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Under a White Sky

The Nature of the Future

By Elizabeth Kolbert
13-minute read
Audio available
Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert

For thousands of years, we humans have been struggling against nature. Under a White Sky (2021) explores the problems that come about when we win that fight –⁠ and how scientists, engineers, and others are trying to fix them. From the quaint to the grandiose, from the quirky to the terrifying, it’s our responsibility to explore all available remedies for the deep damage we’ve wrought.

  • Anyone concerned about the state of the natural world
  • Plant and animal lovers
  • Futurists curious about global changes

Elizabeth Kolbert is a multi-award-winning journalist and long-time staff writer for the New Yorker. Her writing focuses primarily on environmental issues, and she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for her book The Sixth Extinction.

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Under a White Sky

The Nature of the Future

By Elizabeth Kolbert
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert
Synopsis

For thousands of years, we humans have been struggling against nature. Under a White Sky (2021) explores the problems that come about when we win that fight –⁠ and how scientists, engineers, and others are trying to fix them. From the quaint to the grandiose, from the quirky to the terrifying, it’s our responsibility to explore all available remedies for the deep damage we’ve wrought.

Key idea 1 of 8

Louisiana’s levee system is causing its coastline to disappear.

Plaquemines Parish in the US state of Louisiana, is one of the fastest-disappearing places on Earth. Situated at the southeasternmost tip of the state, the parish today consists of little more than two skinny strips of land clinging to the tail end of the Mississippi River.

Each year, fewer and fewer people remain in Plaquemines. But all of its residents, even teenagers, remember a time when buildings stood on patches of land that are now completely covered by water. 

Plaquemines is by no means unique. Louisiana’s coastline as a whole is rapidly shrinking –⁠ every hour and a half, a football field’s worth of land disappears. The responsibility, ironically, lies with the vast system of artificial levees, floodwalls, and retaining walls originally created to keep the water at bay.

The key message here is: Louisiana’s levee system is causing its coastline to disappear.

Before human intervention, the Mississippi River carried hundreds of millions of tons’ worth of sediment south every year. Almost every spring, the river flooded –⁠ and as a result, sediment poured out onto the surrounding plain. Over time, that sediment built up into what’s now the Louisiana coastline. 

But when French settlers arrived in Louisiana, they built levees –⁠ raised ridges –⁠ to prevent the river from flooding their cities. The levee system has largely done its job –⁠ but it’s also responsible for the rapid disappearance of the Louisiana coastline. The Mississippi can no longer dump out its sediment, which means there’s no new earth being layered atop the old. Simultaneously, the existing soil, which is soft and watery, is becoming more compact over time. The result? Land shrinkage. 

Now, people must do the river’s job. One ongoing project involves sticking a massive drill-bit into the river bed, kicking up sediment, then sucking it through a pipe. The sediment –⁠ nearly a million cubic yards of it –⁠ is then discharged to create new land areas.

This is well and good, but it simply can’t be done fast enough to keep up with the rate of land loss. For that, a bigger, bolder solution is necessary. That solution, proposed by Mississippi’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, is to punch eight massive holes through the levees surrounding the Mississippi.

This, the CPRA believes, will “reestablish the natural sediment deposition process.” There’s a terrible irony in this, of course: that it’s necessary for humans to intervene again so a “natural” process may resume. 

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