King Canute Came to Texas

In the story of King Canute and the Waves Caunte demonstrates his piety before the power of God and the sober recognition of his limitations by having his throne carried to a beach at low tide and commanding the sea not to get his robes and feet wet. Of course, the rising tide covers his feet and Canute uses this as an opportunity to teach a lesson to his ministers about the limitations of his, and their, power.

The people of the Galveston Bay area, like most people in urbanized coastal areas, reject Canute’s message. We have much more at stake than robes and fancy shoes. Millions of lives and livelihoods, countless billions in commercial investment, and the demands of global and domestic trade require that we try to hold back the sea.

And we’ve been at it for a while around here. That’s Galveston after the 1900 Storm in the header image. This was the deadliest natural disaster in US history, nearly leveling what at that time was the largest city in Texas. Galveston immediately began to rebuild by building a huge seawall and elevating surviving streets and buildings 17 feet. Buildings were put on huge jacks, and silt pumped underneath them.ike-back

This picture is from 1905, but the seawall itself looks so much the same today that it’s a shock to look at this picture and not see the hotels and restaurants lining Seawall Boulevard.

The Seawall has held back the sea fairly well for a hundred years, and a famous picture of the Boulevard after the worst of hurricane Carla had passed was adapted into the cover of Permanent Waves. But the experience of Katrina in New Orleans and a direct hit on Galveston Bay from Ike showed that the seawall and the natural barriers of Galveston and Bolivar will likely not be sufficient to protect the area in an age of stronger storms and rising sea levels.

Ambitious plans to massively reengineer the upper Texas coast began in late 2004, after Katrina and Rita. Federal funding for one or the other of these projects is likely to be approved soon. This is what adaptation to global warming looks like, a preview of what might have to be done all over the world. These projects aren’t cheap, and are possibly quite destructive to the environment. The financial and environmental costs are a strong argument in favor of global warming mitigation rather than adaptation. Reducing the inputs that drive global warming and the associated rise in sea levels has got to be a better plan than reengineering huge sections of coastline as we are about to do here with these two proposed projects.

The Coastal Spine, aka the “Ike Dike”: 

This is larger and more ambitious of the the two proposals. The Ike Dike is also gaining the upper hand in government and popular support. Having a simple rhyming name helps too. The Spine is inspired by recent storm surge protection projects in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The existing Galveston seawall will be extended to the western end of the island at San Luis. This new barrier will be covered with packed silt and sand and covered in sea grass and trees. I suppose that part should be called a levee rather than a dike since in the local language “dike” means “stone or concrete structure” and “levee” means  “structure with grass and plants on it”. A similar, longer, and entirely new structure will be built along almost the entire length of Bolivar Peninsula.


Please note that this map shows the Gulf at full surge. Bolivar looks like an island in this picture.

The most expensive and potentially damaging part of this project is the flood gate. It is similar to, but larger than, these gates in Rotterdam which are currently the largest in the world:


I can immediately see the problem. Those gates are less than one Lynchburg Ferry ride wide. The Galveston-Bolivar ferry ride is many times longer. You can see in this video from the design team at Texas A&M-Galveston that the gates will be built on two artificial islands with undersea walls each over a mile long with adjustable sluices above the water to allow tidal exchange, but block storm surge. These walls are proposed to extend from Galveston and Bolivar to the artificial islands.

This is not only expensive, it is projected to reduce circulation between The Bay and Gulf of Mexico by as much as 40%. This could reduce the salinity of the bay to levels that would threaten oysters and contribute to a buildup of pollutants that could threaten fish that breed in the hundreds of inlets and bayous that connect to the bay.

Rice University’s SPEED Plan:

So we’ve got a plan from A&M and a plan from Rice. The SPEED Center plan focuses on a  a layered approach to stopping storm surge. It seems much more complicated on the map:


It’s actually somewhat simpler even though it has more parts. You can see more about the project here. The cost will be partly offset by using state highway funds to rebuild existing roads into levees with roads on top of them. And most importantly none of the three gates in this project is able to fully block Galveston Bay and their combined environmental effect is less than the Ike Dike.

Even though I prefer the SPEED plan, The Ike Dike is gaining the advantage in political support. It’s probably the longer-term solution in the face of global warming.

This is what the future looks like, this is what will be built all around the world. Adaptation to global warming isn’t cheap, and it sure isn’t pretty. This is one of the reasons to prefer a focus on mitigation. And remember, some cities, like Miami, have no natural barriers that can serve as a basis for projects like these. Like king Canute, Miami will have to walk away when the time comes.

Local Musical Heritage: 

It’s Musical Monday! There are a lot of versions of “Wasn’t that a Mighty Storm”, but the earliest recorded is Sin-Killer Griffin’s version recorded in a Texas prison by a folklorist in 1934. It is believed to be closest to the versions of the song that circulated in the early 1900’s to spread news of the Galveston storm.




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