How Will Climate Change Affect Island Nations? An Expert Weighs in

Published Mar 17, 2020

Dr. Kim Waddell, a biologist living and working in the Caribbean, discusses threats and responses to climate change.

In this episode
  • Colleen learns about how climate change is hurting island nations
  • Kim explains what we can predict about the future of the Caribbean
  • The two talk steps to combat climate change
Timing and cues
  • Opener (0:00-0:34)
  • Intro (0:34-2:26)
  • Interview part 1(2:26-15:14)
  • Break (15:14-16:12)
  • Interview part 2 (16:12-24:36)
  • Science FTW throw (24:36-24:40)
  • Science FTW (24:40-27:20)
  • Outro (27:20-28:30)
Related content
Show credits

Science FTW: Cynthia DeRocco
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

A month ago, I made my tropical getaway dreams a reality and took a trip to Dominica, a mountainous island nation in the Caribbean, where I hiked and snorkeled almost every day. It was warm, my back pain was gone, and I was in full vacation mode. But as someone whose job is talking to scientists who care deeply about their research on current issues, it’s hard for me to get climate change out of my mind, even on vacation.

And on a sunny beach where the waves lapped at my feet, I couldn’t stop thinking about sea level rise and how vulnerable Dominica is to the impacts of climate change. But not just Dominica. As the ocean becomes more acidic, extreme weather intensifies, and the line between the wet and dry season blurs, all island nations are hit extra hard.

But those are just my beachside musings. I wanted to hear the analysis of an expert. And who better to talk to than Dr. Kim Waddell, a biologist and the director of a grant from the national science foundation awarded to the University of the Virgin Islands. He’s working on the front lines of hazard preparation and mentoring the next generation of scientists on St. Thomas.  

Kim is a board member of the Union of Concerned Scientists and explains why responding to climate change is especially challenging for island nations, and what solutions are out there. He talks about research and restoration plans for what’s known as blue infrastructure, which encompasses all the water elements of the landscape like rivers, ponds, and wetlands. And he gives us a glimpse into the mind of a scientist living in the US Virgin Islands when both hurricane Irma and Maria hit in 2017.

Colleen: Kim, welcome to the podcast.

Kim: Well, thank you. I'm excited to be here.

Colleen: We've talked about climate change and sea-level rise on the podcast in the past, and we know that many island nations are going to be hit hardest, and unfortunately, some may even disappear. What are some of the climate challenges that are specific to island nations?

Kim: Well, there's quite a few. A lot of it depends on the topography and longitude-latitude, things like that. In the Caribbean, we're in the hurricane alley. Storms come across from the coast of Africa, across the Atlantic. They often swing through the Caribbean and then up potentially into Central America, Gulf of Mexico, and so forth. And we've seen that the intensity of these storms, because of sea surface temperatures being considerably high or rising in general, we see the intensifications of these storms happening in rather short amount of time. It's not a, you know, Category 1, Category 2-type storm for quite a ways, and all of a sudden intensifying in the last 48 hours. And so, we saw that with Irma and Maria in 2017. They intensified rather quickly.

So, that's one factor. The others are more nuanced, relatively speaking, I think we see droughts and then heavy rain events that are rather random, just as we've seen random temperatures, across the northeast, for example, warm temperatures in the middle of January or February. And we see the same thing. But when you tie it to rainfall, again, depending on the topography of the islands, you can get these 6, 8-inch rainfalls randomly. And they're very intense and cause local coastal flooding, and that's where most of the folks live. And so, that. Coral disease is up because of the stress of higher temperatures whether it's bleaching or just new diseases that haven't been characterized before. Things like that are all results of climate change. And so, that affects fisheries, it affects our tourism product, it affects, just the livability of some of these places.

Colleen: Right. Well, I was recently in Dominica where very mountainous...I think, possibly the tallest mountains in the islands.

Kim: In the Lesser Antilles.

Colleen: The Lesser Antilles, right. And just being there, there would be just periodic real downpours happening kind of at different times during the day. And I was talking to a few people about the wet season and the dry season, which seem to now the lines are...

Kim: Blurred.

Colleen: Blurred. And I was imagining because there’s so many waterfalls, and I’m just imagining when all that rain comes down it's just washing down the mountain. I mean where does it go? It's falling in the ocean, but it must be causing great damage to where people are living, which is very close to the coast, I'd imagine.

Kim: Well, it varies. I mean, if it was a perfectly vegetated, normal ecosystem, then I think the leaves, the branches, the trees themselves or the shrubs, they soften the impact of the rainfall. And between that and the soils, I mean...and that's the other factor, is, the type of soils these islands might have. Usually, the topsoils are fairly shallow. The leaves buffering the rainfall, I mean, they still have a chance to absorb. They will, you know, gravity will take them into, ravines or, as we call them in the Virgin Islands, guts, and they'll flow out. And there's enough, things breaking up the flow of water to ideally lessen the impact by the time it gets to the coastlines. What we see now with development is that you have impervious surfaces, roads and rooftops, and so forth. And roads, in particular, really accelerate. You know, because there's nothing blocking them. And so you'll see, a standing foot of water at the bottom of a hill that's just rushing down because there's absolutely nothing slowing it.

Colleen: It's like the superhighway of water.

Kim: Right, exactly, exactly. And so, those are the kind of things along with debris, whether it's waste, plastics, sediments from unprotected soils or development, there's a lot of things that get into these streams, creeks, rivers. And if that's not filtered by Mother Nature, one of the ecosystem services that we seem to underappreciate, you'll see a lot of sediment getting out there. Now, in some systems, like, the Mississippi, those sediments serve a purpose. They basically provision and replace lost erosion from waves scouring the coastline. But in the Caribbean, you have mangroves primarily as the sort of the wetlands counterpart. And they have been removed primarily for development and, people want resorts or, piers and docks for yachts and what have you. And there's just not a lot of filtering going on. So, you get the sediments out into the open water and those impact the coral reefs and the shallow water ecosystems, whether its seagrasses or what have you. So, there's a lot of damage potentially with unprotected wetlands.

Colleen: You were there in Saint Thomas when both Irma hit and then, two weeks later, Maria. Can you tell me what was it like? How much warning did you have? What did you do?

Kim: Well, NOAA and the other weather services were pretty good in warning us. I mean, you see these tracks, literally off the coast of Africa. Sometimes you'll know that there's a storm building in the Atlantic and it might be, depending on the speed, it could be a week. It could be 10 days. Once they get into, within a few hundred miles of, the Lesser Antilles, then, you start paying attention. Because if they've been gaining strength, for example...I mean, Irma was the strongest Atlantic storm in recorded history. Now, that doesn't mean it was the strongest storm. It's just, in the last few hundred years, it was the strongest one we'd ever seen. So, we knew that was gonna be a dangerous storm and it proved to be so when it hit, Dominica, Barbuda, and then worked its way north towards us. We knew we were in trouble. And at that point, 48 hours, people are...buying groceries, batteries, things like that to prepare. But frankly, by that point, there's not a lot of things left on the shelf, whether you're buying plywood to protect your windows or what have you. It was a mad rush at the end. Anyway, once a storm hit, then you have this terrifying, 12, 14-hour nightmare of just roaring winds and, yeah, it was...I've been through 7, 8 hurricanes and never a Category 5. And it sort of redefined what I thought storms could be. And I can check it off my bucket list. I don't want to see one of those again, so...

Colleen: It's hard to imagine, I live in the northeast, in the Boston area. We have nor'easters. I live on the ocean. And, to me, those can be terrifying. And we get probably 80-mile an hour wind gusts, maybe 90. But you're talking about 200-mile per hour winds.

Kim: Yes. I've been through, category 1 storm, 75, 85, 90 miles an hour. I mean, it's loud. It's frightening. You certainly can't be outside. This is another altogether different experience. It's a deafening roar. I had a couple of windows that were facing a hillside. So, I didn't have them boarded up. And I just watched this island get defoliated. I mean, every leaf, every branch, every palm frond just stripped away. And, you went from a lush, green, tropical forest to Vermont in February. I mean, it was, in a deciduous forest. there was just nothing left. And watching the water, whirling oceans, but then you saw the sediment plumes as the rainfall just washed all the soil and leaf litter out into the ocean two miles offshore, these giant, greenish-brown plumes full of biomatter. Tiny little chunks of leaf and a lot of dirt all just going out and so on.

Colleen: So, there's the scientist.

Kim: Right, right.

Colleen: I'm thinking that you're probably maybe fearing for your life that your house will fall down. But the scientist in you is also thinking, "Look at all that sediment go."

Kim: Well, there is that. I was in a very solid, reinforced concrete home. I was in the middle floor. So, there was... the roof wasn't even where my house is. It was where my landlord's house. And then, there was this smaller studio unit below me. And so, I felt pretty protected and I knew that this house had been built and had survived Marilyn and Hugo back in '89 and '96.

Colleen: I was looking at a recent poll "The Washington Post" did with the Kaiser Family Foundation that found that 79% of respondents said that human activity is driving global warming and roughly half agreed that urgent action is needed. After these storms, how do islanders view climate change?

Kim: Well, hurricanes have been a part of all human experience, at least in the Caribbean, whether it's the native Caribbean people's Arawak or the Carib Indians or what have you. They saw hurricanes, the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, English, etc. So, all experienced hurricanes. So, it's not out of the norm. What people are starting to realize is this intensity. The frequency may not change, though it appears to be more frequent that we get stronger storms. But it's a little too early to tell that for sure. I think what happens after storms is you get this heightened awareness and sensitivity. And that's a real opportunity for scientists and policymakers to try and implement whether it's hazard mitigation strategies or hurricane preparedness strategies just, for example, after the Florida earthquakes, off of the south coast of Puerto Rico, or earthquake preparedness, having an earthquake kit.

These are the kind of events that get people to think about them and perhaps take that extra step to prepare and anticipate. I think the long view as far as understanding climate change, I think it's a mixed bag. I think people are more open to it, certainly among those folks with a little bit of education, I think they've heard about it. They have no reason to question it or doubt it. And I think when you point to the intensity of these storms and say, "This is probably tied to climate change," they get it. They also get it with the sea surface temperature. The water is warmer and, whether they go to the beach or what have you. So, I think they're seeing the signs. But, do they see that, it's an anthropogenic effect? That's a little more sophisticated question. But I think they're aware of climate change. And certainly, the low-lying islands, like, Anguilla, they have serious concerns and they're much more aware because they have very little room, frankly, to adjust.

Colleen: How about consensus among government officials?

Kim: I think most government officials, get it. They're aware of it. Do they have the tools to do something about it? That's a different story. I think that's the challenge, is the capability and the capacity to address these challenges on such a small scale when the problem and the source of those problems come out from elsewhere. I mean, this is a China, United States, Europe-generated problem and we are just the little guys that are catching the immediate impacts. And I think there's a...not a sense of helplessness, but, we realize that we're not driving it. It's not our use of, cars or power plants that are driving this phenomenon. This is a global responsibility. And, we know from the comments, you know, in the United Nations from a lot of small island developing states that they see that they have a limited role and they just wanna be the ones that are raising awareness with the big powers that, "Hey, what you're doing or not doing affects us." And I think that's how, I think, a lot of the folks in the Caribbean see it.


Colleen: You're the director of a grant from the National Science Foundation to address the implications of climate change on insular social-ecological systems, or small islands.

Kim: Right.

Colleen: You're focused primarily on hurricane impacts and coral reefs. Tell me about some of the work that your students are doing.

Kim: Sure, this is a large grant. A $20 million, 5-year opportunity, which for a small university like ours, that's a staggering opportunity and responsibility. And we have three components. We are looking at coral reefs because they are an endangered species. They are an important or critical fisheries habitat and they're iconic. I mean, when people think of the Caribbean, they think coral reefs. And so, there's a lot of support from, federal agencies, like, NOAA or EPA. The Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are home to a sizeable proportion of the coral reefs in the United States.

And so, it's a great place to learn and understand them. They're the healthiest in the tropics. And we've been monitoring them for, 20 years or so. So, we wanted to take advantage of we had a body of scientific work, publish literature in this particular area. And so, we focused on that. And we're currently looking at disease dynamics and demographics of corals. And the idea is to understand what are the elements or variables in the coral ecosystem that protect them from these anthropogenic challenges or just the climate change as well as just normal fluctuations in ecosystems.

So, we've been doing that for probably 15 years with this current brand. But the fundamental emphasis behind the EPSCoR, which is the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, is to build capacity in regions of the United States that don't get a sizeable chunk of National Science Foundation funding, for research.

The real goal here is to develop students of all ages, but primarily college and graduate students, to get into the STEM fields and join the workforce, and diversify the economy, but stimulate research investment, whether it's from the private sector or public sector. And the idea is, over time, that you become more competitive. And it bolsters the economy. It bolsters quality of life because you have a diverse workforce, etc., etc. We focused on the marine ecosystem, again, because that's sort of our bread and butter for our tourism industry as well. But more recently, we're looking at how to prepare that workforce for the challenges that we were just talking about, climate change and so forth.

Colleen: So, do you focus on blue infrastructure at all? As you're doing research on coral reefs, is there any way to do sort of coral reef reconstruction or help...

Kim: Yes. I mean, I think that's where our next grant will really focus on. I think coral conservation practices while... it's a really good idea. And, if we can do things to conserve the health of our coral ecosystems, that would be great. But the fact is the rate of change, whether it's from climate change or the rate of deterioration from right off from land and sediment plumes and introduction of diseases, etc., etc., we can't keep pace. We can assume that this ecosystem can keep pace with the number and frequency of these stressors.

So now we're into restoration practices. We're interested in coral restoration. And historically, we focused on fast-growing corals that are amenable to transplanting and things like that and sort of, like, try to rebuild the forest using the fast-growing trees, species, or weeds. And that's all well and good, and they'll serve a purpose. But if you wanna really focus on the larger ecosystem, you also have to try and focus on the biodiversity of corals because different corals are vulnerable to different things just as different mammals are to different diseases or stressors. So, the idea is we have to think more holistically as we rebuild these ecosystems. And that's, frankly, almost arrogant of us to think that we can rebuild it. It's not an engineering...I mean, we might think we can engineer these things.

So, we're in the early stages of recovery conservation and selecting varieties and populations of corals to rebuild these reefs.

Colleen: I suppose climate change is one of the major drivers of what's happening in oceans with warming and coral bleaching, so...

Kim: Yeah. t's a race against time not in the sort of traditional sense because we know systems change. What we are not adapting to is the rate of change. As we think about recovery or, for example, mangroves, I think this week... in the next couple of months in Saint Thomas and Saint Croix, and Saint John, we have a great mangrove cleanup. Where the first thing you do is take the garbage out. Get rid of the garbage that's following these incredibly important ecosystems, and then, reduce the toxins that are coming off the land into these systems and giving them a chance. I think the...we are developing methods to replant mangroves, but we have to be cognizant of relatively slow-growing species. There are some varieties and genotypes that are more prone or less prone to successful seedling...being successful with seedlings. So, I think we have to do a little bit of selection process, scientific experimentation to figure out which varieties are more vigorous, under what conditions. There's a lot of variation. And it's just like being a farmer. A variety of corn here works great but, 100 miles away, it's a different variety that's gonna be effective.

So, we have to do some of that genetics and environment experimentation to understand what's gonna do well where, and under what conditions. And so, that requires some basic biology as well as plant breeding in this particular instance. But it's the same with, you know, we’re looking at seagrasses. And one of the challenges we have with seagrasses is that we have invasive species and invasives that may do many of the same things that the native species does. But it changes the availability of habitat or food quality for the endemic species that live in these seagrass beds. And so, we need to understand those kinds of things. We have to look at what are the consequences of these changes in species' composition, and how things do. And then, over time, I think the better we understand the inputs, the outputs, then I think we get to that predictive ability of, like, "Well, if we do this and this and this, there's a higher likelihood that this will succeed and sustain itself over time." And that's ultimately where we wanna get to.

Colleen: There's a really interesting thing that one of the scuba diving places in Dominica is doing. And when they go out diving, they catch lionfish, which are an invasive species, and they bring them back. And then, they serve them for lunch. And it's quite a delicious sandwich.

Kim: I know. We do the same thing in the Virgin Islands.

Colleen: Yeah. I think that's a great...

Kim: Yeah. No, I think we've been arguing for even creating a bit of a bounty in the Saint Thomas or in the Virgin Islands. Fish, generically, are about $7 a pound regardless of what they are, what species or variety they are. But if you offer, $8 bucks or $9 bucks a pound for lionfish, then people would be selectively harvesting them.

Colleen: Well, Kim, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast.

Kim: Well, thank you for the opportunity. Thank you again.

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