SCIENTIFIC STUDY | Cayman 29th most-vulnerable country to rising sea levels due to climate change

The United Nations' Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate has shown that unabated greenhouse gas emissions will lead to a rise in the global sea level of up to 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) by the year 2100, even if drastic measures are taken. The studies also showed that even if these measures are adopted, the damage already done will lead to a minimum possible rise in sea level of between 0.29 and 0.59 meters (0.95 and 1.93 feet). Rising temperatures of even 3°C (37.4°F), could affect sovereigns such as the Cayman Islands, with an estimated 83% of the population being submerged.

Data produced by the ISCIENCES digital elevation model ranked countries' vulnerability to detrimental sea level rise based on their land area which is below 5 meters (16.4 feet) as a percentage of total land area. Using this data, the Cayman Islands were ranked as being the 29th most-vulnerable country to sea-level rise out of 154 countries.

In the Caribbean alone, the most-vulnerable countries are the Bahamas (second most-vulnerable country to sea-level rise globally), Cuba, Antigua & Barbuda, Belize, and the Cayman Islands.

The Cayman Islands are relatively flat, low-lying islands, with a high point of 60 feet (18.28 meters) above sea level, leaving the entire population greatly exposed to rising sea-levels. It is estimated that over 17,000 persons could be affected by a sea-level rise of even 0.29 meters. Given the nature of the Islands' position and height above sea-level, it is estimated that 100 meters (328 feet) of shoreline could be lost with even a 1 meter (3.28 feet) rise in sea-level, potentially impacting at least 300 buildings.

Cayman's biodiversity also stands to take a hit from any form of rising sea-level, as shoreline erosion would greatly threaten the nesting of sea turtles, wildlife ecosystems, and natural resources. Studies conducted by the Murdoch University of Australia show that the mangroves in Cayman would also be put in danger, noting that the current mangroves projected growth over the next 100 years could potentially only be able to tolerate a sea-level rise of 8-9cm (3.14-3.25 inches); the mangroves could be wiped away completely if they were to experience a rate of sea-level rise of over 12cm (4.72) over the course of 100 years. The mangroves' vulnerability to such a low change in sea-level stems from the naturally low rates of sediment accumulation and limited sources of sediment introduction from outside of the mangrove zone (which usually arise from nearby rivers or soil erosion sources).

A secondary impact of sea-level rise could result in threats to the existing sovereign rating and government creditworthiness, as rising-sea level could cause lost income, damage to assets, loss of life, health issues, and forced migration. Moody's examined the impact of land lost due to sea-level rise, citing damage to land rent income due to potential loss of coastal hotels, homes, condominiums, businesses, and other developments.

Further, the tourism industry could be gravely threatened due to the effects rising sea-level could have on the stability of treasured beaches, such as the economically vital Seven Mile Beach, as well as the coastal infrastructure relied on heavily by stay-over tourists such as hotels and attractions.

No stranger to the impacts of climate change, the Cayman Islands witnessed average temperatures in 2019 of 2°F higher than the 30-year mean.

All in all, Cayman's environment, economy, and society stand to be greatly affected by the threat of sea-level rise and other climate change-related impacts.

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