The Global Change Research Act of 1990 mandates that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) deliver a report to Congress and the President no less than every four years that “1) integrates, evaluates, and interprets the findings of the Program…; 2) analyzes the effects of global change on the natural environment, agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, human health and welfare, human social systems, and biological diversity; and 3) analyzes current trends in global change, both human-induced and natural, and projects major trends for the subsequent 25 to 100 years.”
Volume II, draws on the foundational science described in Volume I, the Climate Science Special Report (CSSR). Volume II focuses on the human welfare, societal, and environmental elements of climate change and variability for 10 regions and 18 national topics, with particular attention paid to observed and projected risks, impacts, consideration of risk reduction, and implications under different mitigation pathways.
Chapter 20 looks at the US Caribbean – Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands – and assesses the possible impact of climate change on those two territories. It is thought that its conclusions can be applied to many countries within the Caribbean as a whole.
Historically, the U.S. Caribbean region has experienced relatively stable seasonal rainfall patterns, moderate annual temperature fluctuations, and a variety of extreme weather events, such as tropical storms, hurricanes, and drought. However, the Caribbean climate is changing and is projected to be increasingly variable as levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increase.
The high percentage of coastal area relative to the total island land area in the U.S. Caribbean means that a large proportion of the region’s people, infrastructure, and economic activity are vulnerable to sea level rise, more frequent intense rainfall events and associated coastal flooding, and saltwater intrusion. High levels of exposure and sensitivity to risk in the U.S. Caribbean region are compounded by a low level of adaptive capacity, due in part to the high costs of mitigation and adaptation measures relative to the region’s gross domestic product, particularly when compared to continental U.S. coastal areas. The limited geographic and economic scale of Caribbean islands means that disruptions from extreme climate-related events, such as droughts and hurricanes, can devastate large portions of local economies and cause widespread damage to crops, water supplies, infrastructure, and other critical resources and services.
The U.S. Caribbean territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) have distinct differences in topography, language, population size, governance, natural and human resources, and economic capacity. However, both are highly dependent on natural and built coastal assets; service-related industries account for more than 60% of the USVI economy. Beaches, affected by sea level rise and erosion, are among the main tourist attractions.
In Puerto Rico, critical infrastructure (for example, drinking water pipelines and pump stations, sanitary pipelines and pump stations, wastewater treatment plants, and power plants) is vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise, storm surge, and flooding.
In the USVI, infrastructure and historical buildings in the inundation zone for sea level rise include the power plants on both St. Thomas and St. Croix; schools; housing communities; the towns of Charlotte Amalie, Christiansted, and Frederiksted; and pipelines for water and sewage.
Climate change will likely result in water shortages due to an overall decrease in annual rainfall, a reduction in ecosystem services, and increased risks for agriculture, human health, wildlife, and socioeconomic development in the U.S. Caribbean. These shortages would result from some locations within the Caribbean experiencing longer dry seasons and shorter, but wetter, wet seasons in the future.
Extended dry seasons are projected to increase fire likelihood.
Excessive rainfall, coupled with poor construction practices, unpaved roads, and steep slopes, can exacerbate erosion rates and have adverse effects on reservoir capacity, water quality, and nearshore marine habitats.
Ocean warming poses a significant threat to the survival of corals and will likely also cause shifts in associated habitats that compose the coral reef ecosystem.
Severe, repeated, or prolonged periods of high temperatures leading to extended coral bleaching can result in colony death.
Ocean acidification also is likely to diminish the structural integrity of coral habitats.
Studies show that major shifts in fisheries distribution and changes to the structure and composition of marine habitats adversely affect food security, shoreline protection, and economies throughout the Caribbean.
Observed sea level rise trends in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands reflect an increase in sea level of about 0.08 inches (2.0 mm) per year for the period 1962–2017 for Puerto Rico and for 1975–2017 for the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Projections of sea level rise by 2100 are shown under three different scenarios of Intermediate-Low (1–2 feet), Intermediate (3–4 feet), and Extreme (9–11 feet) sea level rise.
The scenarios depict the range of future sea level rise based on factors such as global greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of glaciers and ice sheets.
In Puerto Rico, the annual number of days with temperatures above 90°F has increased over the last four and a half decades. During that period, stroke and cardiovascular disease, which are influenced by such elevated temperatures, became the primary causes of death. Increases in average temperature and in extreme heat events will likely have detrimental effects on agricultural operations throughout the U.S. Caribbean region. Many farmers in the tropics, including the U.S. Caribbean, are considered small-holding, limited resource farmers and often lack the resources and/or capital to adapt to changing conditions.
Most Caribbean countries and territories share the need to assess risks, enable actions across scales, and assess changes in ecosystems to inform decision-making on habitat protection under a changing climate. U.S. Caribbean islands have the potential to improve adaptation and mitigation actions by fostering stronger collaborations with Caribbean initiatives on climate change and disaster risk reduction.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.