The Gulf and the Storms: Fatal Attraction

In the Gulf, while oil is in sharp decline, storms and hurricanes are on the rise, both in intensity and frequency. Read to get answers on why and how.

The Gulf and the Storms: Fatal Attraction
Photo by Anandu Vinod / Unsplash

The Gulf of Mexico is a shared ecosystem. The problems and solutions are the responsibility of Mexico and the United States in open collaboration. For the past 25 years, living on the Gulf Coast has meant dealing with spring flooding in the United States and summer-fall flooding in Mexico.

It is living every year suffering more frequency and intensity of hurricanes in both countries. It is quantifying the seasonal collapse of agricultural, fishing, and tourism activities and the erosion of beaches. And it is to contemplate the sustained loss of coastal wetlands due to human actions. Paradoxically, floods and tropical storms are phenomena that control the expression of the landscape and modulate the natural productivity of the natural resources of the coastal area.

The coastal resources of the Gulf, from a social and economic point of view, extend from the coastal plain to the effect of the rivers towards the adjacent sea as an estuary plume. All of these resources - e.g., oil, gas, agriculture, livestock, forests, beaches, fisheries, ports, tourism, and others - use water for production directly or indirectly and perform better if the landscape is ecologically healthy; therefore, they are resources that depend on the wetlands and their ecological integrity.

Paradoxically, Mexico and the United States -together- lose approximately 250 square kilometers of wetlands every year, mainly due to pollution, dredging of channels, filling of natural flood areas for agricultural, urban, and industrial expansion, construction of infrastructure that attempts to manipulate the natural course of rivers, and all this altering the hydrological dynamics of the Gulf's coasts. In Mexico, this is done daily and without strategic environmental planning for the coastal zone.

The five states of the American Union and the six states of Mexico contribute 72 million inhabitants to the Gulf. This is spectacular demography that demands services, work, and well-being; for an ecological system that produces for the two countries -together- 150 billion dollars a year as a value of only five regional productive activities (oil, gas, ports, fishing, and tourism).

All of this depends on joint exploitation of 33 major rivers that discharge an annual average of more than 35 thousand cubic meters per second, through a global drainage basin of more than 5 million square kilometers, coupled to 207 ecosystems of coastal lagoons and estuaries, including 450 thousand square kilometers of coastal wetlands.

As the ecological deterioration is evident, it is an unsustainable economy, for a demanding society, within an ecological system at severe risk for the next decades. The result is an evident uncertainty towards the "Unsustainability of the Gross Domestic Product/Gulf Dependent" for the next decades, both in Mexico and in the United States.

The Gulf and Storms: Fatal Attraction

The man has taken charge of disarticulating the union "climate-landscape-natural productivity-rational exploitation-sustainable socio-economic development". In this context, the equation "declining resources/energy crisis/economic crisis/climate change" is very delicate. And this is where the great problem lies in articulating pieces of an equation - energy, economy, climate change - that seems unsolvable because it is not simply an equation of pieces in a numerical relationship, but of pieces in a humanistic and social behavior interrelationship.

Due to the scenario that can be seen, Mexico and the United States will probably face the worst of two alternatives in the 21st century, and in effect, synergy. The continued dependence on fossil fuels with serious geopolitical and socioeconomic consequences; for example, let's not forget the Ixtoc-1 oil spill in 1979 in Mexico, and the Deepwater Horizon BP in 2010 in the United States (the two largest in the history of the Gulf) and the accelerated accumulation of greenhouse gases, which will produce increasingly serious climate disasters in the Gulf.

The era of cheap oil is over, more than five barrels of oil are now consumed in the world for only one barrel produced, and by 2030 the world economy will have to move to alternative energies because the "black gold" will be over and will contribute very little to the economy of both countries. The "victory of the economic debate" was illusory in the 20th century, because the models were based on incomplete information and a lack of knowledge about the natural dynamics of ecosystems.

The future economy should be taught in universities from a biophysical and social perspective; because the limits of growth are imposed by Nature and not by theoretical neoclassical economic models supported by technology and market economy, relying on development instruments that no longer apply in front of a sick Gulf of Mexico.

The energy crisis and climate change are in no way cause/effect. But both phenomena coexist and feed back negatively. In the Gulf, while oil is in sharp decline, storms and hurricanes are on the rise, both in intensity and frequency.

For a little more than two decades, the Gulf has presented all the ingredients required for the formation and attraction of hurricanes: ocean surface temperature of more than 26 degrees Celsius, atmospheric humidity of more than 85 percent, intense vertical circulation of winds due to thermal differences in the ocean-atmosphere interaction, water temperatures of the Caribbean Current that penetrate the Gulf with more than 30 degrees Celsius, thermal expansion of the ocean surface layer, severe tropical storms with a small threshold to change into hurricanes, among others. This determines the ideal passage for the formation of hurricanes attracted to the Gulf of Mexico.

Recently we have described for the Gulf a "thermal tunnel" with a funnel effect that forms the persistent route of the tropical storms of the North Atlantic that later as hurricanes are strongly attracted towards the Gulf. The projections are dramatic for the coming years:

More than 25 severe storms are expected annually, the global temperature will increase between 2 and 5 degrees Celsius in the next 80 years, the relative sea-level rise will increase between 1 and 1. 5 meters by the end of the century, beach erosion will increase, due to the "mountain effect of the rains" some rivers will carry more water and sediment to the sea, flooding of the coastal plain will be recurrent, and some coastal cities like Tuxpan/Panuco, Veracruz/Boca del Rio, Coatzacoalcos, Alvarado/Tlacotalpan, Villahermosa, Ciudad del Carmen, Celestun, Cancun and Chetumal, will show a level of vulnerability much more severe than seen so far.

All this is a new universe of uncertainty and unsustainability for economic activities, social development, and civil protection of citizens. Strategic environmental planning for the coastal zone is extremely urgent within the framework of a national environmental policy.

It is worth noting that the hurricane season from 2004 to 2012 meant more than 250 billion dollars of economic impact for the United States and Mexico. And for the period 2012 to 2013, it exceeded 5 billion dollars. This, without considering the impact on the environmental services of the Gulf's coastal ecosystem and the losses due to ecological disintegration.

At no other time in history have national and international political leaders faced so many challenges related to obtaining, distributing, and using key natural resources such as energy, food, and water, within a severe uncertainty for social and economic development?

For some, simply obtaining enough materials to keep up with runaway economic growth will already be a daunting and extremely complex mission. For others, the real task will be to perpetuate customary standards of living in the face of intense political competition.

Ultimately, however, every one of us (politics, citizens, science, technology, socio-economic development) will have to face the dilemmas posed by unsustainable "developmental" growth and the negative growth that is approaching, on the one hand, and by the declining natural resources of the Gulf of Mexico and the increasingly dire effects of the energy crisis coupled with global climate change, on the other.

By Dr. Alejandro Yáñez-Arancibia, Source: Inecol