Undercurrents: Researchers Finger V.I. Estates Most Vulnerable to Climate Change

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

Although experts agree the Virgin Islands is late in taking climate change seriously, you might be surprised by how much research actually is happening.

The Caribbean Landscape Conservation Cooperative – one of a network of private-public sector LCC groups created by the U.S. Department of the Interior – lists several recently completed research projects and three that are in progress. They all involve the Caribbean territories of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

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Scientists are looking at everything from “vegetation dynamics” and the effects of rising sea and land temperatures to how specific species of animals may possibly adapt to future changes.

“There is a lot of work going on with respect to climate in the territory,” according to a presentation by Jean-Pierre Oriol, director of the Coastal Zone Management division of the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, at the recent conference held in Guam. “However, it is not being done in a coordinated effort.”

Of course, it’s hard to coordinate research on subject that has as many facets as climate change, with researchers trying to predict how global warming will affect every living thing and all aspects of human communities. It’s sort of like organizing the study of everything. But there are attempts to prioritize.

One CLCC project identified areas in the Virgin Islands that researchers concluded are most likely to feel the greatest negative impact of global warming and possible ways to mitigate the situation.

“U.S. Virgin Islands Climate Change Ecosystem-based Adaptation – Promoting Resilient Coastal and Marine Communities” was published in March 2014. Its authors are listed as Steve Schill, Jeanne Brown, Aurora Justiniano and Anne Marie Hoffman. A notation says it was made possible with the support of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Conservation program’s Cooperative Agreement with the Nature Conservancy and with matching funds from the Nature Conservancy.

Primary concerns for island communities include rising sea levels that will erode shoreline and destroy coastal ecosystems such as mangroves; an intensity increase for hurricanes and other storms; and alterations in precipitation patterns that are expected to result in increased swings between the extremes of drought and floods.

Researchers relied on the existing estate system to label areas throughout St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas; there are 336 estates. Then they tried to determine which are most vulnerable and, of those, which are most likely to benefit from mitigation attempts.

The research team created a study model situation. Assuming the sea level has risen one or two meters by the year 2100 – as is widely predicted – and then factoring in a Hurricane Hugo-type storm – one with winds of 140 mph that hits the islands as it heads northwest – they projected its impact in various estates.

They looked first at an estate’s exposure to rising sea levels and to storm surge, then at what the researchers believe to be the resilience of the area’s population. To make that determination they considered such census data as income, education levels and family units.

Putting together high exposure with the low adaptability ratings, they came up with what they believe are the 10 most vulnerable estates in the territory:

– On St. Thomas – Estates Nazareth, Bovoni, Mandahl, Frydendal and Queens Quarter.
– On St. Croix – Estates Two Brothers, Boetzberg, La Grande Princess and La Grange.
– On St. John – Estate Carolina.

The next step, the researchers concluded, will be to determine which of the more vulnerable areas are likely to benefit most from mitigation and restoration efforts.

(Next Undercurrents: nature-based mitigation known as ecosystem-based adaptation, or EBA.)

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