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Encroaching sea already a threat in Caribbean

Friday - 5/10/2013, 6:44pm  ET

In this April 22, 2013 photo, fisherman Desmond Augustin stands on a breakwater of old tires and driftwood that local residents fashioned to try and protect their fishing village in Telegraph, Grenada. The people along this vulnerable stretch of eastern Grenada have been watching the sea eat away at their shoreline in recent decades, a result of destructive practices such as sand mining and a ferocious storm surge made worse by climate change, according to researchers with the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy, who have helped locals map the extent of coastal erosion. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

DAVID McFADDEN
Associated Press

TELESCOPE, Grenada (AP) -- The old coastal road in this fishing village at the eastern edge of Grenada sits under a couple of feet of murky saltwater, which regularly surges past a hastily-erected breakwater of truck tires and bundles of driftwood intended to hold back the Atlantic Ocean.

For Desmond Augustin and other fishermen living along the shorelines of the southern Caribbean island, there's nothing theoretical about the threat of rising sea levels.

"The sea will take this whole place down," Augustin said as he stood on the stump of one of the uprooted palm trees that line the shallows off his village of tin-roofed shacks built on stilts. "There's not a lot we can do about it except move higher up."

The people along this vulnerable stretch of eastern Grenada have been watching the sea eat away at their shoreline in recent decades, a result of destructive practices such as the extraction of sand for construction and ferocious storm surges made worse by climate change, according to researchers with the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy, who have helped locals map the extent of coastal erosion.

Dozens of families are now thinking about relocating to new apartments built on a hillside about a 10-minute walk from their source of livelihood, a tough sell for hardy Caribbean fishing families who see beachfront living as a virtual birthright.

If climate change impact predictions come true, scientists and a growing number of government officials worry that this stressed swath of Grenada could preview what's to come for many other areas in the Caribbean, where 70 percent of the population live in coastal settlements.

In fact, a 2007 report by the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the devastation wreaked on Grenada by 2004's Hurricane Ivan "is a powerful illustration of the reality of small-island vulnerability." The hurricane killed 28 people, caused damage twice the nation's gross domestic product, damaged 90 percent of the housing stock and hotel rooms and shrank an economy that had been growing nearly 6 percent a year, according to the climate scientists' report.

Storms and beach erosion have long shaped the geography of coastal environments, but rising sea levels and surge from more intense storms are expected to dramatically transform shorelines in coming decades, bringing enormous economic and social costs, experts say. The tourism-dependent Caribbean is thought to be one of the globe's most vulnerable regions.

"It's a massive threat to the economies of these islands," said Owen Day, a marine biologist with the Caribsave Partnership, a nonprofit group based in Barbados that is spearheading adaptation efforts. "I would say the region's coastal areas will be very severely impacted in the next 50 to 100 years."

Scientists and computer models estimate that global sea levels could rise by at least 1 meter (nearly 3.3 feet) by 2100, as warmer water expands and ice sheets melt in Greenland and Antarctica. Global sea levels have risen an average of 3 centimeters (1.18 inches) a decade since 1993, according to many climate scientists, although the effect can be amplified in different areas by topography and other factors.

In the 15 nations that make up the Caribbean Community bloc, that could mean the displacement of 110,000 people and the loss of some 150 multimillion- dollar tourist resorts, according to a modeling analysis prepared by Caribsave for the United Nations Development Program and other organizations. Twenty-one of 64 regional airports could be inundated. About 5 percent of land area in the Bahamas and 2 percent of Antigua & Barbuda could be lost. Factoring in surge from more intense storms means a greater percentage of the regional population and infrastructure will be at risk.

In eastern Grenada, people living in degraded coastal areas once protected by mangrove thickets say greater tidal fluctuations have produced unusually high tides that send seawater rushing up rivers. Farmers complain that crops are getting damaged by the intrusion of the salty water.

Adrian George is one of the coastal residents preparing to move into an inland apartment complex built by the Chinese government following the devastation left by Hurricane Ivan.

"I'm now ready to move up to the hills," George said in the trash-strewn eastern Grenadian village of Soubise, which is regularly swamped with seawater and debris at high tide. "Here, the waves will just keep getting closer and closer until we get swept away."

One response in the wealthier island of Barbados has been building a kilometer-long breakwater and waterfront promenade to help protect fragile coastlines. In most cases, international money is pouring in to kick-start "soft engineering" efforts restoring natural buffers such as mangroves, grasses and deep-rooted trees such as sea grape. Some call that the most effective and cheapest way to minimize the impact of rising seas.

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