Introduction and Background

On 11–12 January 2006, AGU convened a conference of 20 experts whose stated goals were to:

  1. Discuss what Earth and space scientists know about the science that undergirds the present environment in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast areas affected by hurricanes in 2005,
  2. Determine what data are presently available for use by decision-makers, and
  3. State what the future needs are in research, development, and monitoring.

Political, economic, and social issues were explicitly not discussed.

Seven subject areas were examined: hurricanes, storm surge and flooding, subsidence, climate change, hydrology, infrastructure, and disaster preparedness and response. Results of the deliberations in each area are presented emphasizing the current knowledge base, near-term lessons and needs, and longer-term directions. This paper summarizes the discussions and recommendations of the conference. Relevant publications are included as additional readings.

It is anticipated that this white paper will help demonstrate how important science is in its supporting role of aiding decision-makers in the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

The impetus for this work came from an article written by Charles (Chip) Groat, former director of the U.S. Geological Survey, that was published in Eos on 20 September 2005. Groat challenged two sectors of the population. The first are those decision-makers who have treated scientific understanding as a minor ingredient but who now have an opportunity to listen more carefully to scientists and act more responsibly. The second is the scientific community, who now have an opportunity to be organized, reasonable in their expectations, effective in their communications, and persistent in engaging those responsible for the next steps in the recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans and hurricane-affected areas of the Gulf Coast.

Science and the Gulf Coast

The Gulf Coast comprises one of the most complex, dynamic, and productive environments of the United States, with an underlying geology shaped by tectonic forces and sedimentation processes, varied estuarine and coastal ecosystems, and a turbulent climate. Knowledge of this environment and its interactions with human activities is fundamental to sustainable reconstruction. Below, some of the elements of current scientific understanding of this environment are briefly highlighted.