Friday, October 09, 2015

Mitigating Climate Change in Antigua and Barbuda

While out on our boat tours I love to tell the story about how the artifacts of an Amerindian settlement disappeared one day back in September 1995. This archaeological settlement along Barbuda's south coast had been there since the earliest inhabitants lived there 1500 years ago, and in one day all evidence of that site washed away in the monster of a storm called Luis. The purpose of the story is to explain to my guests just how strong that hurricane was and to give an idea about how climate is changing. There are various climate change factors which contributed to the damage Antigua and Barbuda received in Hurricane Luis and each year we are finding out more about this thing we call Climate Change. Stronger than normal hurricanes are not the only thing we need to worry about with this new reality. 

According to scientists, the measurable signs of climate change are varied. Sea level rises which account for 6.7 inches over the past 100 years and the rate over the past ten years being nearly double that of a hundred years before are probably the biggest concern for small island states. Global temperatures rising is another symptom of climate change, and since 1880 the ten hottest years as measured by NASA occurred over the past 12 years. Coupled with the air temperature is also a global sea temperature rise. Another symptom is shrinking of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice sheets. NASA satellite imagery show a significant decline in ice coverage for these areas since 2002. The same is happening in the Arctic as well according to NASA's satellite imagery. The world's glaciers are also retreating at alarming rates. Ocean acidification is another measurable factor of climate change which is increasing and having a huge impact on all creatures using calcium carbonate like for example, the world's corals. This summer there were several studies showing oceanic current changes and highly ususual changes in Atlantic water temperatures. The US Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that the oceans have a interconnected collection of water currents which they describe as the Global Conveyor belt. They say that there is scientific evidence that with higher rainfall amounts in the North Atlantic and the melting of the sea ice and glaciers, there will be a much higher influx of fresh water into the sea which ultimately would lead to less cold salty (denser) water sinking. Normally this cold dense salty water sinks and flows south forming the main starting point of the Conveyer Belt's "streams". Scientists are extremely worried that this could have drastic and very immediate implications for the world's weather which is intricately linked to oceanic circulation. All in all the evidence is now becoming irrefutable and whatever you may think is the cause, the effect has major implications for us here in little Antigua and Barbuda. I have seen the changes happening and the most noticeable has been to do with the corals and those species, systems and industries that rely on healthy coral reefs. 

My team takes guests by boat on sightseeing and snorkeling excursions around our island's coastline. We have been doing it as a business each week since 1999 and for fun for much longer than that. My brothers and cousins grew up often spending more time on boats and on the sea than we did on land and the changes we have seen have been dramatic. The reefs which were vast fertile forests of corals are now ruins which look like messy piles of stones and rocks with scattered bits of soft corals and the rare piece of hard coral. It's difficult to explain to people what it looked like before the big die offs in the 90s, and it's probably better that they didn't know what it was like. It was a real magical wonderland and now there are only a few places on the planet that look like what it did all those years ago. Intricately linked with Climate Change and the health of coral reefs is fishing and in our case unmanaged fishing. Herbivore species of fish like parrot fish (chub), surgeon fish (doctor fish) and others help keep reefs healthy by feeding on algae which grows on dead corals while producing huge amount of sand in the process. Corals need sunlight to survive and when algae covers reefs they quickly perish. Climate change factors like stronger hurricanes, coral bleaching, ocean acidification as well as other stressors for corals are mitigated when there is a healthy population of herbivore fish preventing algae from taking over the live corals left on the reefs. Unfortunately, some of the species most often targeted by inshore fishers are these same reef cleaning species. There are some islands nearby that have Marine Protected Areas teaming with fish and have coral reefs which appear more healthy than our own. The main difference is that these particular areas are carefully managed with enforced fishing regulations. Sadly for a number of reasons our MPA sites are not yet carefully managed. Our government's Fisheries Department has fought hard to protect these species in recent times with new regulations and even closed seasons for parrotfish, but with only a tiny budget to do the actual work on the water, they have had a difficult task. When we guide guests through our reefs we often get comments about the scarcity of fish seen and as hard as it is to hear their comments we know that it's true. A few years back I took some of my team to the Tobago Cays which is a MPA in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. As we pulled up to an anchorage we were met by wardens who gave us a warm welcome and provided us with info about the park. We were asked to pay a small fee and were encouraged to enjoy snorkeling. My team were blown away with how beautiful the reef was and especially with the large numbers of fish, lobster, turtles and conch we saw. Corals seemed healthy compared to anything we had back home and it was a joy to be there. That lesson of what a well managed Marine Protected Area could look like stuck with my team and the example is seen over and over around the world where special areas are well looked after. Climate Change is a reality we can't avoid but looking after our reefs significantly lowers the impact of climate change on them and by extension on us all.

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