Climate change impacting Cayman’s reefs, UN says

Small islands face disproportionate threat from global warming, report says

Global warming is causing trillions of dollars of damage to coral reefs, presenting a growing economic challenge to small island states, according to a United Nations report. 

Warming waters from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean have been blamed for damaging vibrant underwater ecosystems, including Cayman’s coral reefs. 

The phenomenon, which threatens the diving and fishing industries in particular, is likely to get worse as the impact of climate change is more keenly felt in the coming decades, the report “Emerging Issues for Small Island Developing States” suggests. 

The report warns that small islands “contribute little to climate change – emitting less than one per cent of global emissions – but suffer disproportionately from its effects.” 

Those effects are most clearly seen in Cayman on coral reefs, which are susceptible to disease as temperatures rise. 

Experts at Little Cayman’s Central Caribbean Marine Institute warn that bleaching events, which can lead to mass coral die-offs, are increasingly common throughout the region. 

“This and other climate change impacts are only expected to increase in frequency if climate change continues to progress,” said Kathryn Lohr, a research scientist at CCMI. 

“Part of the problem with getting people to understand the danger of climate change is that climate change is a slow-moving process, so effects aren’t always obvious to most people.” 

The United Nations report warns that small island nations are relatively powerless to do anything about climate change and calls on the international community to assist with technical and financial support to help them “adapt and mitigate” to the coming challenges. 

“Addressing climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of global greenhouse gas emissions, over which Small Island Developing States have little control. Therefore, the most viable option is to take urgent action to adapt to climate change and to mitigate the severity of its impacts,” it states. 

Some Pacific islands could become uninhabitable or face losing large swaths of territory if sea levels continue to rise in line with predictions, the report warns. 

More generally, loss of coral reefs, which help protect coasts from storms, serve as nurseries for many types of fish and also attract tourists, takes a costly economic toll, the report says. It says the impact is already being felt across the Caribbean, where small island nations rely disproportionately on ocean resources for their economic well-being. 

“Climate change also poses a major threat to coastal ecosystems on which [small islands] depend for food and livelihoods. Most notable are coral reefs, which are already severely degraded by rising sea surface temperatures. 

“In the Insular Caribbean, for example, up to 100 percent of coral reefs in some areas have been affected by bleaching due to thermal stress. Climate-related threats are projected to push the proportion of reefs at risk in the Caribbean to 90 percent in the year 2030, and up to 100 percent by 2050.” 

A separate study by academics in Australia estimated that each hectare (2.5 acres) of the world’s coral reefs provides services worth $350,000 a year. That means that a loss of 34 million hectares of corals since the late 1990s is worth $11.9 trillion a year. 

“Corals … are probably the most threatened ecosystems on the planet,” Robert Costanza, of the Australian National University and lead author of the study, told Reuters. Ms. Lohr said the implications for Cayman, which itself has seen dramatic declines in coral coverage over the past two decades, are clear. 

”Coral reefs are so vital to small islands like Cayman for a variety of reasons. They have a huge economic value by providing tourism opportunities like diving and snorkeling.  

“By creating a habitat for hundreds of species of fish, they also support local fisheries which are used for subsistence fishing and as a source of income.” 

The United Nations Environment Program report recommends collective representation for small island nations to press the international community to provide support. 

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, in a speech at the University of the West Indies last month, said climate change is among the biggest threats to the stability of Caribbean economies. 

She said, “Even though climate change requires a global solution, there are certainly measures that the Caribbean can take to protect its people and make its economy more resilient to the forces of nature.” 

She said better infrastructure to withstand natural disasters, intelligent planning, better management of fresh water resources and stronger catastrophic risk insurance frameworks are among the measures that could be taken. 

Another study, other findings Last week, the Associated Press reported on another study that suggests that climate change contributes only 10 percent to degradation of coral reefs. 

The Associated Press reported that parrotfish and sea urchins are the key to saving the Caribbean’s coral reefs, which may disappear in two decades if no action is taken, according to a report by several international organizations. 

The report, which analyzed the work of 90 experts over three years, said Caribbean reefs have declined by more than 50 percent since the 1970s. It said that while many experts have blamed climate change for the problem, a drop in the populations of parrotfish and sea urchins is largely responsible 

Cayman-Cool-Reef-Algae

This photograph taken in 2010 shows the growth of algae on a Cayman Islands reef. While a recent UN report blames climate change for degradation of the coral reers, another recent study that involved the UN Environment Program found that a drop in the populations of parrotfish and sea urchins is largely responsible. Without parrotfish eating the algae, the reef is slowly smothered. – PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT

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