Eye on the Sky

A Ripple Effect

Impact of rising sea surface temperatures.

By Paul Wilkerson

The topic of global warming is filling the headlines from the Islands to the States, from the Far East to the Far West and everywhere in between. And for good reason. Global warming is having resounding impacts around the world. Residents and visitors may assume because the Turks & Caicos Islands are so small, that the effects of climate change will be low. Life will go on as always. Unfortunately, impacts are already occurring, whether people realize it or not.

Let’s define global warming:  the long-term heating of the Earth’s climate system due to human activities. The majority of this heating comes as a result of burning fossil fuels which ultimately leads to increased greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.

Global warming is a multi-faceted problem. Far too complicated to explain in this article, so for this issue we will focus on the sea surface temperature changes and impacts on the fishing industry. In future editions, we’ll discuss other weather-related topics as we continue to adapt to this problem that will take all of us to solve.

As ocean temperatures rise, fish species will be forced to leave their traditional home grounds in search of a habitat where they are able to thrive.

Naturally, when booking a holiday to the Islands, folks look forward to sampling local cuisine. In the Caribbean, we would expect a cornucopia of seafood on the menu—a variety of fresh fish, conch and lobster. And when you come to the Turks & Caicos Islands, you won’t be disappointed. But will it always be that way?

Sadly, without changes to how we take care of our environment, that once plentiful variety of “fruits of the sea” may become the exception and not the norm. A direct cause will likely be due to rising Sea Surface Temperatures (SST) which are directly tied to global warming.

To date, the Global Atmospheric Temperature has risen on average over 1ºC since about 1900. This has resulted in SST rises in the Caribbean of about 0.5ºC in the last 50 years or so. That might seem like such a small amount, that surely it isn’t such a big deal. Now remember that 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in water. Further consider that ALL water sources across the globe are also absorbing that heat. As a result, there is no region of the world that will be left untouched. The impacts of this oceanic temperature rise, without intervention, will likely prove devastating for islands like the Turks & Caicos.

The likely impacts of SST rise are akin to watching an avalanche of snow collapsing in slow motion down the side of a mountain. As water temperatures rise, coral beds, which many marine species depend on for their homes and for raising their offspring, could be at more significant threat of catastrophic coral bleaching episodes. Coral bleaching is quickly becoming an emergent problem across the large barrier reefs of the world, including here in the Caribbean.

As a result of this loss in habitat, fish species will be forced to leave their traditional home grounds in search of a habitat where they are able to thrive. Other fish species which are acclimatized to the shallower waters within the Caicos Bank and shorelines of TCI may eventually be pushed out as water temperatures climb over the coming decades. As these shallow waters continue to heat, oxygen depletion will occur, making it more difficult for aquatic life to thrive.

Mangroves, which are vital protection for some species of fish and other sea life, will likely begin to succumb to the higher temperatures as well. Groves may thin in areas as stress sets in, while other areas may see losses of their groves completely.

As fish species are pushed further out to sea in search of more habitable conditions, fish gatherers will likewise have to venture a longer way to make their catches. The current bounty of fish being brought in for harvest could drop to 60 to 80% in the future, or worse yet. The species caught may not be as diverse as what was once common. Where lobster was once found in shallower waters where free diving was possible, in the future these lobster may be out of reach for those without appropriate gear.

Conch, the most consumed seafood in the Islands, will be impacted. Studies are underway to analyze exactly how higher sea temperatures impact the reproduction of the different species, calcification rates and survival.  More research is needed to determine the long term impacts.

As fish gatherers head further out to sea to find their catches, they will incur higher costs for maintenance, fuel, gear and personnel to run their operations. This cost will be passed on to consumers, which in the long term could lead to a crisis of sorts in the industry. The greatest impact will be on the locals who depend on these waters as their source of sustainment and income. The ripple effects are far reaching.

Although this all sounds like doom and gloom, it doesn’t have to be! You, me . . . all of us play a critical role in changing the environment. Even the simplest of things will make a difference. Walk to work! Commute with friends who have a similar schedule. Reduce your energy usage at home. If we all make small changes in our daily energy consumption, we reduce the demand on power supply stations, which in turn reduces the amount of energy they need to produce and lowers their emissions. Eat more fruits and vegetables and reduce meat consumption. Growing produce takes little more than water and soil. Plants help exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. Less meat production significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions and reduces stress on water and land resources.

Through the power of knowledge, education and teamwork, we do have the ability to slow the process of global warming, and with time, save our glorious planet Earth.

Paul Wilkerson is an American meteorologist and tourist who frequents the Turks & Caicos Islands. Along with his wife and two daughters, the Wilkersons stay actively engaged with Islanders throughout the year with his Facebook page Turks and Caicos Islands Weather Info.

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