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HomeNewsArchivesUVI Experts on Climate Change: A 'Great, Uncontrolled Scientific Experiment'

UVI Experts on Climate Change: A 'Great, Uncontrolled Scientific Experiment'

April 20, 2007 — Coral bleaching and reef species depletion are unique potential problems for the Virgin Islands that climate change may severely affect, experts at UVI said in presentations Thursday.
The earth is in a “great, uncontrolled scientific experiment," they said. They also agreed that one of the results of the oceans waters warming would be an increase in the available energy for hurricanes. They warned of the real possibility of more frequent and intense storms.
Threats to the territory’s ecosystem were the subject of three seminars presented by UVI researchers and specialists in the field on Thursday afternoon at the Teacher’s Education Building.
The seminars were part of UVI’s observance of Earth Day. The presentations were made by Roy Watlington, Tyler Smith and Nasseer Idrisi on the various impacts that climate change is having on the territory's resources.
Australian aborigines refer to those of us in the rest of the world as “mutants” because we have strayed so far from the earth, said host John D’Orazio.
Former chancellor of the university and now a professor of physics, Watlington is renown for his investigative work on tsunamis and studies in the Anegada Passage. His presentation, "Global Climate Change — An Overview and Mitigation Strategies," was filled with slides and data documenting the cycles and progression of climate change and suggesting possible ways of dealing with it.
He noted that Al Gore’s film "An Inconvenient Truth" had produced both positive and negative results. It has raised public awareness, but was not altogether accurate in every respect, he said. However, Watlington and his colleagues all agreed that climate change was real and that human activity is having an impact.
Watlington spoke about the very long cycles involved and the dramatic swings that occur in nature. “There was a time you could walk from Puerto Rico to Anegada as sea levels varied over tens of thousands of years,” he said.
According to Watlington, planetary cycles affect climate. The distance from the sun changes, as does the earth’s orbit and the orientation of its axis. There is a constant redistribution of the earth’s energy through geothermal activity and by fluctuations in ocean currents and water levels.
He did make some dire predictions if things continue on their present course. “There is a very real chance that all glaciers may disappear from Glacier National Park within 40 years," he said. "What will we call it then?”
He speculated that Iceland will lose 40 percent of its glaciers by the next century, and that Artic ice could vanish in as few as 65 years. All the oceans could rise as much as 10 feet, which would cause massive flooding and population relocation. “We could be snorkeling in Miami," he quipped.
Watlington advised using less energy by simple means: “Turn off the lights. Plants trees and conserve vegetation. Use alternative energy sources. Any tree is better than concrete.”
The next presentation was "Coral Bleaching and Seawater Warming" by Smith, a noted coral researcher. He began by pointing out the value and qualities of coral reefs. They provide coastal protection, habitat for species and help create sand for beaches. For those purposes, in the Virgin Islands, Smith asserts, they are worth billions of dollars.
The unusual warming of ocean waters in 2005 caused a 40 percent loss in certain areas, he said. However, Smith remains cautiously optimistic, noting that certain reefs are adapting and beginning to regenerate.
Smith qualified his remarks by saying that there is a chance that significant warming will occur in the next 10 years and exacerbate the destruction. He described the symbiotic relationship between coral and algae. In that relationship the coral acts as a host and creates a protective environment for the algae. The algae, in turn, produces nutrients for the coral. A balance between the two insures survival.
According to Smith, algae is being affected by African dust, which contains pollutants and nutrients that feed the algae. The dust blows in abundance over the Virgin Islands, with more of it each year because of drought and increasing desert size. Additionally, the increase in global greenhouse gases, like CO2, increases the acidity of ocean water.
The algae then dies and the coral, without its symbiotic partner, is bleached by the sun and dies as well.
“In 2005, a pool of warm water sat on the area, and was most likely caused by humans and industrial activities," Smith said. "An increase of one degree Celsius stressed the relationship. That warming caused massive coral bleaching.”
Not all coral reefs respond the same, he went on to say, and the deep-water reefs south of St. Thomas may return to health eventually.
The territory has the second-largest oil refinery in the area in Hovensa, which brings its own set of ecological problems. Smith continues to study the effects on the reefs of sewage and erosion plumes, and those created by industrial byproducts like the waste from rum production.
The final speaker of the afternoon, Idrisi, presented "Climate Change and its Impacts on Reef Species Population Dynamics."
Hailing from the MacLean Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, Idrisi began by describing the complex structure of the ocean and the many variables that make it difficult to study, let alone predict.
A “conveyor belt” around the earth redistributes its energy, he said. Local currents, temperatures and winds are affected by many factors, including Amazonian outflow and meteorological phenomenon like El Nino and La Nina.
The area is unique in that there is a natural upwelling to the north and its converse to the south. According to Idrisi, the effects of warming on the reefs and habitat are different on both sides of the islands. Because the ecosystems are so complex, he said, it is difficult to determine just where we are in the process.
He stressed that complex systems are diverse and inherently more stable than simple systems. “Big, healthy coral reefs mean a big and healthy fish population,” he said.
He continued, “Yes, ecosystems change naturally. But human activity also creates change. Stuff that happens a long way away from here affects our environment and us.”
“Can we predict how global warming will effect the coral reefs?" Idrisi said. "Probably not, but we can observe and address how nature adapts. As for the reefs, will they able to adjust to changes in currents, temperatures and winds? We shall have to wait and see.”
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