that, it could make a big difference. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

Shark fins

I’m not sure why the practice of shark finning wasn’t illegal already.

We’re the dangerous ones

Texas lawmakers are considering a ban on the sale and possession of shark fins, a move that reflects a growing trend to protect the imperiled creatures at the top of the ocean food chain.

Conservationists say the global trade for the age-old delicacy has helped drive rampant illegal shark finning. The practice involves slicing off valued fins from living sharks and dumping their still-writhing bodies back into the ocean to die.

They estimate that tens of millions of sharks are killed each year to support the shark fin market. By also banning the trade, “we are reducing the number of sharks killed specifically for their fins,” said Katie Jarl, Texas state director for the Humane Society of the United States, which is lobbying for the ban in Texas and elsewhere.

Eight states already have outlawed the trade, but Texas would be the first along the Gulf Coast to prohibit it. The Senate could sign off on House Bill 852 by Rep. Eddie Lucio III, a Brownsville Democrat, as soon as Monday.

While the legislation has bipartisan support, some fishing operators who catch sharks legally oppose the ban. The fin, which is used to make an expensive Chinese soup, is the most valuable part of the shark, said Buddy Guindon, who owns Katie’s Seafood Market in Galveston and operates commercial fishing boats in the Gulf.

“All it will do is drive fishermen out of Texas,” perhaps to Louisiana, which has less stringent catch limits and no ban on sales, Guindon said. “It’s not going to stop illegal shark finning.”

Texas and the United States already have some of the world’s toughest restrictions on shark fishing. The state limits fishermen to one shark per day, while federal law requires that sharks caught legally in all U.S. waters must be landed with fins attached.

But the regulations are difficult to enforce because the fins are easy to conceal.

Here’s HB852. Unfortunately, it appears to be dead in the water after running into some resistance on the Senate floor, mostly from frequent anti-environmentalist Troy Fraser. It’s not like the wholesale slaughter of sharks is some kind of major issue with global implications or anything. That does argue for federal action, since it almost surely is the case that banning it in Texas would simply shift the practice to Louisiana, but generally speaking state action is a great catalyst for federal action, and we just missed a chance to make something happen. Sorry about that, sharks.

Busy hurricane season predicted

Start stocking up on batteries and bottled water.

Hunker down, y’all

Forecasters agree: The coming Atlantic hurricane season looks like a busy one.

A number of factors, principally higher-than-normal temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean where most tropical storms form, indicate this season will see a flurry of tropical activity.

“A wild season is on the way,” predicted Joe Bastardi, a noted hurricane forecaster with Weather Bell, a weather website.

That viewpoint was affirmed Wednesday when longtime seasonal forecasters William Gray and Phil Klotzbach, of Colorado State University, issued their first numerical prediction for the upcoming season, which begins June 1.

They are calling for 18 named storms, nine of which will be hurricanes and four of which will develop into major hurricanes. That’s about 50 percent more activity than during a normal season.

Klotzbach said the only potential check on activity this year is the slight chance that an El Niño might develop in the tropical Pacific, which would tend to limit Atlantic hurricane activity.

“I would say that we have moderate confidence in an active season at this point,” Klotzbach said. “There’s still a lot that could change with El Niño. If the tropical Pacific and tropical Atlantic look similar at the beginning of June to the way that they do now, I would say that our confidence would grow significantly.”

This season follows three years in which an anomalously high number of named storms – 19 – have formed.

The good news from our perspective is that the storms are likely to head north before entering the Gulf. That’s potentially very bad news for a lot of other people, though, and as well all know it only takes one big storm to make it a bad year. Not much else we can do except be prepared and hope for the best. SciGuy and Hair Balls have more.

Here comes El Niño

Our hurricane season could be short.

The formation of Tropical Storm Debby last weekend in the Gulf of Mexico brought the tally of Atlantic storms to four this season, the earliest that’s ever happened.

But despite the quick beginning, scientists say this season may have a much quicker end, with an El Niño system likely to ride to the rescue later this summer.

“I’m becoming fairly confident that we will have a weak to moderate El Niño by the peak of this year’s hurricane season in September,” said Phil Klotzbach, a seasonal hurricane forecaster at Colorado State University.

Scientists have long understood that El Niño, a natural warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean, tends to suppress hurricane activity in the Atlantic.

But now, through a combination of research techniques, they’re beginning to gain a much deeper understanding of not only why but how El Niño changes the tracks of Atlantic storms and, crucially for Houston, how it may affect activity in the Gulf of Mexico.

[…]

Studies have found that, during the last 60 years, when an El Niño pattern prevailed during the Atlantic hurricane season, only one-quarter of those seasons had more activity than normal. During La Niña years, when Pacific tropical temperatures are cooler, two-thirds of years had more activity than normal.

El Niño years also produced fewer than average major hurricanes as well as fewer landfalling hurricanes.

Read the story for the technical details. Bottom line is that the early signs are for a less active hurricane season than usual. All it takes is one big one, of course, but I’d rather have the odds in our favor. As long as this doesn’t also presage another abnormally dry summer, it’s all good.

The giant prawn menace

Yet another thing to add to your list of Things You Didn’t Realize You Needed To Worry About: Giant prawns in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Asian tiger prawn, a foot-long crustacean with a voracious appetite and a proclivity for disease, has invaded the northern Gulf, threatening prized native species, from crabs and oysters to smaller brown and white shrimp.

Though no one is sure what the ecological impact will be, scientists fear a tiger prawn takeover could knock nature’s balance out of whack and turn a healthy, diverse marine habitat into one dominated by a single invasive species.

“It has the potential to be real ugly,” said Leslie Hartman, Matagorda Bay ecoystem leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “But we just do not know.”

The tiger prawns from the western Pacific – which can grow up to 13 inches long – have been spreading along the Gulf Coast since 2006, but their numbers took off this year. Shrimpers pulled one from Texas waters for the first time in June.

[…]

Some speculate that the Gulf invasion began with an accidental release of farmed prawns in South Carolina in 1988. Another theory: The prawns may have escaped from flooded industrial shrimp ponds in the Caribbean Sea during recent hurricanes.

The threat underscores concerns about large-scale fish farming, also known as aquaculture, in the Gulf. The federal government opened the waters to fish farms in 2009 despite fears from environmental and fishing interests over how to protect wild stocks.

They’re going to do some genetic testing to try to determine where these things came from. What to do about them if they’ve gained a foothold in the ecosystem is less clear. These shrimp do make good eating, and could be another cash crop for shrimpers, but it would be at the expense of existing stock, which isn’t a good trade. Let’s hope something can be done before it gets out of control.

Time for the annual “Are we ready for a big storm?” story

The answer, of course, is no, not really.

After Tropical Storm Allison’s devastating floods, the Houston area widened its bayous and hardened its infra­structure. After Hurricane Rita’s deadly gridlock, the state revamped storm communications and evacuation plans.

Yet since Hurricane Ike’s enormous surge wiped out coastal communities and its $30 billion in damages dwarfed those of the other two storms, not much has happened.

Which is to say that [Wednesday] — the first day of a new hurricane season that’s expected to be quite active, and nearly three years after the costliest storm in Houston history — the region remains as vulnerable as ever to storm surge.

In Ike’s wake the state formed the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, which includes Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties, to study storm surge remedies and possibly put them into effect.

But so far, the district has no federal or state funding.

State funding? Don’t make me laugh. Rick Perry has actually been using the prospect of a hurricane as a justification for not using more of the Rainy Day fund, even though that’s never been the fund’s intended use. As for federal money, there was probably a brief moment in 2009 when something like that could have been part of the stimulus package – Lord knows, we should have aimed to spend a ton more on infrastructure projects. That moment is long gone, and even if our ridiculous Republican members of Congress wanted to push for this, the only way the rest of the Republican majority would let it happen would be if the Democrats would agree to pay for it by cutting services elsewhere, much as they insisted on doing so for tornado relief. Meanwhile, a bunch of white swans are swimming by, but no one is paying attention to them.

As for what could be done, we’re familiar with the Ike Dike, but there’s another possibility out there.

“An environmental and industrial disaster that will put the Ship Channel down for months is my biggest fear,” [Phil Bedient, a Rice University civil engineer who studies flooding] said.

He said most facilities in the port area are protected from about a 14-foot surge, with some facilities a bit higher. Had Ike come ashore 25 miles down the coast, at the west rather than the east end of Galveston Island, it would have pushed a surge of up to 19 feet up the Ship Channel, Bedient said.

As a result of these concerns, Bedient and colleagues plan to propose putting a large gate at the entrance to the Ship Channel.

Such a gate would cost far less than the so-called “Ike Dike” proposal, and would cause less concern among environmentalists.

As it happens, Prof. Bediant had an op-ed in the Chron on the same day, also sounding the alarm about storm preparedness. Unfortunately, he didn’t go into any detail about the Ship Channel gate. I suspect it’s laid out in detail in this report on Hurricane Ike, which is on the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center‘s website. Read it and be prepared to take a short quiz on it for next week.

Tar balls in Galveston

Let’s hope this is not the start of something bigger.

About a dozen tar balls that washed ashore on Crystal Beach were identified Monday as oil from the BP well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the first evidence that oil from the spill has reached the Texas coastline.

But it was unclear whether the oil from the blowout dropped off a passing ship or drifted nearly 400 miles.

[…]

An onslaught of tar balls on Galveston’s beaches would be disastrous for the island city’s tourism economy. Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski hoped the tar balls were a one-time occurrence.

“It is such a small amount that I’m waiting to see whether more comes or not the next few days before getting really upset,” Jaworski said.

Like I said, let’s hope this is all there is to it. Hair Balls and In the Pink have more.