Elevation Zero
8:55 am
Fri November 15, 2013

Sea Level Limbo In The Caribbean: How Low Can You Go?

Map of the Caribbean showing in red the vulnerability of the Western Isles, especially The Bahamas.
Credit Google
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The folks in the Bahamas hamlet of Dunmore Town seem blissfully unaware of sea level rise. One resort hotel operator I called in Dunmore, which sits on Harbour Island, dismissed it altogether.

“I was just down at our beachside bar,” she said. “I didn’t notice the sea level rising.” (Yes, she was serious.)

I told her I’d call back in 50 years. That’s because recent studies warn that by then or soon after, if sea level rise projections of about three feet or more in this century are correct, almost three-fourths of Harbour Island’s beach resources could be sunk. At least seven of its major tourism properties would be lost as a result.

That would be a shame. Harbour Island, a narrow, 4-mile-long Bahamas isle 200 miles east of Miami, is one of the most idyllic spots in the western hemisphere. But climate change experts say Harbour and its 2000 inhabitants are in the crosshairs of sea level rise in the Caribbean. (Technically, The Bahamas lie in the Atlantic, but the country is a member of the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM.)

In fact, according to CaribSave, a research partnership between the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center (CCCCC) in Belize and Oxford University in England, the entire Bahamas chain -- South Florida’s closest maritime neighbor -- is in peril. If major preventive measures don’t begin soon, CaribSave warns that the critical Bahamanian tourism industry, which accounts for 60% of the nation’s $8 billion economy, could face annual losses of almost $900 million by 2050.

“With 80 percent of the land lying less than one meter [three feet] above sea level,” says CaribSave, “all sectors in The Bahamas are highly vulnerable.”

An aerial shot of Harbour Island in The Bahamas showing information about different sea-level rise scenarios.
Credit CaribSave

But so is the rest of the Caribbean Basin, where the climate change scenario is more troubling than Florida’s. From the Bahamas to Belize, Grenada to Guyana, scientists fear rising sea levels could leave some Caribbean islands virtually uninhabitable.

That should matter a lot to Florida and the rest of the United States. The Caribbean is more than just white sand and blue surf. It is a strategic hemispheric crossroads -- as any drug interdiction agent will tell you -- and it’s home to some 50 million people. Many of them will emigrate to Florida and other parts of the U.S. if sea level rise spoils their economies, agriculture and water supplies as badly as it’s forecast to erode their beaches.

“In 50 years, if the [models] are correct, the entire [Caribbean] landscape will be changed,” says Ulric Trotz, the CCCCC’s deputy director. “Our beaches will have disappeared, our coastal areas eroded, our infrastructure degraded. It would certainly wreak havoc on the way we live.”

Trotz recently co-authored an Inter-American Development Bank report that warns of as much as 1,200 square miles of Caribbean coastal land lost; half the Caribbean Community’s major tourist resorts damaged or destroyed by sea rise, surge or erosion; and scores of sea turtle nesting beaches wiped out. Even the airports that receive tourists could be affected.

CARICOM began sounding the alarm in the 1990s as accelerating sea level rise became more apparent. But while CaribSave and other organizations applaud countries like the Bahamas for creating adaptation mechanisms over the past decade, some are critical of the level of resources those governments are committing as well as the enforcement of environmental laws. Groups like CaribSave recommend that the basin’s nations begin erecting more than 200 miles of levees and sea walls, at a cost of almost $6 billion.

Problem is, the Caribbean doesn’t have that kind of cash readily available in the best of times -- and these aren’t the best of times. The region is currently home to five of the world’s 12 most indebted countries.

“It will be extremely difficult for us to put in place adaptation measures,” says CCCCC Director Kenrick Leslie. “We’re looking for concessional loans, and when we go to the international meetings we try to make it very clear we need programs supported by the larger industrialized countries.”

Caribbean governments don’t consider that an unreasonable request at all, and here’s why: Their region produces less than one percent of the greenhouse gases that many if not most scientists blame for the global warming that causes rising seas.

Threat To The Bahamas

While they ponder that reality, developed countries may also want to consider this: As the century progresses, some of the Caribbean’s “smaller, low-lying islands may actually have to be evacuated,” says Brian Soden, a professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at the University of Miami. And that would probably include some in The Bahamas.

What makes The Bahamas so vulnerable? As scientists like Soden explain it, many of the Caribbean’s eastern islands were formed volcanically and have a bit more elevated breathing room. But western isles like the Bahamas chain are just downright flat.

“The Bahamas [were] not driven by tectonic activity,” says Soden, “but through the development of sediments that form very shallow, sandy barrier type islands.”

The kind that are great for beachside bars. But rotten for sea level rise mitigation. In 50 years or so, if enough Bahamians remain as oblivious as the hotel lady I spoke to on Harbour island, resorts like hers could be selling a lot fewer cocktails and a lot more snorkels.