Johan Stapel (55) sits on the beach of Zealandia, on the Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius. With two fingers he makes a movement across the sand. He tries to imitate a sea turtle moving towards the sea. His fingers are out of the water when they get tangled up in the brown seaweed that is abundant on the beach. It just says: A turtle that is hatching now – sea turtles laying their eggs on the beach – will likely die soon.
Marine biologist Stapel is director of the Netherlands Caribbean Institute of Science in St Eustatius. The island (over three thousand inhabitants), like the Caribbean islands of Bonaire and Saba, is a municipality of the Netherlands. Stapel and his colleague Kimani Kitson-Walters (31 years old) on Zeelandia Beach to prove that almost the entire beach is covered in a blanket of sargassum. Sargassum is a brown algae that grows in the Atlantic Ocean. The amount that has washed ashore on the island in recent years is abnormally large.
An important reason is climate change. “Sargassum thrives on global warming. It’s growing faster,” says Stapel. And climate change is altering ocean currents. For Sint Eustatius, that means more sargassum is washing ashore.”
Kitson Walters says the abundance of sorghum has adverse effects. “It’s not only turtles that get involved in it, but also fish, for example. And coral can die.” “Corals need enough light to survive,” Stabile adds. Kiston-Walters also refers to tourism. “The beaches and coves filled with daffodils make the island less attractive to tourists.”
sea level rise
More sargassum is not the only effect of climate change affecting the Caribbean part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The temperature has been increasing since the 1980s. 0.2°C per decade, according to the report Climate signal 21 from KNMI. In that report, the institute describes climate scenarios for the kingdom, which also include the autonomous islands of Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten. Rising temperature is raising sea levels and increasing the risk of flooding, says Ryan Harsme, who contributed to the report.
The islands are also expected to become drier due to higher temperatures and less rainfall. Precipitation will be heavier. The latter also applies to hurricanes. “They will be more powerful,” Harsma says. Hurricanes get their energy from ocean heat. These oceans are getting warmer.” Because of their location, the Windward Islands (St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, and Saba) have a greater chance of being hit by a hurricane than the Leeward Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao).
Climate change threatens the entire world, and some regions are particularly vulnerable to its effects. The Caribbean part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands is such a region. “Daily life and most economic activities take place on the coast,” she said. “climate plan” from the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) conservation organization earlier this year. Think of the fishing industry in St. Eustatius and cruise ship tourism in St. Maarten.
Beaches and bays full of sargassum make the island less attractive to tourists
According to the organization, the vulnerability is increased by the difficulty of reconstruction, for example after a hurricane, on the islands. “Communities are small and the economic situation is not good,” DCNA Director Tadzio Bervoets said on the phone. Islands are also more vulnerable due to their ecosystems. Barevoitz: „Think of corals, mangroves, and seagrass. They are poorly resistant, for example, to hurricanes and an abundance of sargassum. ”
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In 2017, Hurricane Irma hit St. Martin. With winds of 298 kilometers per hour, Irma was one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean. According to KNMI. Five years later, some homes in St. Martin have yet to be repaired. Irma is also still around where reconstruction has taken place faster, as in the capital, Philipsburg. You see it in cracks in walls and holes in ceilings. It is still the subject of discussions.
Irma can also be seen in an aerial photo taken a few years ago, at the office of the St. Martin’s Nature Foundation, an organization that works for nature and environmental conservation on the island. Employee Alice Manley, 23 (now leaving the organization) points to the photo. “Where you see the blue dots in the lake, there was still boat wreckage a few years after Irma. They polluted the water by leaking fuel and oil. In the end, it was cleaned up by a rescue company, in collaboration with the Nature Foundation.” About a hundred wrecks were recovered.
St Maarten received half a billion euros from the Netherlands for the reconstruction of the island, due to an acute emergency. Because of their independent status, Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten are themselves responsible for their own climate policy, says Minister spokesman Rob Getten (Climate and Energy, D66). However, the coalition agreement includes that these islands may benefit from the SDE++ scheme, a scheme of support for sustainable projects by companies.
Earlier this year, Minister Getten announced that he wants the other islands – Sint Eustatius, Bonaire and Saba – to be fully running on sustainable energy by 2035. The Cabinet is helping these private municipalities in the Netherlands with climate policy. Later this month, Gettin will develop a detailed plan to achieve 100 percent sustainable electricity production, his spokesperson said. In cooperation with the islands, the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality will investigate how the Caribbean region of the Netherlands came up with a “Climate Adaptation Strategy”. In climate adaptation, the environment adapts to the consequences of climate change, for example by building dams.
The government of St. Martin wrote in its book Nature Policy Plan 2020-2025 As a “small development island” it can’t do much about climate change and therefore wants to focus on climate adaptation. Building dams, for example, would be very expensive. That is why the island wants to strengthen the ecosystems that provide protection from the effects of climate change. Think, for example, of swamps that can help prevent flooding.
In Sint Maarten, some homes on the coast have a “dam”. In Simpson Bay – a town west of Philipsburg – you can see examples of beach walls, concrete or stone walls to protect homes from sea water. Alice Manley closes the Nature Foundation truck door and walks through some bushes into a narrow strip of sand. “This beach was much bigger than that,” Manley says, pointing to a house down the road. There is absolutely no beach in front of the house. The water hits the beach wall. “It was built to withstand floods and hurricanes, but now almost every wave hits the wall.” According to Manley, the coastline has moved closer over the past decade due to sea level rise and coastal development.
warmer every year
But if you talk to the residents of those Simpson Bay homes, you’ll hear a different story. “The sea is always nearer this time of year,” Darren Quinn, 48, says the next day, with a slight indifference. Depends on one of the small cars he rents. They are in a fence positioned. Across the street is his house and entrance gate turquoise. “It’s about the tides. After about two months, the water recedes a little bit.” Sappho Spronk, 35, who lives a little further down the street, points out this as well. They have no idea that the coastline has come close on average.
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According to the Bervoets of DCNA, the coast has already moved. “That’s right about the tide. But when I was the director of Nature, we were looking for sea turtles in Simpson Bay around the same time every year. The data also showed that the shoreline was getting closer and closer.”
After fifteen minutes of talking, Darren Quinn said he could feel the water splashing higher and higher on his beach wall. It also mentions the weather in Sint Maarten. “It gets warmer every year and it rains when it doesn’t.” Then he said he would call Nature this week to talk about it.
A version of this article also appeared in The Sep 20, 2022
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