Hurricanes and Climate Change

A NextGen Blog post by Meghan Dareus, Northwest Missouri State University

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts student essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Meghan Dareus is biology graduate from The University of The Bahamas and current GIS graduate student at Northwest Missouri State University. Access to freshwater is an especially important issue to her and all those susceptible to hurricane damage. This blog post addresses the threat to its availability in places like The Bahamas, especially during the current 2021 hurricane season, for which NOAA predicts a 70% chance of 6 to 10 hurricanes with 74+ mph winds, including 3 to 5 category 3-5 hurricanes with 110+ mph winds.1NOAA


Water is one of life’s basic necessities. Yet, for years, access to this fundamental necessity has increasingly become more of a privilege than a human right. One reason, in particular, is the growing effects of climate change causing increased frequency, intensity and unpredictability of most natural disasters. In the Atlantic Ocean, devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean Sea are a prime example of the negative effects of climate change on water availability. 

Satellite image of Hurricane Dorian, courtesy of WikiCommons

Hurricanes

Hurricanes are not a new occurrence, especially for the Caribbean and other Small State Developing Islands (SIDS) in the hurricane belt. In fact, growing up in The Bahamas, I have lived through so many hurricanes, it is extremely difficult to keep track of them all. These storms have bring heavy rains, strong winds, and flooding, plus they can be accompanied by tornadic activity. But a closer look at the frequency and strength of the storms that have occurred over the years clearly reveals the effects of climate change.

Once upon a time, Category 5 hurricanes were a rare occurrence, happening once every few years. Now, we are seeing instances where record-breaking Category 5 storms are occurring yearly. In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria were active within two weeks of each other! And in 2019; and Hurricane Dorian was even stronger than Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and was the strongest storm I could have ever imagined. It tore through two islands of The Bahamas, leaving a trail of destruction in its path.

Damage to Hope Town from Hurrican Dorian, courtesy of WikiCommons

A Threat to Freshwater Resources 

With climate change worsening, the frequency of storms can be expected to increase – as well as their average strength.2Global Warming & Hurricanes That means more frequent flooding and storm surges that bring along dire consequences. Besides the obvious structural damage to property that occurs as a result of hurricanes, the threat to vulnerable freshwater resources is also present. Such severe weather causes flooding, saltwater intrusion and problems with sewerage and its disposal that can each negatively impact water resources.

The main source of saltwater intrusion and pollution of freshwater resources comes from flooding due to severe thunderstorms, hurricanes and tropical storms. In 2004, after the passing of Hurricane Frances, North Andros Island, an archipelago within the Bahamas, experienced an increase in the chloride content of its water from less than 400 mg/liter to 15,000 mg/liter.3USACE After the passing of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, some freshwater wells in Grand Bahama were completely submerged in saltwater. The chloride content in well fields 1 and 6 rose from 80 ppm to 160 ppm, and from 80 ppm to 800 ppm, respectively.4Hurricane Floyd Then in 2019, after the passing of Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm, Remington Wilchombe, manager of the Grand Bahama Utility Company explained:

Dorian didn’t just impact some of the wells. It impacted all of our wells and our plants…. Three of our four plants went underwater. And one of them – which is our major one, which supplied 60 percent of island – actually went underwater. So, the impact there was a total destruction.5Rivero{/mfn]

This does not occur just in The Bahamas alone. The same fate could befall any other Caribbean or SIDS in this hurricane belt – and should be a cause for concern.

People in a flooded street that usually hosts a farmers market in Ouanaminthe (courtesy VOA Creole Service)

The Way Forward 

Without a global call for climate action, freshwater resources for the Caribbean and SIDS are at risk. However, the best way forward may be to prepare for the worst. This can begin to be done by ensuring the proper management and protection of the current water resources available.

Such proper management and protection includes monitoring and evaluating current use, as well as determining whether there is enough freshwater available to sustainably meet future demand. As a part of this process, not only does the use of the water need to be examined, but a closer look is needed at the means in which this water is distributed. Is the infrastructure that supplies the freshwater outdated? Can it withstand several feet of flooding? Is it built to withstand the corrosion that can be caused by saltwater inundation? These are all important questions that should be asked and answered.

Remains of a neighborhood destroyed by Hurricane Irma in Big Pine Key, Florida. Courtesy of WikiCommons

Once these issues are determined and the necessary suitable infrastructure is in place, the Caribbean and other SIDS should address gaps in legislation and policies specific to the protection of water resources. Barbados, for example, has already recognized the threat to their water resources and has implemented a Water Resources Management Plan. Several other islands, in conjunction with The Global Water Partnership (GWP). have also begun to follow suit. Regulation of these legislation policies is important. Far too often, good ideas fall through the cracks because of poor enforcement. To ensure this is not the case, spreading awareness through various initiatives and capacity-building exercises could be the next step. This would allow consumers and stakeholders to understand the standards, as well as set the stage for any entity to be held accountable for the role they may play in correcting the mismanagement of resources.

While management is important, given the level of unpredictability hurricanes bring, it may still not be enough. Contingency plans are likely necessary in the event that water resources are completely compromised. A common solution for countries has been to install reverse-osmosis plants. There are a few cons, such as affordability and possible negative impacts on the environment; but overall, when considering the extreme circumstances that occur with a lack of fresh water, this option is a viable one. Once awareness about this threat is properly spread, there are so many more solutions that can be created. For now, however, it is critical that the threat to water resources of The Caribbean and SIDS be properly recognized.


Sources:

Ekwue, E. I. (2010). Management of Water Demand in the Caribbean Region: Current Practices and Future Needs. The West Indian Journal of Engineering, 32(1 & 2), 28-35.

Global Warming and Hurricanes. (2020, September 23). Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/global-warming-and-hurricanes/ 

Hurricane Floyd: PAHO Situation Report #5 – Bahamas. (1999, September 20). Retrieved November 24, 2020, from https://reliefweb.int/report/bahamas/hurricane-floyd-paho-situation-report-5

Rivero, D. (2020, March 9). Six Months After Dorian, Grand Bahama Scrambles for Clean Drinking Water. WRLN. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.wlrn.org/news/2020-03-09/six-months-after-dorian-grand-bahama-scrambles-for-clean-drinking-water

USACE. (2004). Water Resources Assessment of The Bahamas. Retrieved July 9, 2021, from https://www.sam.usace.army.mil/Portals/46/docs/military/engineering/docs/WRA/Bahamas/BAHAMAS1WRA.pdf

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