Houston, You Have a Problem. Can Mammoth Coastal Wall Save City?

May 1, 2022

Houston Chronicle:

Some of the world’s largest cities, including Houston, are sinking faster than sea levels are rising, according to a report from the World Economic Forum. There are 33 cities worldwide which are sinking at rates of more than one centimeter per year, which is five times the rate of sea level rise, the report said.

Houston is the 10th fastest sinking city in the world with a rate of 1.95 centimeters per year. The Southeastern Texas city is the only place in the Western Hemisphere included in the top 10 fastest sinking cities. The city sinking the fastest is Tianjin, China at a rate of 5.22 centimeters per year.

Parts of Houston are sinking much faster, though, with some areas sinking at a rate of two inches per year, another report from the World Economic Forum said. One of the dangers of the sinking is that it makes it difficult for sea-level rise models to accurately predict the intensity and speed of worsening flooding, according to the report. The rate of sinking, coupled with sea level rises, could lead to the city “disappearing” by 2100, the report said.

The sinking is caused by subsidence, or the settling and compacting of land based on changes beneath the surface of the ground, the report said. Groundwater pumping is the primary cause of subsidence worldwide, according to the report. Additionally, the report said areas with a high concentration of residential buildings or industrial activity have the highest rates of subsidence. 

One solution proposed to protect the Houston area is the taxpayer funded 30 billion dollar “Ike Dike” – a massive scheme of locks and seawalls hatched after catastrophic damage from Hurricane Ike in 2008.
But some other cities, like New Orleans, have had mixed experience with such projects.


Kelly Burks-Copes braces herself against the wind and marches past the ruins of Fort San Jacinto, a strategic spot on a sandy, wave-battered point where Spain, France, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy and the United States have all taken turns building coastal defenses to protect Galveston Bay.

Now it’s Burks-Copes’ turn. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager is leading an ambitious effort to build the “Ike Dike,” a $30 billion storm protection project that’s been in the works since its namesake hurricane roared through the bay almost 14 years ago. The project will dwarf the one built around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and perhaps even the immense coastal barriers in the Netherlands that inspired both Gulf Coast projects.

“If it’s not the largest surge barrier in the world, it’s certainly the world’s longest,” Burks-Copes said, pointing at the 2.5-mile-wide channel between the old fort site on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

By comparison, the Lake Borgne surge barrier between New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish, once considered the world’s largest, is 1.8 miles long. Had the New Orleans system been built today, it’d cost about 70% as much as the Houston system.

“It’ll be like a 10-story building all the way across,” Burks-Copes said of the Galveston Bay surge barrier. “It’s something that you can barely imagine. But what do they say in Texas? ‘Go big or go home.’”

The project aims to harden 70 miles of coastline with artificial dunes, sea walls and vast steel gates, making the bay a veritable fortress that could be sealed when hurricanes threaten.

It’s ambitious and expensive, but it still may be woefully inadequate — just like New Orleans’ system.

Neither project is likely to hold up against the worst hurricanes. The New Orleans collection of levees and floodwalls is designed to withstand storm surges with a 1% chance of occurring in any given year, a so-called 100-year storm. The Ike Dike may not even meet that level of protection, the Corps admits.

Climate change is increasing the likelihood that 100-year storms and floods could occur every few years, with monster 500-year storms popping up every 50 to 100 years. The Houston area has seen no fewer than three such events, including Hurricane Harvey, between 2015 and 2018.

“Look, (the Ike Dike) needs to be built,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer who teaches at Rice University in Houston. “But it needs to be built for the bigger storms to come. It will be way outdated once it’s constructed.”

Hurricane Ida likely would have spilled over some levees on New Orleans’ west bank had its path last August veered just 15 miles to the east, according to an analysis this month by the National Hurricane Center. The Corps says it needs almost $2 billion to shore up New Orleans-area levees, which are expected to sink by almost 2 feet over the next 50 years from soil subsidence and rapidly rising seas.

The Corps has had a tough time finding the $2 billion for New Orleans’ levees, and an even tougher time drumming up the nearly $30 billion for the Ike Dike.

Below, conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro touts “sea walls”, like the Ike Dike, as the answer to climate and sea level challenges.

4 Responses to “Houston, You Have a Problem. Can Mammoth Coastal Wall Save City?”

  1. indy222 Says:

    Amazing how we can compartmentalize our brain to do competent engineering, while at the same time engaging in the most delusional denial of what it really means and what the directions really are. It makes one want to step back from studying climate science and instead study the brains of economists, politicians, Republicans, and billions of others in the same way an entomologist would study an insect – out of curiosity to understand its bizarre behaviors and cause/effects.

  2. Charles Haggerty Says:

    I fear that , as a species , we are at or fast approaching a situation where natural sciences are irrelevant and moving towards the social sciences like sociology and psychology with the question ; ‘ How do societies and individuals react when the clear undeniable (?) global perception is that things are or about to break down ?

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    The Ike Dike (what I call a Maginot Line against the sea) might address the storm surge problem but it doesn’t address the problem of flooding from rain.

    Tropical Storm Allison 2001

    Hurricane Harvey 2017

  4. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    For the record, Ben Shapiro is a complete and utter idiot.

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