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Photo exhibit offers environmental view of Katrina

A satellite photo of the Mississippi River Delta, circa 2001, that will be part of the Lehigh exhibit. Photo courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team.

An exhibit of satellite images illustrating the geological history of the Mississippi River Delta and the damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina will be on display at Lehigh for 10 days starting Wednesday.

“The Fate of New Orleans: An Exhibition On The Geologic and Environmental Context of New Orleans,” which will run through Oct. 7 in Neville Lobby, is sponsored by the Lehigh Environmental Initiative and Lehigh’s department of earth and environmental sciences.

An opening and public reception will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday

Joan Ramage, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences and exhibit organizer, says the exhibit will consist of 15 or more large panels, each containing multiple photos, grouped in a half-dozen topic areas. A short movie at the public reception will show before-and-after satellite images of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans so viewers can see the dynamic changes wrought by Katrina.

Insights on rebuilding New Orleans

Most of the photographs and other images to be exhibited are being obtained from public-domain Web sites maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Images of storm-stricken areas taken by airplanes, space shuttles and satellites are of great value to rescue workers, geologists, city planners, and businesses, says Ramage, who uses remote sensing to measure snowmelt in the glaciers of Canada’s Yukon Territory.

“Aerial images help assess the extent of damage and identify what areas and structures can be salvaged,” Ramage says. “They show high-water marks and they show where the coastline has been changed. They also offer insight into how and where a major city like New Orleans should be rebuilt.”

The first topic group of panels will set the stage geologically by showing both the channel now charted by the Mississippi River and the route it would most likely take in the absence of such human activity as dams and levees, Ramage says.

Throughout geological history, the Mississippi has periodically switched channels, flowing down the steepest path to the Gulf of Mexico, she says. Natural flow would reroute the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya River Basin, leaving New Orleans and Baton Rouge as backwater towns. In 1963, the Army Corps of Engineers completed a river- and flood-control project that prevents the Mississippi from rerouting to the Atchafalaya basin.

Panels in the first group will also show a “sea level curve” and the subsidence—or sinking of land—in New Orleans, parts of which already lie 11 feet below sea level, Ramage says.

The second group of panels will show continental images of the hurricane. The third group will include before-and-after photographs showing the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina and the environmental effects of the storm.

Photographs in the fourth group of panels will illustrate the topography of New Orleans with 3-D images of flood-control levees constructed on the Mississippi River. There will be a detailed photograph of the break that occurred in the levee in downtown New Orleans.

The next group of panels will contain photographs of the coastline of the state of Mississippi, showing the transport of debris, including fallen trees, caused by Katrina. The last group will show flooded swamp land and oil slick pollution along the Gulf Coast.

Visitors to the exhibit will be encouraged to write comments on panels, including opinions concerning the potential rebuilding of New Orleans, Ramage says.

Faculty and students from the earth and environmental sciences department and Lehigh’s Environmental Initiative will be on hand at the reception to answer questions and join in informal discussions with visitors.

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Friday, September 23, 2005

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