Climate change, the rise in sea levels, and human interference with the environment are having a major impact on the coastal areas of the Caribbean. To find out what exactly is going on and to find solutions, around fifty leading scientists will be meeting on Bonaire in late October, at TNO’s invitation, for the ‘Coastal Dynamics and Ecosystem Change: Caribbean Quo Vadis?’ conference.
In the tourist guides to the Caribbean, it all looks fabulous - sun-drenched beaches, colourful coral, and people relaxing under palm trees. In itself, that is accurate enough, but there is more to the Caribbean than idyllic islands. It is a very vulnerable region, which incidentally includes the densely populated coastal areas of countries such as Mexico and Colombia, and major cities like Havana and San Juan.
Changes in the living environment have made the Caribbean vulnerable, says geologist and Professor Emeritus Johan Meulenkamp of the Stichting Earth Dynamics foundation. He mentions a whole series of factors that play a role: “There is climate change, for example, the rise in sea levels, overfishing, and acidification of seawater. There is also the issue of construction in coastal areas, the discharging of contaminated water, coral diseases, the excessive growth of algae, and coastal erosion. Even plate tectonics in the deeper parts of the earth are a factor. It is a long list, but by no means a complete one.” Each of these factors affects the others, says Meulenkamp: “Take the construction of an inland dam. It prevents sediment from reaching the coastal zones, which has consequences for coastal defences. At a local level, the building of a marina could lead to changes in the sea environment several kilometres away. On a really big scale, the tectonics in the ground are exacerbating, or indeed weakening, the effects of the rise in sea levels.”
Gaining an overview
It is a complicated set of circumstances, says TNO Caribbean director Dr Jan Ebbing. “We do not yet have a full picture of what exactly is going on. However, we do expect that the consequences as a whole will be far-reaching and, in many cases, harmful. This is why TNO, in partnership with the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment and the Stichting Earth Dynamics foundation, is organizing a working conference, with the help of financial contributions from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and others.” The ‘Coastal Dynamics and Ecosystem Change: Caribbean Quo Vadis?’ conference on Bonaire will be attended by around fifty leading scientists, between 18 and 21 October. The organizers also expect policymakers to be among those present, or that they will at least take note of the results. Businesses in the private sector, such as dredging companies, have already expressed an interest. But the most important attendees will be the scientists, including geologists, archaeologists, biologists, and oceanographers. They will have to determine what the most pressing research questions are, what the most likely scenarios are, and which measures are expected to be most effective.
“In looking for solutions in the Caribbean, we first need to properly define the problems and to listen to people who possess relevant knowledge”
Making an inventory of the risks
An inventory of the risks has already given an impression of what is going on in the Caribbean. Here are a few examples. There is a risk of flooding in densely populated coastal areas during hurricanes. Overfishing may lead to malnutrition and to drinking water becoming salinized, which is actually already happening in some places. Coral diseases make the islands less attractive to tourists, while the loss of the coral reefs is weakening coastal defences. If a disaster really were to occur, there may be waves of refugees. Meulenkamp says, “All in all you can say that the Caribbean is among the most vulnerable areas to the combined consequences of climate change, the rise in sea levels, and human interference with the environment.”
Cause for concern
There will be a particular focus on coastal defences during the conference, partly because diseased coral reefs offer less natural protection. Mangrove forests and seagrass beds are being adversely affected by human construction activities and are less able to temper the force of tropical storms, while the storms themselves are becoming more frequent and more powerful as a result of climate change. Ebbing continues, “Add to that the greater levels of erosion, and you can see that there really is cause for concern.”
The conference organizers will obviously be doing more than merely sounding warnings. Ebbing explains, “In looking for solutions, we first need to properly define the problems and to listen to people who possess relevant knowledge. What is lacking in particular is an integrated overall picture of what the problems are and where knowledge is available. That is what we want to work on and that is what makes this conference unique.” He also sees a task for governments: “The problem is that it often involves small countries that do not always have the resources to identify the risks and to decide what the most effective way of tackling them is. That means collaboration is needed, and we hope that this conference will contribute towards that process.” Meulenkamp is also thinking in terms of solutions: “It is people who tilt things over the edge, making matters worse. Together, we can change that, but we have to know how we are going to do so. That is why I am very pleased to be playing my part in organizing this conference.”
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