A man walks his dog near rising waters on the Mississippi

River Lookout

The new Department of River-Coastal Science and Engineering looks for solutions to rising sea levels and sinking land, among today’s most looming problems.

Above: A man walks his dog on the Mississippi River levee near Oak Street in New Orleans in March 2018 when the river’s level had risen above 15 feet. (Photo by Paula Burch Celentano)

There’s a new department at Tulane in the School of Science and Engineering that’s addressing some of the most existential issues of our time: rising sea levels and sinking land.

Professor and Chair Mead Allison’s work on the flow of sediment and water through riverine and deltaic coastal systems underpins the four-year-old Department of River-Coastal Science and Engineering. So does the research and educational leadership of Professor Ehab Meselhe, Research Professor Barbara Kleiss and others.

The new department offers a blending of basic science and applied science with an interdisciplinary approach that gives students the tools, knowledge and understanding to make real-world connections in communities and attack real-world research-oriented problems.

“This new generation of students is all about solving practical problems,” said Allison.

A five-year Bachelor of Science in Environmental Engineering and Master of Architecture in Landscape that Allison has proposed, along with Iñaki Alday, dean of the School of Architecture, could be a departmental offering soon. Graduates of that program would be grounded in the principles of science and engineering and would gain experience participating in an architectural design studio.

“These are the kinds of novel things that are starting to roll out of this department that are only going to snowball as our faculty increases,” said Allison. With this program, “what we’ve done is bring back elements of an environmental engineering program that we had at Tulane, but it’s packaged in a very 21st-century way.”

“We’re going to be a very specialized department,” he added. “We’re focusing on a certain area of the Earth.”

That area of the Earth — rivers and coasts — is more than the Gulf Coast of the United States. 

“Certainly, the Gulf Coast is in the front trenches,” said Allison, “but there are communities around the world in the front trenches.” These include mega cities of more than 10 million in population, such as Jakarta, Indonesia, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, located in endangered coastal zones, and Mexico City, vulnerable to flooding. In some cases, these cities are in deltas like New Orleans and are particularly at risk from rising sea levels and subsidence.

“We’re going to build something that we think is the best in the world to address problems that coastal and riverine systems and the populations that live in them are facing.”

MEAD ALLISON, professor and chair of river-coastal science and engineering

“What we’re trying to build in the department is a great incubator of ideas. We’re going to build something that we think is the best in the world to address problems that coastal and riverine systems and the populations that live in them are facing. In some cases, that may be basic research; in some cases, it may be applied.”

Engineering has always been the applied discipline focused on problem solving. Science has been more theoretical about trying to understand things in a basic sense. 

“But the problems in the coming century with climate change, sea-level rise and so forth require a combined or ‘convergence research’ approach,’’ said Allison. “The federal government and agencies like the National Science Foundation have picked up on that. Convergence research is the new buzzword.”

And Tulane with its welding together of science and engineering in the School of Science and Engineering is “looking pretty smart,” said Allison. From an application point of view, convergence research is a powerful way to solve complex real-world problems. “We are trying to solve problems like, how are coastal systems going to be sustainable in the face of rising sea levels and increasing storm frequencies and intensities?”

One answer to that question may be found in the flow of sediment in the Mississippi River, which is a key factor in efforts to restore the coast of Louisiana. Diversion projects downriver from New Orleans have been authorized to punch holes in levees to allow sediment to be released to build land. “The idea is to replicate the natural process of water and sediment spilling out to rebuild the wetlands,” said Allison.

At the same time, the shipping channels must be maintained and even deepened to allow commercial boats — getting larger all the time to compete in the global economy — to navigate the river to move massive cargo.

Throw into the mix the complex water control system of other Mississippi River levees, pumps and barriers, the Bonnet Carre spillway and the upriver Old River Control Structure that protect the city of New Orleans from flooding, and some of the complexity of the department’s field of inquiry begins to take shape.

Observations and Modeling

Allison grew up on the Chesapeake Bay. He fished and went clamming. He then trained as a geologist and oceanographer at State University of New York–Stony Brook. He’s always been interested in the geologic “rock record” of a region and what it tells us about the modern system, from river basins to deltaic coastal areas, and how it’s “all an interconnected system.”

Allison approaches his work from an observational perspective. 
“The type of work I do is tracking how these systems operate and evolve over time,” he said. “We have boats and field gear and spend a lot of time in the field.”

Allison and Meselhe, a professor of river-coastal science and engineering, are the first two faculty members of the new department. Allison does the field observations, and Meselhe does the numerical modeling. The two researchers are “very complementary,” said Allison. 

Meselhe develops and applies computer models to create pictures, or windows, that look 50 to 80 years into the future. They  also provide an easily grasped graphic visualization of the past. Anyone can see that the land mass on the Louisiana coast of 50 years ago “ain’t dere no more.”

“Models don’t work unless you have observational data to calibrate them with,” said Allison. “And I’m also interested in bettering our understanding of the fundamental processes that are working in these systems.”

Allison and Meselhe have worked together on research projects for agencies such as the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers for about 15 years.

“Our models look at the interaction between water, salt and sediment and how they may collectively impact marine mammals like dolphins or oysters or other key species that are important from both an economic as well as environmental point of view.”

EHAB MESEHLE, professor of river-coastal science and engineering

Meselhe’s computer models are a way to evaluate restoration projects. “We want to see the impact of restoration projects on the health of the ecosystem, and [determine] are they sustainable?” said Meselhe. His models “look at how the water moves and sediment transport.” They also look at water quality and interaction between physical and ecological processes.

animation of river rising over time A sediment deposit map, created by Ehab Meselhe’s lab group through computer modeling, predicts the effects of the proposed Mid Barataria sediment diversion project.

Interdisciplinary Study

Research Professor of River-Coastal Science and Engineering Barbara Kleiss, too, has an affinity for rivers, the Mississippi in particular. She was raised in Northern Illinois. When she was very young, she went to the banks of the Mississippi River with her dad. “I remember standing there and talking about, ‘What if we could get on a boat and go down the river?’ I’ve been fascinated with the Mississippi ever since.”

Kleiss’ PhD is in wetland biogeochemistry from Louisiana State University. “I’ve always worked on either rivers or floodplains of rivers and their wetlands,” Kleiss said.

As a researcher, she’s spent a lot of time understanding the water chemistry of the rivers in the Mississippi alluvial plain — from the top to the bottom. She has collected and analyzed data from the whole drainage area of the Lower Mississippi, especially sediment deposition in rivers.

Kleiss has worked with the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

One of the best weeks of her career, she said, is when she waded in Lake Itasca in Minnesota at the head of the Mississippi on a Wednesday and a week later boarded an oil tanker going out the Southwest Pass into the Gulf of Mexico.

“I love the river. I take every chance I get to do something with it. It’s majestic and fearsome,” Kleiss said.

A current project that Kleiss is directing involves Tulane graduate students doing fieldwork at Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge near St. Francisville, Louisiana. Last fall, during low water, they spread white feldspar clay on the floodplain forest floor, creating a “marker horizon.” In the summer, they’ll be going back to the site to measure the amount of sediment that this year’s flood will have deposited on top of the white clay.

Graduate students Laura Manuel and Ryder Myers conduct fieldwork.
Graduate students (left to right) Laura Manuel and Ryder Myers conduct fieldwork at Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge near St. Francisville, Louisiana. They are studying sediment deposits on the floodplain forest floor.

“This is part of a series of experiments that will help us understand the role of the Mississippi River floodplain forests or the ‘batture’ play in the sediment budget of the Lower Mississippi,” Kleiss said. These experiments are all important to coastal restoration.

She joined the Tulane faculty about four years ago to lead the River Science and Engineering Certificate Program. Through an educational partnership agreement with the Corps, the program reaches out and provides graduate-level coursework to practicing river scientists and managers around the country. The certificate program enrolls about 35 to 40 students each semester. They are taught by Tulane faculty as well as experienced scientists from the Corps and other agencies.

“Students get this exposure to everything from geology to fish to computer modeling to water chemistry. They learn how the problems that need to be addressed in today’s world require all of those disciplines.”

BARBARA KLEISS, research professor of river-coastal science and engineering

The students in the class are a “cool mixture,” said Kleiss, of federal employees and Tulane students.

The faculty, too, are a mix of scientists and engineers. The students “get this exposure to everything from geology to fish to computer modeling to water chemistry. They learn how the problems that need to be addressed in today’s world require all of those disciplines,” said Kleiss. “What we emphasize in almost every class is the need for true, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary study.”

Kick-Starting the Discussion

Aware that the land of New Orleans is sinking, the Louisiana coast is slipping away and seas are rising, Charlotte Beyer Hubbell wants to do something. 

“If we don’t have a planet that’s livable, does anything else really matter?” she said.

Hubbell has been interested in environmental issues since 1985. She moved to Iowa after she graduated from Newcomb College in 1971 and joined VISTA, a domestic Peace Corps program. She then earned a law degree from the University of Iowa. She has served on the board of the Nature Conservancy and started the Iowa Environmental Council. She also was appointed by the Iowa governor to a four-year term on the state Environmental Protection Commission overseeing the Department of Natural Resources.

When she was left a significant bequest from her grandmother’s estate, Hubbell decided the funds should stay in her native New Orleans — and with Tulane.

She has endowed the Charlotte Beyer Hubbell Chair in River-Coastal Science and Engineering. A search for a well-established researcher and accomplished faculty member to boost the fledgling department is now in progress. Hubbell also established an Excellence Fund for the department to support equipment for labs and fieldwork, a network of Lower Mississippi experimental stations, and travel funds for research and student-linked conference attendance. The Excellence Fund also supports the Lower Mississippi River Science Symposium, which held its inaugural meeting virtually in March. Among the 180 participants were scientists and engineers from organizations such as the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Geological Survey, the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center of the National Weather Service, the Nature Conservancy — and Tulane faculty. The theme of the meeting was “Networks for Data Collection, Analysis and Modeling.” It provided an opportunity for Tulane to further develop partnerships with these agencies.

All of which is part of Hubbell’s intention. “I hope this will kick-start a deep discussion about New Orleans’ future — and Southern Louisiana as well,” Hubbell said.

Hubbell recalled taking the ferry across the Mississippi River as a teenager with her friends, “for the fun of it, with no particular destination in mind, just to go on the river.”

The power of the river and its complex relationship with the economy and survival of the city of New Orleans motivated Hubbell to invest in river and coastal studies. “The river is not static, although humans continue to build dams to try to control it,” she said.

“There’s a bit of hubris involved to think that we can keep nature in her place. But we need to keep the river channeled and going through New Orleans — and rebuild the wetlands that are key to the ecosystem’s health and sustainability.”

New Generation of Graduates

Meselhe, the prognosticator, foresees the new department “producing a special set of graduates. They will be strong in water resources, broadly. We are going to produce a strong generation that will change the way people study large-scale environmental problems. I feel that that’s the biggest impact we will make.”

Kleiss agreed. “We’re excited about our future.”