Louisiana’s Wetlands are Vanishing. Researchers Need Your Help Tracking the Loss

land loss lookout Louisiana wetlands
Land Loss Lookout is a citizen science tool that trains people to identify and label wetland loss in images of the Gulf of Mexico. (Credit: Healthy Gulf)

Along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, the Mississippi River Delta boasts one of the largest and most productive ecosystems on Earth. Every year, the delta provides some $12 to 47 billion in benefits to locals and beyond in the form of hurricane and flood protection, fisheries, recreation, water supply, water quality, and more. As if that weren’t enough, the delta also provides a flyway for over 325 species of migratory birds.

Yet these ecosystems are one of the most critically threatened in the United States. Between 1932 and 1990, over 680,000 acres of land were lost in the Mississippi River Delta, largely due to oil and gas activity. That area is equivalent to about half the size of the state of Delaware. The Mississippi River Delta and coastal Louisiana are disappearing at a rate of one football field every 100 minutes. As sea levels continue to rise as a result of climate change, wetlands will continue to drown.

Training Citizen Scientists

That’s where citizen scientists come in. In response to this crisis, Cartoscope, in partnership with Healthy Gulf and Northeastern University, developed Land Loss Lookout. The citizen science tool trains people to identify wetland loss in the Gulf of Mexico, then volunteers label where the loss is occurring by categorizing aerial photographs. These color infrared photos, compiled from publicly available data, show land in red and water in blue, giving a high contrast image where the boundaries of land and water can be easily identified.

The project describes patterns for six significant types of land impact: agriculture, oil and gas, sea-level rise, erosion, shipping, and restoration. At the beginning of Land Loss Lookout, volunteers are randomly assigned to look for just one of these categories and then given a short tutorial on how to identify the unique patterns associated with their assigned type of land impact. After completing the tutorial, volunteers can start sorting through the image database and labeling the assigned pattern.

As citizen scientists label photos, Cartoscope collects the geolocation information for each categorized image and plots the results on a map that’s available to the research team and participants. This lets participants see their own contributions and the contributions of others, while also playing an instrumental part in the effort to protect Louisiana’s wetlands.

Take Part: Join Land Loss Lookout

Land Loss Lookout screen grab
Infrared aerial photograph from the Land Loss Lookout project, depicting land in red and water in blue. (Credit: Land Loss Lookout)

‘Save Louisiana, Save the World’

In the current stage of the project, the Healthy Gulf and Cartoscope team are assessing how accurately the public can categorize different types of land loss by comparing how participant answers compare to experts’ own assessments. The data may also be used to estimate the intensity of the impacts of climate change on Louisiana’s wetlands. The team will be publishing the results and presenting their findings at the virtual River Rally Workshop in May 2021.

Scott Eustis, community science director at Healthy Gulf, helped develop the idea for Land Loss Lookout after witnessing first-hand the damage that was happening to Louisiana’s wetlands and wishing there was a way for others to witness it as well. “The coast provides us our food and shelter,” Eustis said. “I want everyone to be able to see what I see is happening to my home, because so many companies and governments are denying that this is happening. If we can save Louisiana, we can save the world.”

For many participants, contributing to Land Loss Lookout is a way that they can help protect the place that they call home. “I’m a Katrina survivor who lives in New Orleans,” one user told the project. “I’m getting to an age where evacuation will be the last resort for me. I’d much prefer stronger wetlands and levees than to have to worry about what I’m going to do in a strong Cat 3, -4, or -5 storm.”

Whether you’re contributing to Land Loss Lookout to protect the place you call home, because you’re passionate about environmental issues, or simply because you want to learn more about land loss on the Gulf Coast, the beauty of this virtual project is that anyone can take part. To join in, head to the Land Loss Lookout project affiliate page on SciStarter.

Eliza Boetsch is a recent graduate of Northeastern University, where she received her B.A. in Environmental Studies. She is currently working as a research assistant at Northeastern, where she is helping develop projects for Cartoscope, a citizen science mapping platform. She is also involved in research comparing the impact of two environmental justice communication tools on community members’ and policy makers’ attitudes and policy support.

Scott Eustis is Healthy Gulf’s Community Science Director. With an extensive background in wetlands and fisheries research from his master’s degree from the University of New Orleans, Scott supports Healthy Gulf’s Just Transition Team, by taking affected communities’ hypotheses seriously and providing Gulf residents with research to guide their advocacy, and by representing Healthy Gulf in many public forums. Scott has a Bachelor of Science in Ecology from UGA’s Odum School of Ecology and spends a lot of his time flying kites with his daughter and learning about our natural world with the Louisiana Master Naturalists, Greater New Orleans.

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