Facing the storm: how climate change intensifies inside Caribbean protected areas

Facing the storm: how climate change intensifies inside Caribbean protected areas

Caption: Exposure to extreme weather events inside and outside protected areas from 1952 to 2100 under three atmospheric carbon emission trajectories. Where the bar is blue, exposure to extreme weather events is significantly higher outside the protected areas than inside. Where the bar is red, exposure is significantly higher inside the protected areas than outside. The absence of a bar indicates no significant difference in extreme weather events inside and outside the protected areas.

Press release: The Caribbean region is witnessing a significant intensification of extreme weather events. Protected areas in the Caribbean are increasingly vulnerable to cyclones and droughts. Researchers have examined 32 parameters of historic extreme weather events and those projected for the remainder of the century in the Caribbean, highlighting the need to connect protected areas to facilitate biodiversity adaptation to these extreme events.

Researchers from the National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN-CSIC) and the University of Évora analysed the impact of extreme weather events in the past and their future effects on the Caribbean and Central America. Through 32 parameters measuring the effects of cyclones, heatwaves, torrential rains, or droughts, they compared how these disturbances will affect regions with and without environmental protection. The data show that protected areas will be more exposed to heatwaves and cyclones than unprotected areas, prompting researchers to warn of the need to adapt conservation strategies to the expected extreme weather events and to interconnect protected spaces.

Historically, the Caribbean and Central American region has regularly suffered from droughts, torrential rains, or hurricanes. However, since the start of the century, these extreme events have increased in intensity and frequency by two to three times, a trend expected to continue due to human-induced climate change. “Half a century ago, Caribbean and Central American ecosystems, such as mangroves or tropical dry forests, not only mitigated the effects of hurricanes or heatwaves but were also capable of recovering. However, with their increasing frequency and intensity, recovery is becoming increasingly difficult,” explains Miguel Bastos Araújo. “Our estimates indicate that about 65% of the studied area will experience at least one more intense and prolonged drought than those experienced so far this century. This, coupled with other extreme events, underscores the urgency of taking action as soon as possible.”

The 32 parameters studied for this work include the intensity, duration, and frequency of terrestrial heatwaves, hurricanes, torrential rains, and droughts. “Recent trends show that the duration and intensity of these climate disturbances are increasing, and future projections indicate these events will become more intense and frequent,” comments Araújo. With the increased exposure to extreme events, there’s an urgent need to rethink current adaptation and mitigation strategies. “Current strategies to protect biodiversity from the gradual increase in temperature may not be effective, as the greater recurrence and duration of extreme phenomena may not give species enough time to recover and adapt,” explains Juan David González-Trujillo.

The Caribbean is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, where mangroves, ecosystems with unique biodiversity, not only make the area unique but also protect coastal infrastructures and human populations from cyclones and hurricanes. However, rising temperatures, increasing coastal urbanisation, intensive shrimp farming, and pollution from agricultural runoff and wastewater are putting them at risk. “The situation is truly alarming because, in addition to biodiversity loss, the disappearance of these barriers endangers the population living in the area and the sustainability of a globally important resource like fisheries. That’s why it’s crucial we take urgent measures. In this study, we also found that protected areas could suffer more intensely from droughts and cyclones than unprotected areas, presenting a truly complex scenario for the conservation of unique global biodiversity,” concludes Araújo.

Check original press release from the MNCN (in Spanish).

Check full paper here: J.D. González-Trujillo, D. Alagador, P. González-Del-Pliego, M.B. Araújo. (2024) Exposure of protected areas in Central America to extreme weather events. Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.14251