The most-startling prediction is that a quarter-meter rise in sea levels, less than 10 inches, will swamp 33 buildings in Grand Cayman, among them 17 private homes and two apartment blocks.
Apart from the shock value, the striking thing about the forecasts are that they are nine years old, published in 2009. Yet little has changed. If anything, says Nick Robson, head of climate research organization The Cayman Institute, sea level rise has accelerated.
“The institute’s report on SLR predicted a one-meter rise by 2100,” he said last week. “However, SLR appears to be escalating and may well be more than one meter.”
Pointing to Government Information Services maps, Robson says, the flooding from a sea level rise of only one-quarter meter, 9.94 inches, rapidly becomes “progressively worse from there – and if you model an Ivan-type storm surge on top of the SLR, it quickly becomes frightening.”
Cayman’s population, his report says, has been growing at 4.73 percent annually. “The construction industry is booming with new condominiums, homes and apartments … and … new hotels flourishing.
“Rising sea levels … will affect construction of infrastructure such as roads, aircraft runways, port infrastructure, on fresh water lenses, on agriculture, on sewage and refuse disposal and on disaster management” and utilities.
As if to underline Robson’s worries, real-estate industry leaders last month predicted local population growth to nearly 85,000 in the next decade.
More and better roads and utilities, including a rebuilt Owen Roberts International Airport runway and cruise berthing, and new long-haul flights already planned by Cayman Airways from U.S. gateways in Denver and Los Angeles, were likely to boost Cayman’s population as much as 40 percent, 25,000 more people, who will need accommodation, transport, food and utilities, they predicted.
While an economic boost, however, the growth may come with a dark side. Cayman was lucky in 2017 when late-August “Ivan-type” storms Irma and Maria missed George Town, but destroyed a dozen Caribbean islands. Indicating the magnitude of damage climate change can wreck, however, mid-August’s Hurricane Harvey roared off the Gulf of Mexico, dumping 50 inches of rain on Houston in three days, causing $125 billion in catastrophic-flood damage.
Climate researchers subsequently reported – in the New York Times, Scientific American and National Geographic, among others – that Gulf waters, warmed by rising temperatures and infused with moist air, had boosted Harvey’s rainfall by 15 percent.
Robson said he was dismayed by a failure to plan for boosted storm surges and local infrastructure protection.
“One of the things that I have highlighted is the lack of long-range planning,” he told The Journal, pointing to his 2017 University College of the Cayman Islands TED talk.
“Successive governments have done no long-term planning. We pride ourselves on having been great seamen, however, no seaman would leave harbor without plotting a course on his chart to the desired destination. We today do not even pick up pencil and paper to jot down a note or two.”
Local government, however, has not been blind to the implications. Hazard Management Cayman Islands says, “Climate change is real; it is occurring and will have a major impact on the Cayman Islands.”
The “Cayman Islands Climate Change Policy,” originally written in 2011, says Caribbean jurisdictions “are amongst the earliest and worst affected by climate change,” citing “their small size, relative isolation, concentration of communities and infrastructure in coastal areas, narrow economic bases, dependence on natural resources, susceptibility to external shocks and limited financial, technical and institutional capacities.”
Exposure to extreme weather hazards such as Ivan – which caused $2.8 billion of damage, 183 percent of GDP – and Irma, Maria and Harvey “compound these vulnerabilities,” made the worse, it says, echoing Robson, “by inappropriate development policies and practices.”
Cayman Islands National Weather Service Director John Tibbetts has already said that climate change has boosted average local temperatures by 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit between 2012 and 2016, and now pegs average levels at 82.9 degrees, up from 80 degrees. Sea level rise, he says, is 0.12 inches per year, putting Cayman squarely on track for a 9.6-inch rise in 2100.
More dire predictions, based on Paris Climate Agreement projections, suggest a 2100 minimum sea level rise of 1.7 feet and a maximum of 2.3 feet.
Climate Change for the Cayman Islands predicts an outright threat to food security as temperatures and sea levels rise, and both inland and seawater flooding swamp fresh-water supplies.
Increased flooding of homes – Robson’s 33 buildings at immediate risk – and other “critical facilities,” including roads and developable land, both inland and in low-lying coastal areas, is also likely, while operational disruptions “are likely to airports, seaports, utilities, waste management including sewage, water and electrical-distribution systems.”
On March 20, under the headline “Tougher climate policies could save a stunning 150 million lives,” the Washington Post cited a recent NASA-funded study that said compliance with the Paris Agreement could save vast numbers of lives.
An “overlooked benefit” to lowering carbon emissions, according to the Post’s Darryl Fears, is that “it would probably save more than 150 million human lives.”
The study, published March 19 in the journal Nature Climate Change, said, “Premature deaths would fall on nearly every continent if the world’s governments agree to cut emissions of carbon and other harmful gases enough to limit global temperature rise to less than 3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century,” a figure about a degree lower than the target set in Paris.
Estimates are that the benefits would accrue largely to badly polluted Asian cities, saving 13 million lives in India alone. The country has nine of the 19 most air-polluted cities in the word, according a measure of airborne particulates by the World Health Organization. China has four and Saudi Arabia three.
The study indicates, however, that another 330,000 lives would be saved in eight U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington.
“Americans don’t really grasp how pollution impacts their lives,” said the study’s lead author Drew Shindell.
The Paris agreement seeks to limit global temperature rise to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, although hoping for a lower 2.7-degree threshold. Few experts believe either level can be achieved, however.
Shindell’s study expected 7 million deaths per year if governments fail to work toward zero emissions by the end of the century, starting today.
“There’s got to be a significant amount of progress within the 2020s or it’s too late,” the author told the Post. “Even for the researchers, it’s a pie-in-the-sky goal, given that South Asian nations such as India, where pollution is among the worst in the world, argue correctly that their per-capita use is small compared with historical use in the Western Hemisphere and that they should be allowed time to develop just as other countries did.”