How climate change is stripping the Caribbean of its prized coral reefs

March 22, 2017, 8:47 a.m.
coral reef in Caribbean
Photo: Kwiatek7/Shutterstock

Climate change has had a dismal impact on coral reefs around the globe, including those in the Caribbean. Rising sea temperatures and acidification have caused these coral ecosystems to die, and scientists have noticed an increase in coral bleaching, where the reefs turn ghostly white.

In the North Atlantic, the impact of climate change on reefs is exacerbated by the increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes, which are fueled by warm seas. These storms can damage and remove corals from reefs. In one study, researchers found that in the Caribbean, it can take at least eight years for reefs to recover from a storm.

But it's not just the reefs that suffer. Some researchers predict that the combination of sea level rise, dangerous storm surge and hurricanes will threaten the existence of so many of the island nations in the area. By the end of the next century, the Bahamas are predicted to be utterly submerged. Bermuda, Antigua and Barbados are predicted to lose at least half of their territory; Belize and most of the southern end of Florida (including Miami) could lose 25 percent.

It's not just land area that will be lost, predicts James W. Porter, a University of Georgia professor of ecology who has testified before Congress five times on environmental issues, including sharing his input on the effects of global warming on coral reefs. Porter says the unique languages of the Caribbean will also be lost due to the displacement of their populations. As people move and incorporate into other areas, their languages will disappear.

Watch this Southern Spaces video as Porter talks about the loss of land and language in the Caribbean, and why it matters. (Southern Spaces is a multimedia journal published in collaboration with the Robert W. Woodruff Library of Emory University.)