How Climate Change Has Destroyed Belize’s Coral Reefs and Economy

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Written by Jacqueline Christ

Over the course of just four years, the second largest barrier reef system in the world has endured severe damage that could jeopardize its existence in the future. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which is located between the Yucatan Peninsula from Mexico to Belize, holds both a sublime coral reefs and a fragile coral reef system. Due to elevated temperatures, caused by climate change, much of the reef environments have been transformed from vibrant to dull as massive coral bleaching has devastated the reef’s wildlife. Particularly in Belize, bleaching has become extremely severe, according to a recent report from the World Heritage Organization. Within the Belize barrier reef system, the bleaching stress level catapulted from a 1.7 level between 1985-2014 to a 3 severe level in 2014-2017. Given the fact that bleaching nearly doubled within three years, Belize is under serious threat. The Belize coral reef system not only is a global beauty; it also fuels Belize’s tourism industry. Without the reefs, Belize’s economy could crumble.

The tourism industry in Belize makes up more than 38% of the country’s total gross domestic product, according to a report from the World Travel and Tourism Council. The industry also overwhelms the job market—fueling 50,000 jobs or 34% of the total employment. With more coastal tourism, the several cayes and keys that hold reef environments are areas that have lots of visitors—particularly Ambergris Cay, Lighthouse key, and Glover’s reef. The reefs ultimately affect the livelihood of the local people that use tours of the reef communities to sustain their lives.

The rising temperatures in the Mesoamerican barrier reef have been matched with rising sea levels and the loss of growth of wildlife. The effect of rising sea levels and ocean erosion adapted the islands in Glover’s reef and threatened the ability for tourism to be conducted there.

Zoe Dagan, dive master at Glover’s reef and coral reef educator, said that not only has the shoreline decreased, but the bleaching events underwater have not recovered. Dagan said that “over the past 2-4 years, the bleaching events tend to be more extreme and they tend to last for a longer duration. You’ll see more corals bleaching, and bleaching that lasts longer and that can be very harmful to the reefs.”

The reason behind the change lies in the sustained high water temperature. Dagan said that “reefs generally are resilient, which means that they can recover once the temperatures cool off. A bleached reef doesn’t necessarily mean death but a bleached reef has a compromised immune system which means that it susceptible to different types of diseases. So, when you have more extensive bleaching events and bleaching events that last longer, you see a lower recovery rate.”

Although the Mesoamerican barrier reef is protected as a World Heritage site, the entire area has still been affected. According to the 2017 Caribbean Marine Climate Change Report Card, the impacts of climate change on the region have a social cost affecting the quality of life of people living in the Caribbean. With escalated temperatures, the monetary cost of inaction is also extremely high. In the total Caribbean area, the cost of inaction is 21.7% of the 2004 GDP by 2100.

Specifically in Belize, the report found that much of the damage that the reef communities experience can in fact transfer to a water quality problem within inland areas. The report found that “Belize and offshore cays and atolls are very vulnerable to the projected acceleration in sea-level rise. Wave overtopping and wash-over can be expected to become more frequent, which will degrade fresh groundwater resources.”

According to the UN report Belize and Climate Change: Costs of Inaction, climate change can lead to the extinction of species and escalation of “stress factors.” In particular, the damage that climate change inflicts on the coral reefs and mangroves exasperates the damage caused by pollution and coastal development. The study found that coral reef mortality relates to a 3 Celsius surge in the global mean temperature. In addition, “a conservative temperature increase of 1-2 degrees Celsius would cause regions between 20-30 degrees North to experience “sustained warming that falls within the lethal limits of most reef-building coral species.”’

The report highlighted several proposed solutions, including better monitoring of aquaculture and water quality, regulating the fishery industry, and preserving water.

In reality, the government of Belize has created similar initiatives to preserve the coral reefs. In Belize’s Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris agreement, the country committed to reducing the amount of waste that is dumped into the ocean, preserving natural resources, promoting sustainable tourism practices, and regulating industries that develop on the country’s coastline. Belize also supported the global mission to reduce the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Even though many of the solutions include regulations that could cost Belize profits in tourism and exports in the short run, the country will benefit in the long run. In the Costs of Inaction report, the study found that “while the necessary actions to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions or protect against climate-related impacts will most certainly have significant costs, doing nothing about climate change will have immense costs.”

With entire communities of people and precious wildlife at stake, the need for action on climate change in Belize and the greater Caribbean area is necessary. With the Mesoamerican Barrier reef—the second largest in the world—threatened, there needs to be action before it’s too late.