Climate Change & the Caribbean
The climate’s changing - so what? It can’t be denied that the Earth is getting warmer. That’s good, isn’t it? Everybody wants to be warm! Well, no. Global warming means that the seas are getting warmer too. So warm, in fact, that tropical storms are more likely to turn into hurricanes. When the water temperature rises to 27°C (80°F) hurricanes develop more frequently and carry more water in them. The average temperature is hovering around 28-30°C.
What difference does this make? Do you remember Hurricane Katrina, the category 5 hurricane (the worst kind) that devastated New Orleans in 2005? The one where 1,800 people died and 90,000 square miles – not much smaller than the area of the United Kingdom - were declared a disaster area? Hmmm...
Warmer air can hold more water. Hurricane Irma (in 2017) dropped ten inches of rain on Cuba - per hour. Hurricane Maria (later the same year) dropped six inches of rain on Puerto Rico - per hour. Most of the Caribbean islands are low-lying (80% of the land of the Bahamas and Trinidad & Tobago is below sea level).
So, where does the water go? Most of it goes nowhere. The land floods. As if this weren’t enough, the rising temperature of sea water is killing the coral reefs that form an important part of the Caribbean ecosystem. The reefs are home to a range of species, both vertebrate and invertebrate, both mobile and stationary. As the water warms up, these species move away, if they can. If they can’t, they die. You will not be surprised to hear that tourism brings in a lot of money to countries in the Caribbean, perhaps up to one third of the total income of the islands.
Another aspect of global warming is the rise in sea levels, threatening coastal communities that are less than ten feet above sea level. That includes 28-32 MILLION people who live in those low-lying areas.
The increase in the frequency and severity of hurricanes leaves the Caribbean islands with a double problem: not only might the number of
tourists fall (reducing the amount of money they spend), but the cost of repairing the damage caused by the hurricanes will increase. Already this is estimated to cost over 10% of the region’s Gross Domestic Product, and it’s likely to only increase. How can any country balance its budget when its income falls AND its costs go up? Most Caribbean countries weren’t exactly rich to start with.
Many species of animal will lose out because of climate change. The human animal is only one, and not even the most important. (If we died out, not many others would complain about it!). The high number of tourists in the Caribbean has badly affected the sea turtles that live in the region. Their habitats and nesting sites have been damaged by humans, their life cycle and behaviour are affected by rising sea levels and increasing temperatures. If fewer people travel to the Caribbean, or a more ecological travel method of travel involved, perhaps the sea turtles can take their islands back.