TELESCOPE, Grenada (AP) – The old coastal road in this fishing village at the eastern edge of Grenada sits under a couple of feet of murky saltwater which regularly surges past a hastily erected breakwater of truck tires and bundles of driftwood intended to hold back the Atlantic Ocean.
For Desmond Augustin and other fishermen living along the shorelines of the southern Caribbean island, there’s nothing theoretical about the threat of rising sea levels.
“The sea will take this whole place down,” Augustin said as he stood on the stump of one of the uprooted palm trees that line the shallows off his village of tin-roofed shacks built on stilts. “There’s not a lot we can do about it except move higher up.”
The people along this vulnerable stretch of eastern Grenada have been watching the sea eat away at their shoreline in recent decades, a result of destructive practices such as the extraction of sand for construction and ferocious storm surges made worse by climate change, according to researchers with the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy, who have helped locals map the extent of coastal erosion.
Dozens of families are now thinking about relocating to new apartments built on a hillside about a 10-minute walk from their source of livelihood, a tough sell for hardy Caribbean fishing families who see beachfront living as a virtual birthright.
If climate change impact predictions come true, scientists and a growing number of government officials worry that this stressed swath of Grenada could be a preview of what’s to come for many other areas in the Caribbean, where 70 percent of the population live in coastal settlements.
In fact, a 2007 report by the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the devastation wreaked on Grenada by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 “is a powerful illustration of the reality of small-island vulnerability.”
The hurricane killed 28 people, caused damage totaling twice the nation’s gross domestic product, damaged 90 percent of the housing stock and hotel rooms and shrank an economy that had been growing nearly six percent a year, according to the climate scientists’ report.
Storms and beach erosion have long shaped the geography of coastal environments but rising sea levels and surge from more intense storms are expected to dramatically transform shorelines in coming decades, bringing enormous economic and social costs, experts say. The tourism-dependent Caribbean is thought to be one of the globe’s most vulnerable regions.
“It’s a massive threat to the economies of these islands,” said Owen Day, a marine biologist with the Caribsave Partnership, a nonprofit group based in Barbados that is spearheading adaptation efforts. “I would say the region’s coastal areas will be very severely impacted in the next 50 to 100 years.”
Scientists and computer models estimate that global sea levels could rise by at least three feet by 2100 as warmer water expands and ice sheets melt in Greenland and Antarctica. Global sea levels have risen an average of 1.18 inches a decade since 1993, according to many climate scientists, although the effect can be amplified in different areas by topography and other factors.
In the 15 nations that make up the Caribbean Community bloc, that could mean the displacement of 110,000 people and the loss of some 150 multi-million-dollar tourist resorts, according to a modeling analysis prepared by Caribsave for the United Nations Development Program and other organizations. Twenty-one of 64 regional airports could be inundated.
About five percent of land area in the Bahamas and 2 percent of Antigua & Barbuda could be lost. Factoring in surge from more intense storms means a greater percentage of the regional population and infrastructure will be at risk.
In most cases, international money is pouring in to kick-start “soft engineering” efforts restoring natural buffers such as mangroves. Some call that the most effective and cheapest way to minimize the impact of rising seas.
But, in the long run, “we need to move our centers of population, infrastructure, et cetera, out of the areas likely to become vulnerable to rising seas,” said Anthony Clayton, a climate change expert and the director of a sustainability institute at Jamaica’s campus of the University of the West Indies.
Where to rebuild will be yet another challenge, with the region’s islands mostly rugged and mountainous with small areas of flat land in coastal areas.