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Undercurrents: Caribbean Territories to Be Part of Next National Climate Assessment

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

Ignored completely or underplayed in previous reports, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will be included in the 2018 National Climate Assessment, with an entire chapter devoted to potential effects of global warming on the eastern Caribbean islands.

That news comes on the heels of a climate change workshop conducted on St. Thomas in February by the Governors’ Institute on Community Design and could indicate a bit of an ecological awakening, despite other signs of challenges.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program conducts National Climate Assessments every four years, looking at current conditions and projecting major trends for the next 25 to 100 years in the areas of energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, health, social systems and biological diversity.

The 2018 assessment, which is currently being drafted, is the fourth. The first two did not include the territories. The third assessment gave them a nod, including them in a section covering the Southeast Region, but “a lot of the information (on the islands) didn’t make it into the final” report, according to William Gould, a research ecologist and director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Caribbean Climate HUB based in Puerto Rico. What did make it into the report was lacking in detail.

For the upcoming assessment, the Puerto Rico/Virgin Islands chapter is being drafted by 16 different researchers, including Wayne Archibald, CEO of Archibald Energy Group, LLC, and formerly a professor at the University of the Virgin Islands.

In a meeting last week, they discussed the draft outline, Gould said. The chapter will focus on six major issues:

– Freshwater availability,

– Changing Oceans,

– Warming temperatures,

– Rising sea levels and coastal erosion,

– Extreme events, and

– Interaction with the wider Caribbean.

The first five issues represent anticipated effects of global warming. The sixth, which Gould said was added in discussions last week, is an acknowledgement that “we exist within the context of the wider Caribbean” and that there should be collaboration in mitigation efforts with other, non-U.S. island nations.

Given their proximity, impacts on the Virgin Islands and on its much larger neighbor, Puerto Rico, are expected to be “very similar,” Gould said, but there are some differences. For instance, changes to patterns in rainfall may be more noticeable in Puerto Rico because of its higher elevations, whereas the impact of sea level rise/coastal erosion may be greater for the Virgin Islands because they are so small.

Scientists predict the area will experience a wide range of impacts, including warming faster than the global average, with more days reaching temperatures over 95 degrees and more nights over 85 degrees; a shift to more dramatic swings between droughts and flooding conditions; a loss of coastal land; an intensification of tropical storm activity; and significant changes to marine life.

There have been reports that President Donald Trump’s administration plans to gut funding for climate research.

Gould acknowledged, “There’s a lot of uncertainty” regarding research funding, but added “That won’t affect this effort at all … The ball is rolling … This assessment will be completed.”

He expects the Caribbean chapter to be completed this summer.

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