Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Hunks of the low-lying state are rapidly disappearing, but a “new” map is more misleading than helpful.
Last week’s storms in Louisiana, which killed at least 13 people and forced 20,000 more from their homes, dumped nearly 30 inches of precipitation on some parts of the state in a mere three days. Images from around Baton Rouge—entire neighborhoods water-locked out of access roads, families boating to safety, flood lines up to the roof—made it very easy to imagine the region as entirely underwater.
Which is probably why a certain misleading map, embedded in the tweet below, is making the rounds on the Internet. In it, the famous outline of Louisiana has been redrawn to better represent how much of its land has been supposedly lost to water. It’s a very jarring image: Compared to the classic boot-shaped-state taught to every American elementary-schooler, it shows a landscape apparently ravaged by water’s inland creep. Practically the whole middle of the state’s “foot” is missing. The Delta is reduced to a few scrawny bird-toes. Its heel has taken a significant shave.
The map reinforces the image of Louisiana’s dire vulnerability when it comes to water—not only from storms and hurricanes, but also from rising sea levels and ground that is literally sinking. Land is disappearing faster in Louisiana than anywhere else in the world, with nearly 2,000 square miles of coastal wetlands gone since the 1930s.
Picked up over the past few days by Longreads, Big Think, and many a map nerd on Twitter, the map was originally produced for and included in a 2014 feature, ”Louisiana Loses Its Boot,” by Brett Anderson of the Times-Picayune. The piece made the case for the state to adopt a more realistic cartographic self-representation, in light of its alarming land loss. Anderson wrote:
A more honest representation of the boot … would give shape to the awesome stakes, both economic and existential, that hang in the balance. A new map would prove that Louisiana is ready to grapple with the extraordinary task ahead of it. A new map would prove that denial, like the boot, is a remnant of our past.
But that doesn’t make this map accurate, exactly—at least not in depicting the environmental patterns that Anderson describes. The largest hunks of what seem to be “disappearing” land in this map are really Louisiana’s interior wetlands, which are actually relatively healthy in geophysical terms (less so hydrologically—inland flood canals have allowed saltwater to pollute them). These marshes are difficult to walk through, and basically impossible to inhabit. Much of the southern Delta that is shown to be missing is also hard-to-traverse marshland. Rivers and lakes are also included as part of water’s jagged bite in this map. Other areas shown in white are alluvial floodplains, which are regularly inundated.
Louisiana is losing land at a disturbing rate, but this is a distinctly coastal phenomenon, mostly along the marshes in the southeastern corner of the state. The “new” map of the state makes the mistake of conflating those areas with the interior wetlands. Louisiana isn’t exactly losing its “boot,” says Richard Campanella, a geography and architecture professor at Tulane University: “I would describe it as the Louisiana boot losing its tread, particularly its forward tread, by the ball and toe of the boot.”
Craig Colten, a scholar of geography and environmental history at Louisiana State University, agrees. “For what it is—a map depicting uninhabitable/unwalkable lands—it is relatively accurate,” he says. But other than lakes and rivers, “it does not necessarily depict open water, and certainly not areas inundated by sea level rise. The danger lies in misreading what it attempts to show.”
Louisiana is shrinking substantially, and shrinking every day. That’s bad enough. Well-intended as it may be, this alternative map overstates the problem by implying that freshwater basins, 200 miles from the coast, are underwater, too.
“It’s cartographic hyperbole by roughly half,” says Campanella.
Anderson readily acknowledges that the map is flawed. “But maps put out by the government with the imprimatur of accuracy are dangerously flawed, too,” he says. “My intention was to argue that maps are powerful tools to get people understanding an important subject.”
Certainly, the map is effective as a graphic statement of loss and change. But it also over-inflates an already overwhelming and complicated issue. That doesn’t help scientists and policymakers do their jobs confronting the state’s many challenges.
What would help are maps that show where populated areas are sinking. Or a map that highlights coastlands in need of intervention. Or a map that helps people accurately assess flood risk around their homes. “My hope was that cartographers who can make a more accurate map would respond by doing so,” Anderson says. That would indeed be good: Louisiana needs maps that help.