When you are a small island nation, every inch of space counts. But from rising sea levels to natural disasters and coastal erosion, in the age of climate change many islands are shrinking before their citizens’ very eyes.
Amongst those most at risk is the twin-island federation of St. Kitts and Nevis. Set in the Lesser Antilles, St Kitts and Nevis is threatened by both by sea level rise and the region’s increasingly frequent and severe hurricanes
But while the most visible threat to the island nation might be due to headline-making natural disasters, a less obvious enemy is slowly eating away at the islands from within – soil erosion.
The enemy within
St. Kitts and Nevis’ mountainous terrain is largely made up of sandy loam, cut through with ‘ghauts’ – narrow, deep gullies that deliver rainwater down the slopes. While the ghauts play a key role in maintaining the islands’ forest ecosystems, they are also ideal channels for eroding soil – and shifting land use, coupled with a lack of soil conservation measures, has resulted in acute erosion around the Federation.
A prime example is St. Kitts’ College Street Ghaut, which runs through the capital, Basseterre. Central to the 662-ha College Street Ghaut watershed, the ghaut funnels rainwater from the northern Mt Olivees down through Basseterre to the sea, but encroachment by agriculture and settlements, along with the destruction of protective vegetation, has resulted in increased erosion along its banks and across the upper reaches of the watershed.
Adding to the environmental toll caused by the loss of vital soil, flooding linked to land degradation and chronic sedimentation has become a frequent occurrence along the ghaut, with the last major flood in 2013 causing an estimated US$120,000 in damages.
“All one would hear is a rumble similar to large boulders coming down the road and then there is the rush of water moving and bringing down anything in its path,” local resident Leslie Connor says.
“There is damage to properties as the waters flow around unmovable obstacles and divert into yards and homes. You never know what it will do. It has been known to take cars and other items into the ocean and has even caused a loss of life.”
Fighting against the flow
Arresting the degradation that has opened the gates to increased flooding and erosion around the islands have become a top priority for the government of St Kitts and Nevis and their partners.
“The impacts of this land degradation are far-reaching and include public health risks due to flooding and inappropriate disposal of liquid and solid waste, as well as the loss of topsoil, poor water quality at the outlet of the ghaut and contamination of the nearshore environment,” Dr. Halla Sahely, national coordinator for the Integrating Water, Land and Ecosystems Management in the Caribbean Small Island Developing States (IWEco) project. “Works to reduce and control land degradation inside the ghaut are a critical first step towards a more proactive way of managing this important environmental zone.”
Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with the backing of the Global Environment Facility, IWEco is working to arrest the ghaut’s degradation. With diagnostic assessments of the ghaut completed in mid-2019, soil conservation measures are now underway. Gabion baskets (mesh cages filled with stone) are being used to manage water flow and fortify the channel, while deep-rooted vetiver grass is being planted along the ghaut’s banks to stabilize the soil and minimize erosion.
Alongside this restoration work, IWEco is working with local authorities and residents on a master planning framework for the watershed, helping to ensure the lessons learned from the conservation of the College Street Ghaut make their way into policy.
“For far too long, despite being granted special legal protected status, ghauts in St. Kitts and Nevis have had very limited active management in place,” Eavin Parry, an environmental scientist from the St Kitts and Nevis’ Ministry of Environment and Cooperatives says.
“The land degradation intervention being implemented under the IWEco project will demonstrate best practice to mitigate soil erosion and will catalyze greater active management of these types of natural drainage zones.”
Using nature and data to weather coastal storms
Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense, sometimes with tragic consequences. Europe’s coastal cities are preparing to meet the challenges with help from nature and data from outer space.
As the people of La Faute-Sur-Mer – a small French coastal town in the Vendée north of La Rochelle – tucked into bed on the night of 27 February 2010, a violent storm was raging out at sea.
Swirling, cyclonic winds, high waves and heavy rain blown up across the Bay of Biscay combined with a high spring tide to wreak havoc as it battered the coastline of western France. Residents awoke to a scene of utter devastation.
Perched perilously between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the river Lay on the other, the town was completely inundated by flooding from the storm surge. Homes, property and businesses were ruined.
Of the 53 people in France who died as a result of Storm Xynthia, 29 were from La Faute.
In a town with a population of just 1000 people, it was a devastating tragedy.
Such extreme weather events are becoming more common and seaside regions are particularly vulnerable, says Dr Clara Armaroli, a coastal geomorphologist who specializes in coastal dynamics (how coastlines evolve).
In response, the University School for Advanced Studies (IUSS) in Pavia, Italy, is leading a pan-European project to develop an early-warning system to increase coastal resilience. Armaroli coordinates the project, called the European Copernicus Coastal Flood Awareness System (ECFAS).
‘Given climate change and sea-level rise, we know there will be an increase in the tendency and the magnitude of coastal storms,’ Dr Armaroli said.
‘What’s needed is an awareness system at a European level to inform decisions.’
ECFAS has been set up to develop a proof-of-concept for an early-warning system for coastal flooding. It will develop a functional and operational design.
It draws on data and uses tools from the EU’s Copernicus Earth observation satellites and from the Copernicus Services.
Central to this is how data about storm surges, magnitude of flooding and potential impact could be incorporated into the EU’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service (Copernicus EMS).
Copernicus EMS is a space-based monitoring service for Europe and the globe that uses satellite data to spot signs of impending disaster, whether from forest fires, droughts or river flooding.
Coastal flooding is not yet part of the Copernicus emergency management mix so ECFAS wants to ‘plug the gap’ says Armaroli.
This will ensure that coastal flooding is monitored in future and that such vulnerabilities become part of its watching brief.
In addition to charting the progression of storms that break on Europe’s coastlines, the ECFAS team is integrating data about the changes to shorelines caused by coastal erosion. It’s a growing concern as sea-levels rise across the globe.
‘The vulnerability and exposure of our coastal areas are also increasing due to erosion, which is narrowing the boundary between the land and the sea,’ said Dr Armaroli.
The early-warning system will gather data from an array of sources, all of which impact flood risk. This includes geographic factors such as land use and cover, soil type, tidal changes, wave components and sea levels.
It is being designed to provide forecasts for coastal storm hazards up to five days out. Potentially, it could work in tandem with pre-existing regional and national systems to improve local defenses.
Looking beyond the proof-of-concept stage, Armaroli hopes ECFAS-Warning for coastal awareness can play a critical role in helping areas better prepare for when disaster strikes.
‘Our work has started a process, but in the future, we hope this can really help increase the resilience of our coastal areas to the coming extreme weather events,’ she said.
On the west coast of Ireland, in the Atlantic seaport town of Sligo, an environmental engineer named Dr Salem Gharbia is taking the challenges faced by coastal cities to the next level.
With the project – SCORE – Smart Control of the Climate Resilience in European Cities – Dr Gharbia’s team is building a network of ‘living labs’ to rapidly and sustainably enhance local resilience to coastal damage.
‘Coastal cities face major challenges currently because they are so densely populated and because their location makes them vulnerable to sea-level rise and climate change,’ he said.
With SCORE’s network of 10 coastal cities – from Sligo to Benidorm, Dublin to Gdańsk – Dr Gharbia intends to create an integrated solution that should help coastal centres to mitigate the risks.
‘The main idea behind the concept is that we have coastal cities learning from each other,’ he said.
‘Each living lab faces different local challenges,’ he said, ‘But each has been established to include citizens, local stakeholders, engineers, and scientists to co-create solutions that can increase local resilience.’
Through the network, SCORE wants to pioneer nature-based solutions such as the restoration of floodplains or wetlands that reduce the risk of flooding in coastal regions. It’s a model that is already proving effective.
One example, a project to bio-engineer sand dunes in Sligo for stronger natural defenses, is also being tested in Portugal.
The team is developing smart technologies to monitor and evaluate emerging coastal risks. In addition to using existing Earth observation data, this means the community can become involved through new citizen science projects aimed at expanding local data collection.
In Sligo, locals are already getting involved in the monitoring of coastal erosion using what Dr Gharbia terms ‘DIY sensors’ – drone kites – equipped with cameras, to survey local topography.
Elsewhere, citizens are helping to monitor and record water levels and quality, as well as wind speed and direction with a variety of other sensors.
Sustaining local citizen involvement in this way is crucial to SCORE’s success, said Gharbia.
‘It’s essential that this is two-way for citizens,’ he said.
Without engaging them fully in the process of co-design and co-creation of ideas to mitigate risks, you will never get them committed to the types of solution proposed.’
All of this, of course, is creating a wealth of new data from a multitude of sources. But Dr Gharbia is adamant that an integrated approach is critical.
‘The main reason we’re developing this system is,’ he said, ‘We’ve realised that to increase climate resilience we have to utilise all the information coming in from different sources.’
Ultimately, the goal behind the work is for a real-time, early warning system that could be used by local and regional policy makers to test a range of ‘what if’ scenarios.
Currently, the team are categorising the data and optimising the systems and models. In time, they hope other regions can learn from the approach and develop similar living labs.
Dr Gharbia said the impact of his research project should be ‘to create an integrated solution that can be used in multiple different locations and can make a big impact in increasing local coastal resilience.’
Resilience like it should spread far and wide. ‘The main purpose is a solution that can be replicated and scaled up,’ said Dr Gharbia. The tragic consequences of more frequent and more intense coastal storms must be averted.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.
Heat, drought and wildfires during one of the warmest Julys on record
Amidst extreme heat, drought and wildfires, many parts of the world had just experienced one of three warmest Julys on record, the UN weather agency said on Tuesday.
According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), temperatures were close to 0.4℃ above the 1991-2020 average across much of Europe, with southwestern and western Europe being the most above-average regions, because of an intense heatwave around mid-July.
“This is despite the La Niña event that’s meant to have a cooling influence,” explained WMO spokesperson Clare Nullis.
“We saw this in some places, but not globally,” she added, noting that it was “one of the three warmest [Julys] on record, slightly cooler than July 2019, warmer 2016- but the difference is too close to call”.
Portugal, western France and Ireland broke record highs, while England hit 40℃ readings for the very first time.
National all-time records for daily maximum temperatures were also broken in Wales and Scotland.
Spain also had its hottest month on record in July, with an average national temperature of 25.6°C – with a heatwave from 8 to 26 July that was the most intense and longest lasting on record.
Using data from the European Commission’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the UN weather agency confirmed that Europe had its sixth warmest July.
The heat travelled further north and east ushering very high temperatures across other countries, including Germany and parts of Scandinavia, with local July and all-time records broken at several locations in Sweden.
At the same time, from the Horn of Africa to southern India, and much of central Asia to most of Australia experienced below-average temperatures.
It also dominated a band of territory stretching from Iceland, across Scandinavia via the Baltic countries continuing as far as the Caspian Sea.
Moreover, temperatures were generally below average in Georgia and throughout much of Türkiye.
Polar ice shrinking
July also saw the lowest Antarctic Sea ice on record, a full seven per cent below average.
Arctic Sea ice was four per cent below average, ranking 12th lowest for July according to satellite records.
WMO cited the Copernicus Climate Change Service in saying that Arctic Sea ice concentration was the lowest for July on satellite record, which started in 1979, and sea ice there was the 12th lowest ever.
Glaciers have seen a “brutal, brutal summer,” Ms. Nullis continued.
“We started with low snowpack on glaciers in the alps, reported by meteorological services, and now successive heatwaves- this is bad news for glaciers in Europe. The picture for Greenland’s glaciers is more mixed, however, as there has not been relentless heat”.
In the throes of the heat, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a press conference on 18 July, “this kind of heatwave is the new normal”.
Giraffes, parrots, and oak trees, among many species facing extinction
Around one million species are facing extinction, according to a report from IPBES, an independent intergovernmental science and policy body supported by the UN.
It may be surprising to learn that even giraffes, parrots, and oak trees are included in the list of threatened species, as well as cacti and seaweed.
It may be surprising to learn that giraffes, parrots, and even oak trees are included in the list of threatened species, as well as cacti and seaweed.
Seaweed is one of the planet’s great survivors, and relatives of some modern-day seaweed can be traced back some 1.6 billion years. Seaweed plays a vital role in marine ecosystems, providing habitats and food for marine lifeforms, while large varieties – such as kelp – act as underwater nurseries for fish. However, mechanical dredging, rising sea temperatures and the building of coastal infrastructure are contributing to the decline of the species.
The world’s trees are threatened by various sources, including logging, deforestation for industry and agriculture, firewood for heating and cooking, and climate-related threats such as wildfires.
It has been estimated that 31 per cent of the world’s 430 types of oak are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species. And 41 per cent are of “conservation concern”, mainly due to deforestation for agriculture and fuel for cooking.
Giraffes are targeted for their meat, and suffer from the degradation of their habitat due to unsustainable wood harvesting, and increased demand for agricultural land; it’s estimated there are only around 600 West African giraffes left in the wild.
Catastrophic results for humanity
The current biodiversity crisis will be exacerbated, with catastrophic results for humanity, unless humans interact with nature in a more sustainable way, according to UN experts.
“The IPBES report makes it abundantly clear that wild species are an indispensable source of food, shelter and income for hundreds of millions around the world,” says Susan Gardner, Director of the Ecosystems Division at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
“Sustainable use is when biodiversity and ecosystem functioning are maintained while contributing to human well-being. By continuing to use these resources unsustainably, we are not just risking the loss and damage of these species’ populations; we are affecting our own health and well-being and that of the next generation.
The report illustrates the importance of indigenous people being able to secure tenure rights over their land, as they have long understood the value of wild species and have learned how to use them sustainably.
Examples of the kinds of transformative changes that are needed to reduce biodiversity loss, include an equitable distribution of costs and benefits, changes in social values, and effective governance systems.
Currently, governments around the world spend more than $500 billion every year in ways that harm biodiversity to support industries like fossil fuels, agriculture, and fisheries. Experts say these funds should be repurposed to incentivize regenerative agriculture, sustainable food systems, and nature-positive innovations.
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