In the Caribbean, sea-level limbo could affect tourist hot spots

Harbour Island, a narrow, four-mile-long Bahamas isle 200 miles east of Miami, is among the most idyllic spots in the western hemisphere. But some of its residents might be among the most unaware when it comes to the prospect of sea-level rise and its possible threats to the local economy.

One resort hotel operator in Dunmore, Harbour Island’s lone town, dismisses it altogether. “I was just down at our beachside bar,” she told WLRN-Miami Herald News. “I didn’t notice the sea level rising.”

She wasn’t the only Harbourite who voiced that level of skepticism. But recent studies warn that 50 years from now 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.

Climate change experts say Harbour and its 2,000 inhabitants are in the crosshairs of sea-level rise in the Caribbean. (The Bahamas lie in the Atlantic Ocean, 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 percent 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, all sectors in The Bahamas are highly vulnerable,” according to CaribSave’s “Risk Atlas.”

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’s important for Florida and the rest of the United States because the Caribbean is a strategic hemispheric crossroads and it’s home to some 50 million people. Many of them, experts say, 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,” said 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, titled “Climate Change’s Impact on the Caribbean’s Ability to Sustain Tourism, Natural Assets, and Livelihoods.”

The report says that as much as 1,200 square miles of Caribbean coastal land could be 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, the report says.

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 in the past decade, they’re 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: the Caribbean doesn’t have that kind of capital 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, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“It will be extremely difficult for us to put in place adaptation measures,” CCCCC Director Kenrick Leslie said. “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, according to CARICOM.

Threat To The Bahamas

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,” Soden said, “but through the development of sediments that form very shallow, sandy barrier type islands.”

The kind that are great for beachside bars, like the resort on Harbour Island. But rotten for sea-level rise mitigation.