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The economic impacts of coral bleaching across the Caribbean islands

A new study has examined the potential economic and environmental consequences of coral bleaching for 30 islands across the Caribbean. An interdisciplinary team of researchers found that island nations such as Cuba and Jamaica are less vulnerable to coral bleaching than island territories like Saint Barthélemy.

A coral bleaching event that is extreme enough for corals to die impacts the entire reef ecosystem. This can have ripple effects for coastal communities that depend on reef ecosystems for food, tourism, and shoreline protection.

“This study brings together data on 35 biophysical, ecological, socioeconomic, and management variables from 30 islands and creates important advances in understanding climate change vulnerability in the Caribbean,” said study lead author Katherine Siegel, a graduate student at UC Berkeley.

The research was focused on the Caribbean island chain that runs from the Bahamas in the north to Trinidad & Tobago in the south. This region is socioeconomically diverse, with major differences in economic dependence on reefs.

The team classified an island’s vulnerability in three ways: exposure, or the likelihood of bleaching events; sensitivity, or the effect that bleaching is likely to have on the ecosystem and people; and the ability of the ecosystem and people to adapt to or recover from a bleaching event. The team based the analysis on more than 250 published datasets, survey results, and government reports.

“We were surprised to find that independent islands have lower social-ecological vulnerability than territories,” said Siegel. “Territories – such as the Dutch islands of Sint Maarten and Saba – tend to be left out of global assessments of climate change vulnerability, but our results suggest that they need to invest in improving their ability to adapt to environmental changes.”

While independent islands are more exposed to environmental conditions that can trigger bleaching events, the researchers found that they are less likely to experience negative socioeconomic consequences because they are less economically dependent on reefs. On the other hand, the French territory Saint Barthélemy has very low exposure to the conditions that cause bleaching, but is highly vulnerable.

“Bleaching events have become more common and severe in recent decades, a trend that may only worsen as the world’s oceans continue to warm.” said study co-author Sarah Lester. “It’s essential that we develop a better understanding of how this disturbance impacts coral reef ecosystems and the people that rely on these ecosystems for their livelihood.”

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: UC Berkeley Photo by Katherine Siegel

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