Caribbean Islands Face Loss of Protection and Biodiversity as Seagrass Loses Terrain


Tropical islands have an important ally when it comes to battling storms and sea-level rise: seagrass. 

Tropical islands have an important ally when it comes to battling storms and sea-level rise: seagrass. During hurricane Irma, an extremely powerful Category 5 storm that hit the North Caribbean in 2017, NIOZ scientist Rebecca James witnessed how native seagrass meadows along the coast of Sint Maarten held their ground, reduced coastal erosion and lowered the chances of flooding. In the years of research during her PhD, she saw the pressures on this natural storm protection increasing. In her dissertation, The future of seagrass ecosystem services in a changing world, James warns that further loss of these green meadows will leave tropical islands vulnerable and will exacerbate the negative effects of climate change.

The flexible grass, that grows in shallow bays and lagoons throughout the Caribbean, is a natural wave dampener. As it sways back and forth, it removes energy from the waves, keeps the sand on the seafloor stable and, thereby, protects the beach against erosion. James: ‘It is a great natural protector of beaches and reduces the need for human intervention, such as sand nourishments and seawalls.’

Guardian of biodiversity

Seagrass offers more than protection to the islands and its people. The underwater meadows form a rich environment in which marine life, from micro-organisms to large animals, thrive. In turn, this benefits the local fishing communities. James: ‘In science, we call these ecosystem services.’ And seagrass serves many. James: ‘Through photosynthesis, seagrass removes CO2 from the water, it provides food and shelter for fish, turtles and sea urchins.’ Loss of these meadows not only puts tropical beaches at risk from erosion, it threatens all the species that rely upon them.

Read more at Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research

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