How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean…Arthur C. Clarke
…it is waterbirds that are the most widely used tool to identify, designate and justify the protection of important wetlands (Stroud et al. 2001). Their sensitivity to environmental change, the relative ease with which they can be counted and their tendency to congregate at key locations make them effective proxies for aspects of wider biodiversity…UNEP AEWA
The water slips in silently like a tug boat nudging through an early spring’s fog. Most days the tide barely dampens the sand that blocks it from sneaking inland. There is little danger on the Texas coast of being trapped by a rising tide. In the worst case you may get your flip flops wet.
The projections for sea level rise associated with climate change are reported in feet, in meters. Yet along the coastal Gulf of Mexico, and in much of the Caribbean, a rise in inches is noticeable. Montego Bay shifts 6 inches or so between high and low tide. Galveston Bay is similar. The water in Galveston Bay is so shallow that the winds have more of an impact on daily tides than the moon.
Shorebirds measure their world in millimeters, in inches, as well. Birds that migrate thousands of miles without pausing spend most of their grounded lives in water no deeper than inside a tea cup. How deep is a shorebirds footprint in the sand? Should we measure the impression in grains of sand?
Water birds, those that inhabit these shallow waters, marshes, swamps, and mangrove forests, will be the first victims of sea level rise. We will not have to wait long for the proof others demand. According to the U.S. National Research Council,
Global sea levels could rise two to three times higher over the next century than previous UN estimates (report released June 2012). By 2100, the NRC estimates that global sea levels will rise between 20-55 inches (50 and 140 centimeters)…In the near term, the NRC predicted a global sea level rise of three to nine inches (eight to 23 centimeters) by 2030 (over the 2000 level) and seven to 19 inches (18 to 48 centimeters) by 2050.
Climate is not weather. Weather is short and localized. Climate is long and global. A hurricane lashes Galveston with a 10-foot storm surge. Once the storm has passed, the weather returns to “normal.” Climate change substitutes a new normal. Rather than a surge, the sea rise persists.
Water birds share these narrow coasts with people. According to the US EPA,
The coastal population of the five states of the Gulf of Mexico is projected by the Census Bureau to increase from a total of 44.2 million in 1995 to an estimated 61.4 million in 2025, nearly a 40% increase.
According to the UNEP, the Caribbean population is even more huddled along the coast. A recent report states,
Approximately 70 per cent of the Caribbean population lives in coastal cities, towns and villages, a consequence of: the abundance of relatively easy to navigate and, therefore, very accessible natural harbours; the export oriented economy; the importance of artesian fisheries; and the tourism industry’s coastal focus. More than half the population lives within 1.5 km of the coast, and international airports, roads, and capital cities are commonly situated along the coast.
A rising sea has only one destination – inland. The tidal flats claimed by the sea today should reconstitute themselves inland. A new normal will dictate otherwise.
First, what if there is no “inland?” A narrow sand spit like Galveston provides no inland refugia for the rising waters. As in hurricanes of the past, the island will simply go under. Islets such as Little Half Moon in Jamaica are too small and delicate to withstand the inexorable march of the sea. These islets, and their breeding seabirds, will be sacrificed.
Second, the people, businesses, and facilities along the coasts will demand protection. The coasts will be hardened as the ocean rises. Sea walls, jetties, and Ike dikes will be constructed to keep the water out. The water adjacent to these structures will deepen, and the beaches and flats will be inundated. Money once available for conservation will be diverted to these massive public works projects. Public comfort always trumps bird conservation. Money trumps nature.
According to Murray Simpson, a University of Oxford researcher who has worked with the U.N. Development Programme in Barbados,
With 70 percent of the region’s population and an equal share of its infrastructure along threatened coastlines, Caribbean nations could be spending close to a fifth of their GDP just to cope with climate impacts by 2080.
Third, not all shores are created equal. In the Greater Antilles narrow beaches are often bordered by mountains. For example, the beach that borders Manatee Bay in Jamaica is walled by the mountains of Hellshire. There is no place for that beach to migrate. As the sea rises, it will drown.
Fourth, the detrimental effects of saltwater intrusion will extend beyond the immediate coasts. Rivers and streams provide conduits for salt water to be brought into fresh water marshes. A recent study reports,
The effects of climate change and sea level rise on saltwater intrusion in the long term should be considered and controlled because a rise of a few centimetres in sea level could have a great effect on saltwater intrusion and help to shift the transition zone further inland.
These same scenes will be played out throughout the world. The situation in the Caribbean, however, is especially grim. The Caribbean nations contribute less than 2% of the global emissions that are behind climate change (the US? 25%). Yet these nations will be asked to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of climbing out of a carbon hole not of their own making.
Bird conservation would appear to pale in comparison to the human misery and disruption that will be caused by climate change. Yet birds are precisely the place to begin. How we react to these immediate threats to water birds will set the stage for what will be needed later.
We may learn that the most effective and affordable approach will be a measured, strategic retreat from these coastal areas. By pulling away from the coast we will be able to stabilize the human population, while freeing land that will be available for conservation and restoration of critical coastal natural resources. Caribbean nations will be faced with a daunting choice. Either they will manage a strategic retreat from their immediate coasts, or be forced to fund the most expensive public works projects in their histories.
The magnitude of the climate change threat demands early action. Last minute triage will be insufferably expensive and marginally effective. Birds are at risk today. By engaging the public in coastal bird conservation we are, by extension, preparing them for the measures that will be necessary in the future.
Where should we, the bird people, begin? First, let’s determine what is at risk. Much of the GIS and topoligical data are too course grained for what we need. Remember, we need to measure change in inches, not feet. We need to anticipate impacts on tiny islands and narrow beaches, not just on the Caribbean islands as a whole. For example, we know the locations of most nesting seabird colonies in the Caribbean, but do we know their elevations above the mean high-tide line? Can we model specific impacts on specific mangrove forests? For example, the mangroves at Port Royal in Jamaica have not migrated inland in the last 300 years. Are they doomed?
Yet we need more than assessments and data. Certainly we need a climate change strategy for Caribbean bird conservation. But simultaneously let’s begin to fashion solutions that can be scaled to individual local contexts, constraints, and capacities. If certain nesting islands are doomed, how do we enhance those that remain? For example, Little Half Moon Cay is blanketed with nesting birds, while Big Half Moon Cay has none. What is needed at Big Half Moon Cay to insure that it serves seabirds in the future? Can we raise islands with the beneficial use of spoil? Even more importantly, can we construct a nesting island? What does it take to attract certain nesting seabirds to the mainland? What can be done to address the threats to the most vulnerable species such as least terns and black skimmers?
Rise in sea level will reduce habitat availability of species that nest or forage in low-lying coastal areas. This may be particularly problematic for migratory species as many important stopover areas are in such habitats and often in limited number of isolated areas…Maintaining stopover sites is especially important for migratory birds as they use them to rest and feed during their journeys. Therefore, habitat loss may compromise migrants’ ability to complete their migratory journeys. (UNEP)
We have time. Although sea level rise is already upon us, we have the luxury (we hope) of incremental change to fashion our solutions. But we cannot continue to dicker about the fact that climate change is here and now. Let’s shift our attention to the solutions. Where better a place to begin than with birds?
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