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Vanishing Points app documents disappearing Louisiana coast


Miss Mae Mae’s Sno-Ball stand has been a Chauvin, La., landmark for more than 40 years. The business helped her put her children through college and she loves getting to talk with people all day. But the local landmark – and its surrounding community – may soon fall victim to the rising sea levels that have been eating away at land in the Louisiana delta for decades.

Maps have documented the amount of land lost over the years, but few have looked at the resulting impact the land loss is having the community, economy and culture. Almost one-third of the seafood and natural gas consumed in the United States is harvested in Louisiana, and about 735 species of birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals depend on the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary System. Meanwhile, policies and plans to adapt to these climate changes are being made at the state and federal level with limited input from the local community.

In an effort to document and increase awareness of the severity of the problems facing communities like Chauvin, environmental science graduate student Sandra Maina has spent the past two summers getting to know residents and hearing their stories of how the changing landscape has impacted their culture and daily lives.

Maina (front) gets to know some of the residents of the Isle de Jean Charles.

Maina (front) gets to know some of the residents of the Isle de Jean Charles.

This on-the-ground research and data collection is the basis for Vanishing Points, an online application currently in development by Maina and her internship mentor, Jonathan Foret of South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center, with the help of web programmers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Maina is one of about 20 students – called “protégés” – in the NCAR Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS) program.

The app identifies culturally significant points of interest and documents the history and importance of these locations through personal testimonies, historical photos and land-loss progression images. Maina hopes it will raise awareness of the area’s at-risk landmarks and bridge the gap between the local community and state and federal policymakers, as well as provide educational and tourism opportunities.

“This application is a new step toward merging the scientific and social fields,” says Maina. “The integration of information and communication technology along with using the PAR [participatory action research] methodology to assess the community’s resilience is something that hasn’t really been done.”

Maina’s approach – conducting in-person interviews and surveys of community members – turns the traditional top-down scientific research on its head. She began by getting to know the community, its history, livelihood and culture by listening to locals and letting them point out areas and landmarks of greatest concern.

Maina interviews an Isle de Jean Charles resident

Maina interviews an Isle de Jean Charles resident

“What participatory action research has enabled Sandra to do is get out in the community and see what resonates with them to see the product is being produced for these people, not for her as a scientific study,” says Foret. “The thing that was nice about having her as an academic is that there was a higher level of accountability; there was a lot of thought put into the survey questions. The methodology behind it was top notch.”

A working web app (www.vanishing-points.org) was created in 2013 with help from UCAR, and currently includes two points of interest – the Provost Cemetary in Dulac and the Isle De Jean Charles. Maina continues collaborating with Foret from Miami to add more points of interest, find a mobile application developer, and train members of the community to contribute photos and multimedia directly to the site.

“I believe that the results from this study will show the importance of collaborating with communities if we are to help prepare any vulnerable communities for climate change impacts,” says Maina. “Strategies of adaptation must be made with the people if we want them to be sustainable.”

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