Coastal ecosystems, particularly intertidal wetlands, and reefs (coral and shellfish) play a critical role in reducing the vulnerability of coastal communities to rising seas and coastal hazards, dissipating waves, building sediment, reducing erosion, and limiting the impacts of storm surges and the associated movement of debris.
These critical ecosystems are being degraded and lost as a direct consequence of sea level rise and more extreme events, and the rapid pace of coastal development. As a result, coastal infrastructure, livelihoods, and economies of these territories are becoming increasingly vulnerable to flooding, erosion and landslide events, as already observed across the Territories.
Local examples include the effects of Hurricanes Delta and Eta, which passed the Cayman Islands as Tropical Storms. These led to severe beach erosion and coastal retreat at the southern end of Seven Mile Beach, a key tourism and recreation area. By June 2021, the start of the next Hurricane Season, no significant beach recovery had occurred.
Other local examples of severe hurricane impacts on natural coastal protection include the damaging effects of Hurricane Luis (1995) and Hurricane Lenny (1999) on sand dunes in Anguilla, which breached allowing seawater to flow into contained salt ponds. Luis also had devastating effects on the high-end resort of Cap Juluca as the beach disappeared causing major damage to infrastructure.
The degradation and loss of these ecosystems also threatens a wide range of marine and coastal species, such as the loss of iconic turtle nesting sites in the Territories.
Low evidence, medium agreement
Whilst scientific understanding is improving, there are (still) many gaps and uncertainties.
The continued loss of coastal and marine ecosystems due to climate change and human activities will further diminish coastal protection, a major concern in the face of projected increases in severe storms and hurricanes.
Sea level rise poses a particular risk to coastal communities from increased erosion, flooding from storm surges, and slope failures. Road networks, air and seaports of the islands are particularly vulnerable and under threat from more frequent future inundation under scenarios of 1m sea-level rise. Ports and port lands are also at risk of inundation under such scenarios. For frontages that are inevitably going to become increasingly exposed due to climate change and further developments, this will necessitate a change in approach to management of risks.
Low evidence, low agreement
A lack of local impact studies means the level of confidence is low. There is an urgent need to project estimations of the cost of climate change impacts on the environmental services of marine and coastal habitats across the region like coral reefs, mangroves, beaches, and seagrass beds.