Tabasco's Home Under Threat of Rising Seas

Bottles of McIlhenny Tabasco sauce are seen on the line at the McIlhenny Company plant at Avery Island, Louisiana. Avery Island is being threatened by rising sea levels. OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images

Avery Island is a dot on the map of Louisiana, encompassing some 2,200 acres (890 hectares) just a few miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. One day — very soon scientists fear — rising sea levels will swamp the tiny outcropping, making Avery Island another victim of climate change.

The news that Avery Island is disappearing is indeed worrisome for all of society. But for those who like a shake or two of hot spicy sauce on their food (and who doesn't, really?), the situation is catastrophic. That's because Avery Island is the 150-year-old home of McIlhenny Tabasco sauce. In fact, the island is the only place Tabasco is made, and salt found here has been good to the McIlhenny family since 1868.

Avery Island (the tip of giant dome of rock salt geologists say is higher than Mount Everest) sits just 163 feet (50 meters) above sea level, surrounded by marshland and the Bayou Petite on three of its sides. Even though the area is sinking, the island is the highest point in southern Louisiana. It has acres of exotic tropical trees and plants, a salt mine (salt is one of three main ingredients in Tabasco) and a bevy of bird species.

Scientists say the protective salt marsh around the island is dwindling at about 30 feet (9 meters) a year. Saltwater is inundating the island, poisoning and killing freshwater plants and dissolving soil. Storms are slamming Avery at a more frequent and frantic pace doing further damage. Moreover, the Louisiana coastline is sinking 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) a year, pushing along the island's demise. Between 2010 and 2016, the state's coastline receded on average 100 yards (91 meters) — or the length of a football field — every 100 minutes. Interestingly, that's an improvement from previous years.

And even though demand for their famous Tabasco sauce outpaced the small island's capacity to grow the peppers long ago, the McIlhennys still sow the seeds there, before shipping them to fully cultivate in Latin America and South Africa. The peppers come back to Avery, and follow the exact same process and recipe established in 1868, which includes being aged for three years in bourbon barrels. But after Hurricane Rita in 2005 flooded the pepper fields and put its warehouse and 60,000 of its barrels under 3 feet (0.9 meters) of water, the McIhenny's knew it was time to fight back — or move.

They've already spent $1 million to build a dam, pump system and backup generators to keep the water out, and expect to spend even more to restore and replant the area's grasses to reclaim land and re-direct the natural flow of water in and out of the bayous around the island.

They also formed a partnership, the Rainey Conservation Alliance, with two private property owners on Vermilion Bay and the National Audubon Society, which owns the 26,000-acre Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary. The alliance owns a combined 187,000 acres (75,676 hectares) and has the political clout to get state and federal approval for marsh creation and erosion control projects. So far it's working. The alliance will begin using dredged sediment to rebuild 365 acres of west Vermilion Bay marsh later in 2018.

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