U.S. Virgin Islands
Small island states, like those of the Caribbean, are among the Earth’s most vulnerable places to the impacts of climate change, particularly sea-level rise. These islands often lack the resources and capacity to plan for and adapt to the inevitable challenges associated with a rising sea. Data visualization tools are critical to understanding the processes associated with climate change.
As with the rest of the world and Caribbean in particular, the coastal and marine communities of the US Virgin Islands (USVI) are susceptible to the effects of climate change including increasing hazardous coastal conditions and loss of life-sustaining marine, coastal and island resources. Climate change is anticipated to add to the stresses of our coastal environment by altering temperature and precipitation patterns, increasing the likelihood of extreme precipitation events, and accelerating rates of sea level rise. Responding and adapting to such changes requires an understanding of the risks; weighing options for adapting to changing conditions; and instituting a suite of strategies to implement, measure, and fund response actions having the most benefits to the ecosystems and communities that depend on those services. With support from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coral Reef Conservation Program, The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Caribbean Program directed a project with the objective of developing decision-support tools and conservation strategies that will advance the implementation of ecosystem-based adaptation (EBA) to climate change within the USVI.
Caribbean nations are particularly vulnerable to the impacts from climate change due to their high coastal population, limited land space, geographic isolation, scarce freshwater supplies, and high dependence on tourism and fisheries. These islands now face significant threats from increasing severe storm events, flooding, coastal erosion, drought, saltwater intrusion of coastal aquifers, and bleaching of coral reefs.
In particular, sea-level rise resulting from climate change will have a significant impact on the biodiversity, infrastructure, communities, and businesses of the US Virgin Islands. It is not a question of “if” but a matter of “when,” “where,” and “how.” Climate change adaptation is happening now. The Caribbean Basin is characterized by extremely high levels of biodiversity and endemism threatened by the effects of climate change, including sea level rise. Loss of biodiversity will have serious consequences for businesses and communities in a region dependent upon healthy coral reefs and functioning coastal ecosystems for key economic activities such as tourism and fisheries.
One of the major barriers to protecting biodiversity in the face of climate change is limited access to the data and tools needed to make informed decisions concerning protection and adaptation strategies.
Easily accessible, user-friendly, science-based planning that incorporates the most current and complete data related to climate change and sea level rise is essential as the territory looks toward the future. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can serve a critical role in monitoring the geographic dimensions of climate change as well as assessing the impacts of climate change on the natural environment. Working with partners, Conservancy GIS experts are designing the first ever on-line sea level visualization tool for the Caribbean. Tool development lays the foundation for informing decision makers and building planning capacity within the territory.
In June 2013, The Nature Conservancy convened a USVI Climate Change Ecosystem-based Adaptation workshop for community leaders, researchers, resources managers and climate change adaptation practitioners to:
- Document the broad array of adaptation to climate change initiatives in the territory which are completed or underway and to identify projects necessary for near-term planning and preparation.
- Demonstrate methods on the use of geographic information systems (GIS) to identify optimal areas for implementing ecosystem-based adaptation based on ecological and socioeconomic criteria.
- To develop nature-based solutions to address changes to the coastal and marine environment in the US Virgin Islands.
At this workshop, the participants developed a vision for continuing the work of EBA planning for the territory. Together, the group decided the ongoing goal for EBA practitioners in the territory is to:
“Strategically integrate data, policy, communications and ecosystems services initiatives to advance climate change adaptation in the US Virgin Islands.”
This initiative draws on stakeholder and expert knowledge of the territory, including understanding of existing development stresses, in order to identify critical socio-economic and ecosystem vulnerabilities to climate change and to identify feasible options for adaptation.
Since the workshop, we have hosted two webinars to focus on potential climate change related impacts to marine protected areas that we work on: the St. Croix East End Marine Park (STXEEMP) and the St. Thomas East End Reserves (STEER). Of potential concern are sea level rise impacts to a municipal landfill located directly adjacent to the largest mangrove forest remaining in the USVI. Coupled with our in-water coral restoration and site-level, marine protected area conservation work, we are proposing tangible solutions on the shore and in the water and supporting communities in their climate change adaptation efforts.
Using input from workshop participants and applying the Coastal Resilience tool, we identified the ten coastal areas in the territory most vulnerable to climate change and least likely to respond. They are: Two Brothers, Demarara, Kings Quarter, Honduras, Nadir, East Street, Mount Pleasant and Retreat, Bovoni, and Enighed. We can then begin to examine some possible solutions aimed at:
- Improving coastal protection,
- Increasing emergency services to particular areas, and
- Building community’s resilience to hazardous weather and future impacts.
These spatial decision tools now allow us to develop long-term strategies to create environments that allow for resiliency to changes over time.