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Study: Climate change will lead to annual coral bleaching in the Caribbean

 

Coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo Credit: Paul Marshall

A new study has predicted that if current trends continue and the world fails to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nearly all of the world’s coral reefs, including many in the Caribbean, will suffer severe bleaching — the gravest threat to one of the Earth’s most important ecosystems — on annual basis.

The finding is part of a study funded by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and partners, which reviewed new climate change projections to predict which corals will be affected first and at what rate.

The report is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. Researchers found that the reefs in Taiwan and the Turks and Caicos archipelago will be among the first to experience annual bleaching, followed by reefs off the coast of Bahrain, in Chile and in French Polynesia.

Calling the predictions “a treasure trove” for environmentalists, the head of the UN agency, Erik Solheim, said the projects allow conservationists and governments to prioritise reef protection.

“The projections show us where we still have time to act before it’s too late,” Solheim said.

On average, the reefs started undergoing annual bleaching from 2014, according to the study.

Without the required minimum of five years to regenerate, the annual occurrences will have a deadly effect on the corals and disrupt the ecosystems which they support, UNEP said.

However, it said that if governments act on emission reduction pledges made in the Paris Agreement, which calls on countries to combat climate change and limit global temperature rise to below two degrees Celsius, the corals would have another 11 years to adapt to the warming seas.

Between 2014 and 2016, UNEP said the world witnessed the longest global bleaching event recorded.

Among the casualties, it said, was the Great Barrier Reef, with 90 per cent of it bleached and 20 per cent of the reef’s coral killed.

Credit: Jamaica ObserverUnited Nations Environment Programme

Jamaica’s drought tool could turn table on climate change

Drought-map_-629x432

On a very dry November 2013, Jamaica’s Meteorological Service made its first official drought forecast when the newly developed Climate Predictability Tool (CPT) was used to predict a high probability of below average rainfall in the coming three months.

By February, the agency had officially declared a drought in the eastern and central parishes of the island based on the forecasts. July’s predictions indicated that drought conditions would continue until at least September.

Said to be the island’s worst in 30 years, the 2014 drought saw Jamaica’s eastern parishes averaging rainfall of between 2 and 12 per cent, well below normal levels. Agricultural data for the period shows that production fell by more than 30 per cent over 2013 and estimates are that losses due to crop failures and wild fires amounted to US$1 billion.

Jamaica’s agricultural sector accounts for roughly seven per cent of the island’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employs about 20 per cent of its workforce.

The Met Service’s, Glenroy Brown told IPS, “The CPT was the main tool used by our Minister (of Water, Land, Environment & Climate Change) Robert Pickersgill throughout 2015 to advise the nation on the status of drought across the island.”

It was also used but the National Water Commission (NWC) to guide its implementation of island-wide water restrictions.

A technician with Jamaica’s Met Service, Brown designed and implemented the tool in collaboration with Simon Mason, a climate scientist from Columbia University’s International Research Institute (IRI) for Climate and Society with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

“The tool provides a Windows package for constructing a seasonal climate drought forecast model, producing forecasts with updated rainfall and sea surface temperature data,” he explained.

The innovation was one of the first steps in building resilience under Jamaica’s national climate policy. It provides drought-monitoring forecasts that allows farmers to plan their planting around dry periods and has been “tailored for producing seasonal climate forecasts from a general circulation model (GCM), or for producing forecasts using fields of sea-surface temperatures,” Brown said.

The tool combines a number of applications including Google Earth and localized GIS maps, to generate one to five day forecasts that are country and location specific. The information is broken down and further simplified by way of colour-coded information and text messages for the not so tech-savvy user.

The tool designed by Brown and Mason also incorporated IRI’s own CPT (designed by Mason) that was already being used by Caribbean countries with small meteorological services and limited resources, to produce their own up-to-date seasonal climate forecasts. The new tool combined data on recent rainfall and rainfall predictions to provide a forecast that focused specifically on drought.

“It was important for us to design a system that addressed Jamaica’s needs upfront, but that would also be suitable for the rest of the region,” Mason noted.

The scientists explained, “Because impact of a drought is based on the duration of the rainfall” and not only the amount of rainfall, looking forward is not enough to predict droughts because of factors related to accumulation and intensification.

“What we’re doing is essentially putting a standard three-month rainfall forecast in context with recent rainfall measurements,” Mason, told USAID’s publication Frontlines last May. He noted that if below-normal rainfall activity was recorded during an unusually dry period, indications were there was a “fairly serious drought” ahead.

Sheldon Scott from Jamaica’s Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) told IPS that farmers who used the SMS information were able to avoid the worse effects of the drought.

“The impacts were visible in relation to farmers who used the information and others who didn’t, because those who did were able to manage the mitigating factors more effectively,” he said.

During the period, more than 500 farmers received text alerts and about 700,000 bulletins were sent to agricultural extension officers.

Among the farmers who signed up for text messaging service, Melonie Risden told Frontlines, “The information we received from the Met office gave us drought forecasts in terms of probabilities. We still decided to plant because we were fortunate to have access to the river and could fill up water drums ahead of time in anticipation of the drought.”

Risden lost the corn she planted on the 13-acre property in Crooked River, Clarendon, one of the parishes hardest hit by the drought with only two per cent of normal rainfall, but was able to save much of the peas, beans and hot peppers.

Six months after Jamaica’s Met Service made its ground-breaking forecast, the CIMH presented the first region-wide drought outlook at the Caribbean Regional Climate Outlook Forum in Kingston. Now 23 other Caribbean and Central American countries are using the tool to encourage climate change resilience and inform decision-making.

“Regionally the tool is now a standard fixture across several countries within the region, including the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Haiti. This regional effort is coordinated by the CIMH,” Brown said.

Back in Jamaica, the tool is being hailed “a game-changer” in the climate fight by Jeffery Spooner head of the Met Service, who described the CPT as “an extremely important tool in Climate Change forecasting and specifically for the agricultural – including fisheries- and water sectors for rainfall projection .”

The CPT is now also used to provide regular monthly bulletins that are published by the Meteorological Service on their web site www.jamaicaclimate.net. RADA has also continued to use the CPT in its extension service, to enhance the ability of farmers’ and other agricultural interests to improve water harvesting, planting and other activities.

Since most of the island’s small farms depend on rainfall, more farmers – including those with large holdings – are using the information to better manage water use and guide their activities, Scott said.

Local and intentional scientists have linked the extreme atmospheric conditions related to the droughts affecting Jamaica and the region to the persistent high-pressure systems that has prevented the formation of tropical cyclones to global warming and climate change.

Across the agricultural sector, Jamaica continues to feel the impacts of drought and the challenges are expected to increase with the climate change. In a 2013 agricultural sector support analysis, the Inter-American Development Bank estimated, low impact on extreme climate events on Jamaica’s agriculture sector by 2025 could reach 3.4 per cent of “baseline GDP” annually.

In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Synthesis Report (AR5) pointed to tools like the CPT to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Its importance to Jamaica’s and the region’s food security and water sector cannot be overlooked.

In addition to adaptation for the water sector, the CPT is being modified to provide early warning indicators for wind speeds and coral bleaching among other applications, said the report.

And as showers of blessings cooled the land and brought much relief in the closing months of the year, CPT shows the drought could well be over.

Credit: Caribbean 360

New High Resolution Projections Predict Coral Reef Bleaching in the Caribbean

Scientists have discovered that when early reef fish parents develop at elevated temperatures, they can adjust their offspring's sex through non-genetic and non-behavioral means. (Photo : Flickr/Hamed Saber)

Scientists have discovered that when early reef fish parents develop at elevated temperatures, they can adjust their offspring’s sex through non-genetic and non-behavioral means. (Photo : Flickr/Hamed Saber)

As the climate changes and temperatures warm, corals are becoming more susceptible to bleaching. Now, researchers have looked at bleaching in detail and have discovered when and where bleaching will occur in the coming years.

“Our new local-scale projects will help resource managers better understand and plan for the effects of coral bleaching,” said Ruben van Hooidonk, the lead author of the new study, in a news release. “At some locations, referred to in our study as ‘relative refugia,’ lower rates of temperature increase and fewer extreme events mean reefs have more time to adapt to climate change. Managers may decide to use this information to protect these locations as refuges, or protected areas. Or they may take other actions to reduce stressed cause by human activities.”

Coral bleaching is primarily caused by warming ocean temperatures. This phenomenon is a major threat to coral reef health. When the water is too warm, corals expel the algae living in their tissues; this causes the corals to lose their vibrant colours and turn white. These bleached corals are under more stress and are more likely to die, which can leave reefs barren and lifeless.

In order to project future bleaching occurrences, the researchers used a regional ocean model and an approach called statistical downscaling. This allowed them to calculate the onset of annual severe bleaching at a much higher resolution. The resulting local-scale projects of bleaching conditions may help managers include climate change as a consideration when making conservation decisions.

There are certain regions, of course, that will be more impacted than others. Countries that are projected to experience bleaching conditions 15 or more years later than neighbouring regions include the reefs in Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos and Mexico. These areas could potentially be conservation priorities.

The findings reveal a bit more about bleaching conditions, which could help managers make better decisions in the future.

The findings are published in the journal Global Change Biology.

Coral Reefs Report and Climate Change News

With only about one-sixth of the original coral cover left, most Caribbean coral reefs may disappear in the next 20 years, primarily due to the loss of grazers in the region, according to the latest report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, is the most detailed and comprehensive study of its kind published to date – the result of the work of 90 experts over the course of three years. It contains the analysis of more than 35,000 surveys conducted at 90 Caribbean locations since 1970, including studies of corals, seaweeds, grazing sea urchins and fish.

The results show that the Caribbean corals have declined by more than 50% since the 1970s. But according to the authors, restoring parrotfish populations and improving other management strategies, such as protection from overfishing and excessive coastal pollution, could help the reefs recover and make them more resilient to future climate change impacts.

“The rate at which the Caribbean corals have been declining is truly alarming,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme. “But this study brings some very encouraging news: the fate of Caribbean corals is not beyond our control and there are some very concrete steps that we can take to help them recover.”

Climate change has long been thought to be the main culprit in coral degradation. While it does pose a serious threat by making oceans more acidic and causing coral bleaching, the report shows that the loss of parrotfish and sea urchin – the area’s two main grazers – has, in fact, been the key driver of coral decline in the region. An unidentified disease led to a mass mortality of the sea urchin in 1983 and extreme fishing throughout the 20th century has brought the parrotfish population to the brink of extinction in some regions. The loss of these species breaks the delicate balance of coral ecosystems and allows algae, on which they feed, to smother the reefs.

Reefs protected from overfishing, as well as other threats such as excessive coastal pollution, tourism and coastal development, are more resilient to pressures from climate change, according to the authors.

“Even if we could somehow make climate change disappear tomorrow, these reefs would continue their decline,” says Jeremy Jackson, lead author of the report and IUCN’s senior advisor on coral reefs. “We must immediately address the grazing problem for the reefs to stand any chance of surviving future climate shifts.”

The report also shows that some of the healthiest Caribbean coral reefs are those that harbour vigorous populations of grazing parrotfish. These include the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the northern Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda and Bonaire, all of which have restricted or banned fishing practices that harm parrotfish, such as fish traps and spearfishing. Other countries are following suit.

“Barbuda is about to ban all catches of parrotfish and grazing sea urchins, and set aside one-third of its coastal waters as marine reserves,” says Ayana Johnson of the Waitt Institute’s Blue Halo Initiative which is collaborating with Barbuda in the development of its new management plan. “This is the kind of aggressive management that needs to be replicated regionally if we are going to increase the resilience of Caribbean reefs.”

Reefs where parrotfish are not protected have suffered tragic declines, including Jamaica, the entire Florida Reef Tract from Miami to Key West, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Caribbean is home to 9% of the world’s coral reefs, which are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Caribbean reefs, spanning a total of 38 countries, are vital to the region’s economy. They generate more than US$ 3 billion annually from tourism and fisheries and over a hundred times more in other goods and services, on which more than 43 million people depend.

This video, featuring the report’s lead author Jeremy Jackson, explains the significance of the report:

Peruse the full report.

Credit: The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Brief Highlights Climate Change Impacts on Fisheries and Aquaculture

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The Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) has issued a brief,’Climate Change: Implications for Fisheries and Aquaculture,’ which details the threats of climate change and ocean acidification to fisheries, aquaculture and marine resources as relayed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5).

The brief highlights that climate change and ocean acidification are altering ocean ecosystems, leading to a loss of marine biodiversity and changes in seafood production levels, including through the displacement of stocks and rising mortality of shellfish. It notes that other factors such as over-fishing, habitat loss and pollution worsen the impacts of climate change on marine resources. The publication also highlights impending issues such as: the rapid decline of coral reef ecosystems, with the risk of collapse of some coastal fisheries; the likely increase in coral bleaching; potential increases in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing from changes in coastal resources and food insecurity; and possible mass die-offs in farmed fish due to harmful algal blooms.

The brief explains that fishers can adapt to some of the impacts, through, inter alia: changing gear or target species; increasing aquaculture; and moving to dynamic management policies. Additionally, some positive impacts of climate change are highlighted, including faster growth rates and food conversion efficiency, longer growing seasons, and new growing areas due to decreases in ice cover.

Regarding the potential for mitigation in the fisheries sector, the brief highlights options such as strengthening coastal zone management to reduce land-sourced pollution, over harvesting and physical damage to resources. It also suggests creating new habitats, such as artificial reefs, to act as fish nurseries in areas where coral reef destruction occurs. According to the report, protecting some ocean ecosystems will help moderate the speed and scale of climate change, as well as build ecosystem health.

The brief is published jointly by the SFP and the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and Cambridge Judge Business School, and is supported by the European Climate Foundation. It is one of a series of publications synthesizing the most relevant AR5 findings for specific economic and business sectors, and grew from the idea that the fisheries and aquaculture sector could make better use of the AR5, if distilled into an accessible and succinct summary.

Credit: SFP News Story from the Climate Change: Implications for Fisheries and Aquaculture publication.

The Australia Caribbean Coral Reef Collaboration: Managing coral reefs in a changing climate

Coral reefs in the Caribbean are amongst the most at risk globally. Having lost 80% of its corals over the last half century, mainly due to a changing and variable climate, coastal development and pollution, the region is seeking to turn the tide.

Warming seas brought forth by climate change have contributed to corals being “bleached” – a state where the tiny polyps that build the reefs die. This is particularly problematic as coral reefs are showcases of biodiversity, centrepieces of cultural identity and sources of sustainable economic opportunity. Loss of reefs is a serious economic problem in the Caribbean, where large populations depend on fishing and tourism.

These realities are the basis for the Australia Caribbean Coral Reef Collaboration: Managing coral reefs in a changing climate. The two year programme (2012-2014) seeks to bring together coral reef managers and policymakers from across the world to improve the outlook for the Caribbean’s coral reefs in the face of climate change by:

  • Developing a Regional Plan of Action for reducing coral reef vulnerability amidst a changing climate,
  • Enhancing knowledge exchange between Australia and the Caribbean region through Collaborative Projects
  • Providing a platform for engagement and capacity building across the region through a Climate Change Adaptation Resource Portal
Regional Plan of Action

The Regional Plan of Action will provide a regional vision for building resilience of coral reefs to climate change and identify key needs and opportunities for national and international initiatives. The programme will also establish a framework for mainstreaming adaptation strategies for coral reefs into Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states’ sustainable development agenda, in a manner that advances the implementation of the landmark  Regional Framework for Achieving Development Resilient to Climate Change (2009-2015).

Resource portal

A dedicated Climate Change Adaptation Resource Portal is also being developed to provide a one-stop shop for coral reef managers and policymakers seeking the latest and best concepts, tools and resources for managing coral reefs in a changing climate.

Collaborative projects

Five collaborative projects are being implemented to enhance knowledge exchange between Australia and the Caribbean region, especially in priority areas such as biodiversity conservation, integration of social and economic considerations, strategic coastal management, stewardship and reef health assessment.

Project activities are being coordinated with existing activities and organisations within the region to ensure integration and sustainability of project benefits.

The projects include:
Marine biodiversity offsetstoward no net loss of biodiversity in a changing climate
Outlook reporting: Building climate change into integrated coastal management
Monitoring multi-tool for managersA monitoring protocol for meeting the information needs of decision-makers
Building social resilience into reef management: guidance to help managers integrate social and economic considerations into decisions
Reef stewardship: A Caribbean program for harnessing people power for reef management
Development Partners

The Australia Caribbean Coral Reef Collaboration is supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). Implementation of the program is being led by Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) in partnership with the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (5Cs) under the auspices of the Caribbean Community Secretariat (CARICOM).

Key project partners include:

Program activities are coordinated with other important regional programs and initiatives, including:

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