The Caribbean: Land of Extreme Sunshine or Extreme Hurricanes?

To save its member island states, the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre must protect the region from increasingly severe extreme weather.

In September 2004, Hurricane Ivan raged through my parent’s homeland of Grenada. The powerful Category 5 storm devastated the tiny island and left 60% of the country’s 100,000 residents homeless.[i] Located just north of Venezuela, Grenada usually escaped the Caribbean late summer storm season because it fell below the region’s hurricane zone. However, scientists believe that climate change has contributed to increased hurricane intensity in the Caribbean since 1995, leaving countries such as Grenada particularly vulnerable. As climate change continues, scientific models expect hurricane activity to further intensify in coming years.[ii]


Island nations such as Grenada view climate change as an economic and existential crisis. Over half of all Caribbean residents live within 1.5 kilometres of the coast.[iii] Climate change threatens these islands’ marine and coastal ecosystems, fresh water supplies, and shorelines. Such damage would severely impact the tourism, agriculture and forestry sectors.[iv] Thus Caribbean countries worked together to create the non-profit organization “Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre” (CCCCC) to coordinate the region’s climate change action plan.  Since 2005, the CCCCC has initiated over twenty projects to address issues such as educating citizens on how to stay safe during extreme weather and designing strategies to make the islands more resilient to the effects of climate change.[v]


One of the CCCCC’s most promising ongoing projects is its “Coastal Protection for Climate Change Adaptation in the Small Island States in the Caribbean”.  The project provides funding to support the protection, sustainable management and rehabilitation of coastal ecosystems, such as coral reefs, in the small island states of Saint Lucia, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Jamaica. This work is needed because the Caribbean Sea’s increasing water temperate and acidity have negatively affected the region’s coral reefs.


Ironically, as climate change intensifies, coral reefs become more critical to the region’s survival. Scientists believe that these ecosystems may mitigate the impact of extreme weather by protecting islands from wave action and storm surges.[vi] A Stanford research team concluded that “coral reefs reduce wave energy by an average of 97 percent, dissipating disproportionately more wave energy as wave energy increased.”[vii]


The Coastal Protection project would attempt to strengthen coastal reefs by both 1) limiting local pollution and coastal development and 2) actively restoring reefs that have become too damaged to recover naturally.


Focusing on restoring reefs is a good use of the CCCCC’s resources. Reefs are proven to mitigate the impact of extreme weather on coastal locations and are cost effective to restore. The Stanford study estimated restoration projects to cost $1,290 per meter.[viii] This work pays back handsomely. A 2008 study estimated the value of “potential avoided damages” (i.e. costs that are avoided because coral reefs protect against hurricanes and floods) at $18-33mm and $28-50mm for the Caribbean islands of Tobago and St. Lucia, respectively.  These are significant amounts given the small size of these economies: $286mm for Tobago and $825mm for St. Lucia.[ix] Rehabilitating the coral reefs would also boost tourism, one of the region’s economic drivers.


The CCCCC should continue to pursue projects that try to reduce the impact of climate change. I would argue for increased spending on technology to limit the impact of waves crashing on shore, including spending more money on building artificial seawalls. The Stanford study estimated the cost of artificial breakwaters at $19,791 per meter – much higher than the comparable $1,290 needed to restore natural coral reefs.[x] In addition to the cost, some critics of artificial breaks have noted the lifelessness of the “grey infrastructure” and the fact that they don’t improve the surrounding ecosystems as natural coral reefs do.[xi]


Despite these criticisms, the CCCCC should continue exploring all available alternatives given the immense security and economic value in protecting coastal shorelines.

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[i] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Socities.



[iv] “The economics of climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean.” United Nations. February 2015.



[vii] “Coral reefs provide protection from storms and rising sea levels, Stanford research finds.” Stanford Report. May 13, 2014.

[viii] “Coral reefs provide protection from storms and rising sea levels, Stanford research finds.” Stanford Report. May 13, 2014.

[ix] “Coastal Capital –  Economic Valuation of Coral Reefs in Tobago and St. Lucia” Lauretta Burke, Suzie Greenhalgh, Daniel Prager and Emily Cooper. Final Report – June, 2008

[x] “Coral reefs provide protection from storms and rising sea levels, Stanford research finds.” Stanford Report. May 13, 2014.



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Student comments on The Caribbean: Land of Extreme Sunshine or Extreme Hurricanes?

  1. This is an interesting note Will. I wonder, how much emphasis do caribbean countries put on cutting their own emissions? Although many of these countries are small, their per capita emissions are not exactly best in class. Despite high potential for renewable energy such as wind and solar (the caribbean is generally speaking both windy and sunny for much of the year) there hasn’t been a large amount of investment in these areas. In the Turks and Caicos Islands for example, 99.6% of all energy produced is by diesel generator. Does this mean that there is somewhat of a disconnect between working hard to flight climate change, but at the same time contributing to it by using conventional power generation methods? Will countries in the caribbean continue to face the dangers of climate change whilst contributing its development at the same time?

  2. Thanks for the interesting post, Will. I agree with you that this has to be a priority for these Caribbean countries in order to survive. I found particularly interesting your point regarding coral reefs and their importance. I agree that coral reefs are an important protection for islands from big storms, but do you think that the CCCCC’s actions are enough to protect them? It seems that they are trying to conserve them, but as water temperatures increase, wouldn’t these reefs be harmed despite these conservation attempts? Also, it would be interesting to see if they are able to get outside aid to help them develop new technologies and prevention strategies rather than only having emergency response aid.

  3. Gracias amigo. Firstly I must point out that the CCCCC needs to come up with a better acronym that can be said faster. I also had no idea the important defense mechanism coral reefs act as. As climate change escalates, maintaining the coral reefs and investing in the other security measures you mention seem like an additional dimension of expense the country was not expecting. It’s unfortunate that climate change is caused more from emissions of other industrialized countries, but other communities such as the Caribbean overindex in paying the costs of more frequent natural extremities. I wonder if the Caribbean and other communities hit by disasters are solely responsible for the costs of preventative measures such as restoring coral reefs or the other security measure you mention.

  4. Really interesting post about the importance to so many Caribbean nations of reducing the impact of climate change as it represents an existential threat to their country and population. It is easy for people in larger nations, even those who live near the coast, to forget that climate change does not merely mean that people might have to move inland but that entire populations could be forced to move from their homelands as a result. I agree with you that these countries need to invest in preventative measures to make sure that the effects of climate change are mitigated and further changes are prevented to the extent possible. However, one of the tough decisions facing the governments of each of these countries is the decision to put capital and resources towards long-term goals versus facing the needs of their citizens today who are facing repercussions from natural disasters. How can governments make sure that there is enough money to put towards restoring coral reefs and protecting the ecosystem when they also potentially have to deal with a population that is now 60% homeless due to a hurricane that has just occurred, as was the case with Hurricane Ivan. These short-term versus long-term tradeoffs are issues faced by every government in trying to serve its people, but become even more stark when the tradeoffs could result in the country ceasing to exist.

  5. Thanks for this insightful post! You have done a great job outlining the extreme impact climate change will have on many small, struggling nations in the Caribbean. Do you think these nations have the capital to really make an impact or is their limited capital actually better spent attempting to lobby larger nations (like the U.S.) to advocate for regulations? Put in simpler terms, where do you think these nations can get the best ROI on their investments in climate change prevention?

  6. Thanks for sharing! Your post reminded me of an article I had read recently on scientists attempting to breed “super coral” that are more resistant to climate change, and this could be a potential tool when restoring reefs that have become too damaged to recover naturally, which you mentioned should continue to be a key initiative for CCCCC. The science behind this super coral is assisted evolution by taking the genes of resilient coral strains and passing them on to younger offspring: Perhaps this technology would initially increase the upfront cost of restoring the reef (taking samples from the specific reefs, find and foster the genes that make the coral more resistant to warmer and more acidic water, and grow and plant the super coral), but the investment might pay off if this coral better withstands the effects of climate change, eliminating or reducing the need for the CCCCC to restore the reef again in the future.

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