Will climate change destroy Columbus’s islands?

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Christopher Columbus statue in front of Government House, Nassau, Bahamas (Bahama Tourism)

Earlier this month, the Bahamas National Trust held a special workshop to explore how climate change is affecting the fauna and flora of this Caribbean island chain. Contributing editor Peter Hulm highlights some of the issues discussed in advance of this week’s Bahamas Natural History Conference in Nassau.

If any country should care about climate change it’s The Bahamas, an assemblage of 2,400 low-lying rocks and islands stretching across 13,880 sq. kms of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s where Columbus made his first landfall in the Western Hemisphere to “discover” America in 1492. Victim of savage hurricanes in 2004, 2005, 2012 and 2015, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas nevertheless makes only a passing reference to climate change in its development plan, and sets out no plan of action.

Lift up the apparent stone of immobilism, however, and the scene teems with activities that relate to climate change. The Bahamas National Trust brought the projects and researchers together on 14 March 2016 for a workshop in advance of the third Bahamas Natural History Conference in Nassau this week.

Using birds as indicator species for climate change

Some 50 government officials, environmentalists, researchers, company representatives and even zookeepers exchanged ideas and information for three hours. One major project is a wide-ranging programme launched by BirdLife International, using birds as indicator species for the impact of climate change on ecosystems. The beautiful Bahama oriole, for example, is today found only on the largest island group, Andros, but is threatened by the drying up of water resources in South Andros. And people living there, who must import their water, find it just as difficult to survive.

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West Indian Flamingoes on Andros Island. (IUCN)

BNT is developing an action plan designed to bring together all the indicators it can gather to enable to government to take rational steps to protect The Bahamas for the future. But it urgently wants to hook into international databases and efforts to provide sound scientific advice for governments and others to enable “climate-resilient decision-taking”. The Bahamas “desperately” needs comprehensive elevation data about its inhabited islands at least, particularly in coastal areas, the workshop was told.

Underfunding: Poor planning for the future

The U.S. agency NOAA offers impressive storm surge estimates online, workshop participants learned. But then a researcher pointed out that NOAA was using his models from 1990. His World Meteorological Organization funded project only covers North and Central Bahamas, and not its main industrial hub Grand Bahama, because the money ran out and was not renewed.

It’s a typical example of the problems researchers face in The Bahamas. Its 380,000 people have the third highest GDP per head in the Americas (after the U.S. and Canada) but income inequality is estimated to be at least as bad as Brazil’s, if not worse.

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Mangroves are crucial for protecting islands from climate surges. (Bahamas National Trust)

Government projects tend to be chronically underfunded. A pioneer of nature conservation (one of the earliest nations to bring marine and terrestrial ecosystems into a single reserve), the country does not write climate impact work into its planning documents, thereby missing out on available international funding. But a representative of a local engineering firm noted that her graduate studies were in climate impacts and she contributes to making every one of their commercial projects greener.

BNT’s Conservation Planner Shelley Cant-Woodside pointed specialists and planners to the Coral Caribbean Climate Online Risk and Adaptation Tool, funded by the U.K. and Netherlands, for its Workbook, Toolbox and information-clearing house. COCONet, a U.S. project, is a marine seismic monitoring system set up for the Caribbean in the wake of the Haitian earthquake of a few years ago.

A marine researcher at the workshop reported that his dissertation was on climate change’s impact on near-shore fish such as bonefish (a favourite tourist fishing target in the Bahamas). He also has a paper ready on the impact on fish at various ages, and another on the effect of ocean acidification on parrot fish (the major transformer of Bahamian reefs into its sparkling beaches).

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Andros Island, much of it wild and with poor fresh water resources, is the largest of the islands in the Bahamas.

Key Data: Make it more widely available

But bringing all this information together in a form that others can use is likely to be a major problem as well as an urgent need. Non-disclosure agreements are common. Even when the information is available, there seems to be no international collection and distribution point. “Clearinghouse seems to be the word of the day,” declared Cant-Woodside at the end of the discussion.

Prime Minister Perry Christie was the only Caribbean region’s premier to attend the Paris talks at the end of last year that produced a climate change accord to reduce global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Officially opening the natural history conference, Christie noted that the Bahamas has set a target of 1.5 degrees.

In his lifetime, he told dignitaries, he has seen “coastal erosion of a ferocious nature”. In Freeport on Grand Bahama, a local showed him where a childhood picnic place was now undersea. Hurricane Joaquin had swept across north-east Bahamas without warning only six months before, and one school had been unable to reopen because the children had all moved to New Providence with their parents as a result. If sea level rises 5 feet (1.5 metres), he said, “80% of the Bahamas as we know it would disappear.” he said he told the Paris conference that after Joaquin, “I don’t need now evidence of the sea taking the land.”

Christie said scientists could ensure policymakers and the public are “sensitized” to environmental sustainability by their ecological and biological research. The government has pledged to set aside 20% of its marine areas as protected areas by 2020. The Bahamas declared the world,s first land and sea reserve at Exuma Cay. Its major natural history text, by David G. Campbell, is entitled The Ephemeral Islands.

Peter Hulm, a specialist in communications and the environment, is a writer based in Switzerland and the Bahamas. He is also part of  the Essential Edge Conference Team that is available for meetings coverage for international and national organizations.

 

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