U.S. Virgin Islands: A harbinger of a changing climate

U.S. Virgin Islands climate change

U.S. Virgin Islands: A harbinger of a changing climate

By Stephanie Sides

Some of the strongest climate change advocates in Congress are the representatives for areas already experiencing the harshest symptoms of the problem. Beyond the 50 states, the U.S. includes 16 unincorporated territories—all islands—reporting their own serious problems. Among the five permanently inhabited territories is the U.S. Virgin Islands, represented in Congress since 2015 by Stacey Plaskett.

Stacey Plaskett

Stacey Plaskett (D-VI-00)

In public recognition of the seriousness of climate change, Rep. Plaskett recently joined the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives. It’s important for this body to include people like Rep. Plaskett because of the detailed knowledge that island district representatives bring about specific climate change impacts, mitigation efforts, and solutions. In effect, they are further along the learning curve than many of their colleagues because of their districts’ need for action.

In a recent interview, Rep. Plaskett told CCL, “Because of the devastation we’ve experienced from hurricanes, we are very attuned to nature and changes in the climate. The main challenge we face is balancing the needs of the environment with those of the economy. For many reasons, we need to keep our natural resources as pristine as possible.”

Rising sea levels, warming waters, dying coral

Island areas like the Virgin Islands are harbingers of the worst effects of climate change. A November 2016 publication by the U.S. EPA, titled “What Climate Change Means for the U.S. Virgin Islands,” reports that the sea level has been rising by about an inch every 10 years and predicted to rise one to three feet in the next 100 years, submerging marshes, mangroves, and dry land; eroding beaches; and exacerbating coastal flooding. Although most of the Virgin Islands is well above sea level, the waterfront blocks of the capital city Charlotte Amalie are generally just three or four feet above.

Rising sea temperatures are harming nearby coral reefs, including the algae that live inside them and provide their food. Loss of this algae leads to a condition known as “coral bleaching” in which the coral turns white and ultimately dies. Corals are also damaged by increasing ocean acidity. Over the last three centuries, ocean acidity has increased 25% with the prediction of a further 40-50% increase by 2100. This rising acidity makes it harder for corals to remove minerals from the water to build their skeletons and for shellfish to build protective shells.

Rep. Plaskett said, “We just finished developing the Coral World resort. As part of this project, our priority was to move the endangered coral to ensure it continues to grow.”

Negative impact on commerce and tourism

Warming waters and increasing acidity also have implications for the marine ecosystem and the economy. Coral reefs provide a home for a wide variety of marine life. Declining quality of the reefs, therefore, will adversely impact the commercial fishing industry and tourism in such areas as sport fishing, scuba diving, and snorkeling. “Much of our diet in the Virgin Islands comes from the sea,” said Rep. Plaskett. “Again it’s about finding balance between over- and underfishing the stocks available.”

More severe storms, though greater likelihood of drought

In addition, over the last 20 years, tropical storms and hurricanes have increased in intensity with the expectation that wind speeds and rainfall rates will further increase. These impacts will lead to greater damage: washed out sections of roadways and bridges, downed trees and powerlines, and flooding from storm surges, and, hence, higher insurance costs for all, especially along the coast.

Even though the intensity of the storms is increasing, total rainfall has fallen, leading to increased risk of drought, which in turn leads to lesser drinking water supplies. It also affects livestock numbers and agricultural yield—especially bananas, plantains, and sugar cane, which impacts the rum industry. And, in fact, drought is no longer a hypothetical. In 2015, it became so serious that residents had to have water trucked in from desalination plants.

Public health problems

The changes described above are likely to accelerate the mosquito life cycle and increase the danger of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever. They are also likely to increase the growth of bacteria, which can contaminate water and shellfish, increasing the possibility of diseases such as vibriosis that causes gastrointestinal problems and skin infections.

What’s being done

Rep. Plaskett said to focus on the Climate Solutions Caucus. They’ve been meeting regularly and learning from experts in the field. They’ve introduced two pieces of legislation, including the Climate Solutions Commission Act. This act establishes a commission to review economically viable public actions or policy to reduce greenhouse gases, recommend actions, and ensure those recommendations line up with the latest scientific findings.

Rep. Plaskett said she is grateful for the caucus, particularly that it’s bipartisan. “You can’t go to the dance alone. You have to have a date from the other party,” she said with a laugh. “Growing the caucus to 50 members is no easy feat. It speaks volumes about growing congressional interest about this topic.”

Longer term, she pointed to the need to educate the young and pointed to environmental programs in her district’s schools. “Young people are becoming more vocal about climate change, but they’re looking to their elders for guidance,” she said. By joining the growing Climate Solutions Caucus and working to find solutions, she’s setting a great example for them.

Stephanie Sides
Stephanie Sides is a freelance writer who works primarily with academics in science, medicine, and engineering.