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Ep. 80: How Will Climate Change Affect Island Nations? An Expert Weighs in


Welcome to the God science podcast. I'm your host Colleen McDonald. If you've spent on a small island. Recently I bet sea level rise and climate change crossed your mind and that's our topic for today and stick around after the interview. Something Uplifting Cynthia Dirac Oh is back with science for the win a month ago. I made my tropical getaway dreams reality and took a trip to Dominika 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 cared deeply about their research on current issues. It's hard for me to get climate change out of my mind 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 Dominika is to the impacts of climate change but not just Dominika 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 the doctor. 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 frontlines of hazard preparation. And he's mentoring the next generation of scientists on Saint 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 two thousand Seventeen Kim. Welcome to the PODCAST. I'm excited to be here. 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 was quite a few a lot of it. Depends on the topography and longitude to 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 into 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 higher or rising in general we see the intensification of these storms happening rather short short amount of time. It's not a you know. Bit Cat- Category. One category two type storm for quite a ways. And all of a sudden intensifying the last forty eight hours and so we saw that with their mind. Maria in twenty seventeen th the intensified rather quickly so that's one one factor of the other 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 tie it to rainfall again depending on the topography of the islands You can get these. Six eight inch rainfalls randomly and They're very intense and caused local coastal flooding. And that's where most most of the folks live and so that coral diseases up because of the stress of higher temperatures whether it's bleaching orders at new diseases that haven't been characterized before things like that are all a result of climate change and so that affects fisheries at affects our tourism product. It affects just the ability of some of these places so I was recently. Dominico where very mountainous. Possibly the tallest mountains in in the island's Tilles right just being there there would be just periodic real downpours happening kind of at different times during the day and I was talking a few people about the wet season and the dry season which seemed to now. The lines are blurred. And I was imagining. There's so many waterfalls and I'm just imagining when all that rain comes down it's just washing down the mountain. It's I mean where. Where does it go it? Must I mean it's falling into the ocean but it must be causing great damage to where people are living which is very close to the coast. I would imagine it varies. I mean if it was a perfectly vegetated normally ecosystem then I think the 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 that's the other factor is the type of soils these islands might have usually the topsoil is a fairly shallow but by the leaves buffering the rainfall. I mean they still have a chance to absorb they will grab it rabbit. He will take them into Rabin's 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 the roads in particular really accelerate. There's nothing blocking them. And so I've seen you'll see a standing water at the bottom of a hill. That's just rushing down because there's absolutely nothing slowing it's the super highway exactly exactly and so those are the kinds of things along with debris you know whether it's Waste plastics sediments from unprotected soils of development There's a lot of things I get into. These STREAMS CREEKS RIVERS. And if that's not filtered by mother nature one of the ecosystem services that we seem to appreciate you will see a lot of sediment getting out there now. You know in some systems Mississippi though sediments sober purpose they basically provisions and replace loss erosion from waves scouring the the coastline but in the end the Caribbean you have mangroves and primarily as the sort of the wetlands counterpart and they have been removed primarily for development people want resort appears in docks for yachts. And what have you? And there's just not a lot of filtering going on and so you get the settlements out into the open water and those impact the coral reefs and the shallow water ecosystems seagrass as. Or what have you so? There's a lot of damage potentially With unprotected wetlands you were there and Saint Thomas one both Irma hit and then two weeks later Maria. Can you tell me what was it like what? How much warning did you have? What what did you do? Well know no on the other whether services were pretty good and 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 ten days once they get into. You know within a few hundred miles of the Lesser Antilles. Then you start paying attention. Because if if they're gaining strength for example I mean. Irma was the strongest Atlantic storm in recorded history. That doesn't mean it was a strong storm is just in the last few hundred years. It was the strongest one we ever seen so we knew that was going to be a dangerous storm and as a proved to be so when it hits Dominika Barb Yuda and then worked its way north towards us. We knew we were in trouble. And that point forty eight hours. People are scouring the buying groceries batteries things like that to prepare but frankly by that point. There's not a lot of things left on the shelf. And whether you're buying plywood to protect your windows or what have you. It was a mad rush at the end. Anyway once the storm hit. Then you have this terrifying you know. Twelve fourteen hour nightmare of just roaring wins. And it was it was. I've been through seven eight hurricanes and never category five and it's sort of redefined what I thought storms could be and I've check off my bucket list. I don't want to one of those again so 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 I we get probably eighty mile an hour wind gusts maybe ninety. But you're talking about two hundred mile per hour winds. Yes it's I've been through category. One storm seventy five eighty five ninety miles an hour and it's loud. It's Brightening you certainly can't be outside. This is another Altogether different experience. It's deafening roar. I had a couple of windows that were facing a hillside so I didn't have them board it up and I've just watched this island defoliated. I mean every belief every branch every palm frond stripped away and you went from a lush green tropical forests to Vermont and February. You know an deciduous forest. I mean there was just nothing left and watching the water I mean roiling oceans but then you saw the sediment plumes as the the rainfall just washed all all the soil and leaf litter out into the ocean two miles offshore these giant Greenish Brown plumes full of bio matter. You know a tiny little chunks a leaf and a lot of dirt all just going out and and so there's the scientists I'm thinking that you're probably maybe fearing for your life that your your house will fall down. But the scientists didn't use also thinking look at all that sediment go. Well there is that I mean I I was. I was in a very Solid reinforced concrete home. I was in the middle floor. So there was my you know the roof wasn't even my house where my landlords house and then there was a smaller studio unit below me and so I felt pretty protected and I knew that the house had been built and survived Maryland and Hugo back in eighty nine and ninety six. I was looking at a recent poll in The Washington. Post did with the Kaiser Family Foundation that found that seventy nine percent of respondents said that human activity is driving global warming and roughly half agreed. That urgent action is needed. After these storms how to islander's view climate change hurricanes have been part of all human experience at least in the Caribbean. Where is the native Caribbean People's era wacko the CARIB Indians. Or what have you? They saw hurricanes the Spanish the Dutch the French English etc. All experience hurricanes. So it's 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 it's a little too early to tell that for sure. I think what happens after storms as 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 floor earthquakes off the south coast. Puerto Rico earthquake preparedness having earthquake kit. These are the kind of events that get people to think about them and perhaps take that extra step to prepare an 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. I mean certainly among those folks with a little bit of education. I think they've heard about it. They have no reason to question and 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 with the sea surface temperature. The water is warmer and When the weather 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 liking Willa. They have serious concerns and they're much more aware because they have very little room frankly to To adjust how about consensus among the A- among government officials I think most government officials under you know 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 the capability and capacity to address these challenges on such a small scale when the problem and probably the source of those problems? Come from elsewhere. You know I mean this is a China United States Europe generated problem and we are just the little guys sort of catching the immediate impacts. And I think there's not a sense of helplessness. But we realized that we're not driving it. It's not our use of cars or or power plants that are driving. This phenomenon is a global responsibility and we know from the comments You know in the United Nations from a lot of small island developing states. They they see that they have a limited role and they just want to be the ones that are raising awareness with the big powers that hey you put your door or not doing affects us and I think that's how I think. A lot of the folks in the Caribbean Sea. We'll be back in a minute with the second half of our interview. The Gut Science podcast is brought to you by the Union of concerned scientists more at got science. Podcast DOT Org. You can find us on Apple. Podcasts stitcher Pierre X. Soundcloud and all the usual podcast outlets for transcript and links to additional resources from this episode and a full bio of our guest head over to got science podcasts. Dot Work if you like the PODCAST. You can help us reach more people by simply sharing the podcast with your friends coworkers and on your social networks. Another way to help us get noticed is by leaving a review on Apple podcasts. It's quick and super easy and finally if you're on twitter come talk to us at. Got Science. Ucs. Now let's get back to our interview. 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. You're focused primarily on hurricane impacts and coral reefs. Tell me about some of the work that your students are doing will sure. There's this is a large grant. The twenty million dollars five year opportunity for which for a small university like ours Matz a staggering opportunity and responsibility. And we have three components. We are looking at coral reefs because they are endangered species. There are an important critical fisheries habitat and there is coming when people think of the Caribbean They think of coral reefs. And so there's a lot of support from federal agencies like no our EPA the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are home to a sizeable portion of the reefs in the United States. And so it's a great place to learn and understand them the healthiest in the tropics. And we've been monitoring them for twenty years or so so we wanted to take advantage. We had a body of scientific work published literature in this particular area and so we focused on that. We currently looking at disease dynamics demographics coral 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 ecosystems. So we've been doing that for probably fifteen years with this current rat but the the fundamental emphasis behind the APP score 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 a 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 joined the workforce and diversify the economy but stimulate research investment. Weather'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 bolts whose quality of life because you have a diverse workforce etc etc we focus 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 so do you focus on blue infrastructure at all. Are you as you're doing. Research on coral reefs. Is there any way to do sort of coral reef reconstruction or help? Yes I mean. I think that's where our necks craft will really focus on I think coral conservation practices while. It's a really good idea. And you know 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 where this from climate change or the rate of deterioration from runoff from land and sediment plumes and introduction of diseases etc etc. We can't keep pace and we can't 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 choral restoration and historically we've focused on fast growing corals that are that are amenable to transplanting and things like that. And it's sort of like trying to rebuild a forest using the fast growing tree species or weeds. And that's all well and good and they'll serve a purpose but if you want to really focus on the larger ecosystem you also have to try and focus on the bio diversity of corals because different corals vulnerable to different things just as mammals are two 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. We think we can engineer these things. So we're in the early stages of recovery Conservation and selecting varieties and and populations of corals to rebuild these reefs. I suppose Climate change is one of the major drivers of what's happening in oceans with warming in coral bleaching. So it's a race against time not in the traditional sense because we know systems change what we are not adapting to the rate of change as we think about recovery and or for example mangroves. I mean I think this week in the next couple of months and Saint Thomas and Saint John. We have a great mangrove cleanup. You know they were 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 a relatively slow growing species. There's some varieties and Gino typeset are more prone or less prone to successful seedling being successful as seedlings so i. 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 and you know it's just like being a farmer of variety of corn here works great but now hundred miles away. It's a different variety. That's going to be effective so we have to do some of the that genetics genetics and environment experimentation to understand what's going to do well where and under what conditions and so that requires some basic biology as well as Plant BREEDING IN IN IN. This particular instance. But it's the same with you know we're looking at sea grasses and one of the challenges we have aggressive as we have invasive species and invasive is that may do many of the same things at the native species does but it changes availability of habitat or food quality for the endemic species that live in the seagrass beds and so we need to understand those kinds of things we have to look at. What are the consequences of these kind of 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 well if we do this and this and this is a higher likelihood that this will succeed and sustain itself over time and that's ultimately where we want to get to. There's a really interesting thing that one of these scuba diving places and Dominika is doing and when they go out diving they catch lion fish which earn invasive species and they bring them back and then they serve them for lunch and it's quite delicious sandwich. I know I we. We do the same thing in the Virgin Islands That's great. Yeah no I I think you know. We've we've been arguing for even creating a bit of a bounty you know in the Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands fish generically about seven dollars a pound regardless of what they are What species or variety. They are But if you are for you know eight bucks or nine bucks a pound for lion fish then. People would be selectively harvesting them. Well Kim thanks so much for joining me on the podcast really appreciate the opportunity. Break your again and now. It's time for Science for the win with Cynthia Dirac. Oh thanks colleen one thing. I love about working at the Union of Concerned Scientists Aka. Ucs is our abbreviations the UCS acronym. I love most. That's CMO which stands for Clean Energy Momentum C. E. Clean Energy Mo Momentum CMO when we say CMO. We mean that clean. Renewable Energy is spreading across the United States. It's not just fun to say it's good news and it's not just good news. It's quantifiable good news the US Department of Energy that's releases data each year about projections. They get from power plant developers and operators. What are they planning to build over the next year or two? How many new power plants are coming online? How will they generate power? Twenty twenties latest data says they're finding seem. Oh sorry had to the projections from the DOE suggests that renewable energy will account for eighty percent of new generating capacity that will be installed in the US this year solar and wind seems set to break records. Here are some of the exciting numbers. The new wind power projections would represent a seventeen percent increase in our win capacity that would provide enough capacity to generate the equivalent of an additional six seven million. Us households electricity use when it comes to solar power. The new capacity projected would be a thirty percent overall increase over what we have now. That's enough to generate electricity for the equivalent of another few million households. Even as all that new capacity is getting onto the grid this year U. S. Renewable energy is still projected to be eleven percent higher than it was in two thousand nineteen and when these projections play out when all this new renewable capacity is actually on the grid. These numbers suggests that the total renewable energy generation in the US will pass twenty percent in two thousand twenty more than one fifth of the US. Electricity generation will be from renewables. That's double the amount they provided. Ten years ago and all of this growth is despite an administration that has been openly hostile to wind and solar. Would I take away from these numbers? Is that the market just prefers renewable energy. It's cheaper to produce. And that makes it unstoppable. That's some real cmo and it's good news for all of us who know that. We have to stop relying on burning fossil fuels for our electricity. I'm Cynthia DRACO and this has been science for the win. Well that's it for this episode of the Science podcast got sciences. Made Possible by the hundred and thirty thousand members of UCS and especially our partners for the Earth the twelve thousand supporters who make monthly contributions to stand up for science learn more at UCS USA dot org slash partners. Special thanks to Dr kim-wah Del Science for the wind was brought to you by Cynthia. Rocco editing by Omari Spears music and additional editing by Brian Middleton Research and writing by Pamela worth in Leong. Our executive producer is rich Hayes. And I'm your host Colleen McDonald. Come find us on twitter at got science. Ucs thanks and see next time.

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