A Trip Into the Swamps

20120701-IMG_9436_NG.jpg Cypress Trees and knees at dusk in the Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana.

A trip into Atchafalaya Basin in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana is a surreal experience. Between the softly dressed cypress trees covered in Spanish moss, the calm green waters, and the unique species of birds perched atop majestic water-dwelling trees, you feel that you’ve just stepped into an enchanted forest.

I traveled with my boyfriend’s family into these swamps in a 6-seater boat, guided by a Basinkeeper who knows well the value of this region to local wildlife and human populations both.

The Atchafalaya Basin is the largest swamp in the United States. A combination of wetlands and river delta area where the Atchafalaya River and the Gulf of Mexico converge, this swamp naturally protects Louisiana’s coast from the hurricanes that are notorious here. Every 2.7 miles of wetlands may absorb an average of one foot of storm surge (USACE, 1963).

But these beautiful swamps deserve a look beneath the surface. Beyond their beauty, the Louisiana wetlands play important roles in ecosystem services and protection of the state’s coastline. These wetlands and the cypress trees that populate them, as shown here, act to naturally protect the coastline from erosion and hurricane damage, to store and convey floodwaters, and to absorb sediments and contaminants. Swamps and wetlands are some of the largest natural carbon sinks in the world, sequestering excess carbon dioxide that would otherwise drive further climatic warming.

But the swamps and wetlands of south Louisiana are in peril. Between oil pumping, agricultural pressures, human transportation, and illegal cypress tree logging, the rate of wetland loss here exceeds the equivalent of a football field every hour. 80% of U.S. coastal land loss is occurring right here in Louisiana, largely due to human disturbance to these wetlands.

Levees along the Mississippi river have for decades now starved the Louisiana wetlands of the natural sediments that used to flow into them. Starving wetlands are sinking in a phenomenon known as natural land subsidence, while pumping the ground underneath for oil is only aggravating the problem. Illegal logging and death of the cypress trees in these swamps reduces the buffering capacity of the Basin against hurricane and storm surge damages to urban areas. Learn more about what is causing the land loss crisis here.

Global warming is aggravating the loss of wetlands, while dying wetlands release even more carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere in a vicious cycle of climatic forcing. Global warming increases the likelihood of highly-damaging hurricanes that flood and damage these wetlands, while rising sea levels due to glacial melting and ocean warming pose further threats to the swamps.

Criss-crossing canals cut into the swamps create ‘spoil banks’ that destroy the natural hydrology of the region, preventing natural movement of water through the Basin. Invasive plant and animal species have also taken their toll on these delicate swamps.

Destroying these wetlands in the name of industrial progress and oil resources has serious consequences for local ecosystems. Louisiana’s wetlands provide habitats for thousands of unique plant and animal species, many of which are now endangered. Louisiana black bears, bald eagles, brown pelicans, ibises with long down curved bills, great white egrets and blue herons wading with their slender legs through marshy waters in search of fish. Between food, fuel, pollution interception, coastal protection and flood control, the value of healthy Louisiana swamps and wetlands tops millions of dollars.

Here, locals fish while telling tales of old days when these swamps were dark from thick canopies and the singing of birds was deafening. Today, the Basinkeeper who gave us this tour fights against illegal cypress tree logging and other wetland degradation forces.

Please enjoy this gallery of pictures I took of the Atchafalaya Swamp! All pictures belong to Paige Brown, @FromTheLabBench. Please provide attribution. Follow @1restorethegulf and visit www.restorethegulf.com to sign a petition to help restore America’s Gulf.

A spontaneous fishing moment!

Mighty Cypress Tree.

Green Heron in the swamps.

A flock of American white ibises above.

An abandoned oil field production facility in Atchafalaya Basin.

Common Salvinia, or Water Spangles, an invasive plant species in these swamps. Accidentally introduced to this region, this species forms a dense cover over the swamps and depletes dissolved oxygen in the waters, degrading habitats and causing fish kills.