Climate Change, Irma, and the Virgin Islands by Peter Boucher

Climate Change, Irma, and the Virgin Islands by Peter Boucher, IGERT Senior Fellow

There are not enough scientists who are willing to say directly that Irma was caused by climate change. And that’s because weather is nearly impossible to predict many years out. Global climate on the other hand, we are absolutely sure is warming as a result of human industry. Continued fossil fuel emissions do translate into warmer oceans and stronger storms. Climate change makes it far more likely that strong hurricanes like Irma appear in the present and in the coming years.

Hurricanes are fueled by long stretches of warm ocean, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing now and in the future Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. But Hurricanes also require low wind shear and a calm atmosphere to form- a weather condition which is difficult to predict under future climate scenarios. What this means is that we don’t know how often storms will get a chance to form in the coming years- but we do know that the hurricanes that form will be much stronger (Knutson et al. 2010[1]).

And while storms like Irma are incredibly powerful (with wind speeds around 185 mph, Irma was shaking and ripping apart even concrete buildings in the Virgin Islands), much of the damage and death that they cause can be prevented. The areas most devastated by these storms are the low-income, minority, and underrepresented communities (sometimes called environmental justice communities) that have been pushed by gentrification into the flood zones. They do not have the proper infrastructure to protect their homes from high winds and flooding, and aid will rarely be able to reach them in the aftermath.

All across the US east coast, buildings and homes have been built to be protected against the storms and floods that occurred the most frequently in the past. They were built at times when people thought the climate would hold steady- and instead, the entire global system is changing at the fastest pace ever recorded in human history. Our coastal communities were built with outdated risk maps that do not show the full extent of current flood zones and that do not account for the current frequency at which strong storms like Irma will hit.  Our cities and towns are not built to last the present day storms, and as is, we can’t expect them to last the future.

I am professionally as well as personally invested in storms and coastal communities.  I live in a coastal community- Boston. I study climate change as an environmental science PhD student at University of Massachusetts Boston. I talk about hurricanes, storms, and floods in class, particularly in relation to hurricane sandy, which tore the roof off of our university library in 2012 (they’re still doing construction on it).

My brother-in-law’s family[2] is from the US Virgin Islands. They were lucky to be in a well-protected home on a hill in St. Thomas. Even so, they’ve lost half their home to Irma. Their house has lasted through many decades of hurricanes- Irma might be the worst they’ve seen. They have many friends and family members on surrounding Caribbean islands whose homes were less protected, and they were completely leveled.

My brother in law is heading home to St. Thomas with a backpack full of food and supplies because he is worried that there will be none on the hill where his family lives. When I asked if there was anything I could send- he didn’t ask for extra clothing or food, like I expected- he asked for a gas powered chainsaw. They need it to cut through the wood and debris that a few days ago made up the frames of people’s homes.

The worst part of all this is that this kind of damage can and will all happen again if we don’t take it seriously. Climate change will bring more Irmas- stronger storms more often. I stress this because I want there to be only one time in my brother-in-law’s life when he needs to go home to chainsaw apart the dilapidated houses of his friends and family.

Now you can know for sure: while a storm’s appearance may be unpredictable in weeks or months ahead, in the long run, strong storms- category 4 and above- will appear more often, and we need to make sure our government, our local lawmakers, and our communities are prepared to face that fact.


Want to know what’s happening in the Virgin Islands post-Irma? Check out The Virgin Islands Consortium

To donate to relief efforts in the Virgin Islands: The Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands

[1] “…greenhouse warming will cause the globally averaged intensity of tropical cyclones to shift towards stronger storms, with intensity increases of 2–11% by 2100.” 

Knutson, T., McBride, J., Chan, J., Emanuel, K., Holland, G., Landsea, C., . . . Sugi, M. (2010). Tropical cyclones and climate change. Nature Geoscience., 3(3), 157-163.

[2] To hear what it was like on St. Thomas, listen to his brother’s radio interview here.

Interdisciplinary Inspiration from the Amazon

By Miranda Chase’15

This has been a fantastic summer down here in the Amazon basin! The first time I was here was in 2011, and since then some things have changed a lot. Some others remain just as incredible as they have always been. As there are many stories to share, I will start with one today (and will write about others later). This is one of my favorites!


When we study coasts and communities, we try to break disciplinary boundaries, and we realize how important it is to have a holistic view of the world. This integrative approach is also adopted by Mr. Miguel Rocha- someone who doesn’t have disciplinary limits, and who has broken the boundaries of what used to be possible in rural Amazon many decades ago. His view of the world is not only holistic. It is inspirational.

I met him back in 2011, and this week I was having dinner with him and another friend. According to this friend, Mr. Miguel has a great voice to tell stories. I completely agree. So, please, imagine the following being told to you by a gentleman, in his 70’s, speaking slowly and softly:

The foundation was created in 1997. It is called Almerinda Malaquias Foundation. Almerinda was my mom, and Malaquias was my father. The idea has always been to create a center for environmental education and capacity building. Some years before that, I had met Jean-Daniel. He was travelling on my boat and later became my son-in-law. He shared my desire to create a foundation, and he was very skilled with wood working and other art crafts. We created the foundation together. 

And the story goes on. Nowadays, almost 20 years later, the foundation has become a landmark and a cultural institution for the region. We are in the lower Negro River, right before it meets the Amazon River. The foundation is famous around here. Mr. Miguel and his partner have created it as a response to the challenges they saw here – and they did it in a non-disciplinary and holistic way.

The foundation has a partnership with the Ministry of the Environment. When the police confiscate wood from illegal logging, the trunks that have already been cut down are donated to the foundation. Unfortunately, it is still very hard for the government to eliminate illegal logging, so the foundation has no shortage of good quality hardwood. Nonetheless, they are already thinking ahead. Hopefully, at some point, illegal logging will be controlled and there will no longer be donations of wood. So the foundation is already planting a garden with fruit trees, medicinal plants, and other hardwoods. They are cataloging some plants that have not been fully studied yet. The fruits will be enjoyed by all visitors and students of the foundation, and the green park will be managed according to the demand for wood and the availability of other (donated) lumber.

The foundation offers capacity building training to locals in the lower Negro river. The workshops on woodcraft started almost 20 years ago, and have already “graduated” more than 500 artisans. More recently, the foundation also started teaching people how to make soaps, a task that has more directly benefited women (although women have been trained in the woodcraft workshops as well). Mr. Miguel told me that entire families join the classes at the foundation. This indicates how locals see this institution: it is a resource for them to acquire skills and gain a better livelihood. Their woodcraft products are sold all over the world. I have visited their local store, and here are some pictures.

So bear with me here: This project is teaching skills to local communities, which they find so valuable that they send entire families to the foundation, generating income to hundreds of people. This project makes use of wood that would, otherwise, be wasted. They are creating their own tree garden because they want a zero-deforestation future for the Amazon. Their capacity building workshops benefit men and women alike. Is there anything missing? Oh yes, they have a project where they educate children about the importance of the forest!

Do you want more? Here you go: They have never received not even a penny from the government, from local politicians, nor from religious groups. They want independence in order to guarantee their commitment to serving local communities without targeting any group in particular. All their funding comes from small private donations from friends and supporters worldwide. They have received three times an independent prize that awards the top 100 non-profit organizations in Brazil (there is no funding involved, but this is a huge recognition!).

Creating institutions in the Amazon is really hard. There is lack of funding, mistrust, skepticism and a host of parties that are not interested in the prosperity of sustainable initiatives. Numerous NGO’s are created every year, and years later they shut down their facilities. The Almerinda Malaquias Foundation has achieved more than what anyone thought to be possible 20 years ago, and what is still hard nowadays.

This all sounds incredible, fascinating and inspiring. You must have had many difficulties along the way. What do you think of this journey? I asked. Mr. Miguel said:

When outsiders come to visit the forest, they normally wear old shoes and clothes because they don’t want their good clothes to get dirty. When they go to a church, they wear nice clothes in order to pay a tribute to God. When I come to the forest, I wear my best clothes. This is a temple for me. Everything I do, and all the hardships I endure have one purpose: The Amazon forest and its peoples.

Ballast Water and Interdisciplinarity: A Complex Union

Michael Roy’15

“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…a zebra mussel?” Roughly thirty years ago, while sampling the Great Lakes, researchers stumbled upon a mussel that had never been seen in the Lakes before (Carlton, 1996). This particular mussel would result in billions of dollars in damage to infrastructure, and even more spent on eradicating this species (New York Sea Grant 1994). The bivalve in question was the Zebra Mussel; a relatively small freshwater mussel that will grow on practically any substrate and is native to the Black Sea (Carlton 1996). How did it get to the Great Lakes, you may ask? It was a question that took some time to answer, but once it was understood, the implications sent rippling effects throughout much of the world.

The culprit was ballast water, a seemingly innocent component to normal shipping practices. To maintain trim and buoyancy, large commercial tankers pump water from the surrounding harbor into specialized tanks found within their hulls (known as ballast tanks) (Carlton and Geller, 1993). Also contained within this water are dozens of different species, and thousands of individuals per species (Carlton and Geller, 1993). Once all cargo has been loaded, and enough water has been pumped into the ballast tanks, the ship leaves the harbor for its next locale. Therefore, along for the ride are many varieties of species ranging from worms, to crustaceans, to pelagic fish larvae (Carlton and Geller, 1993). These organisms often survive the trip to the next port, where they are released once the ballast tanks are emptied (to load more cargo) (Carlton 1999). This is the hypothesized vector of transport that brought the mussel to the shores of the Great Lakes (Carlton 1996). Transport by means of ballast (including rock and sand ballast) had been known for centuries prior (Carlton 1996). However, the zebra mussel brought the issue transport of non-native species by means of ballast into stark relief because of its major impact on the environmental health and infrastructure surrounding the lakes.

I first became acquainted with this system in the spring of 2011 when I attended the Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and the Mystic Seaport, in Mystic CT, fondly known among its alumni as the Williams-Mystic Program. Williams-Mystic is an undergraduate interdisciplinary program that integrates maritime culture, literature of the sea, marine history, maritime law, and marine science to understand the interconnected nature of these disciplines. As connected as the world’s oceans, the Williams-Mystic program understands the connected nature of many fields of study previously thought to be separate and distinct. As such, students from many different backgrounds and a variety of academic institutions attend the Williams-Mystic program every semester, truly learning the value of interdisciplinarity from their professors and each other to solve complex problems with multidimensional solutions.

While at the Williams-Mystic program, I focused on ballast water for my term paper in Maritime Law. Although the zebra mussel was an ecological issue, it also was an economic and political issue. To prevent the spread of any new species by means of ballast water, the state of New York in 2010 passed legislation that would require vessels to treat their ballast tanks with some chemical or ultraviolet light prior to entering the lakes to kill any organisms found inside the ballast tanks (Aquatic nuisance species coalition participation act S145-2011). At this point in time, commercial vessels already needed to flush their tanks in the open water with salt water if the water they were carrying was fresh (the salt water is thought to kill any freshwater organisms that could not tolerate high salinities). However, since many estuarine organisms have highly variable salinity tolerances, New York State believed that ballast water exchange was sampling not effective enough (Aquatic nuisance species coalition participation act S145-2011). Their law indicated that they would block any ships that did not meet their requirements from entering the lakes (Aquatic nuisance species coalition participation act S145-2011). Not only was this a domestic issue for the United States, it was also a geopolitical issue for Canada. Such legislation proposed by a US state would bar shipping through lake Erie the ports in Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior to a sovereign nation. New York has since backed off on some of its stricter requirements, appeasing any conflict with Canada.

However, understanding this complex and highly important issue required an understanding of multiple disciplines (a truly transdisciplinary issue) ranging from scientific, to political, to economic. This training instilled a desire to better understand complex issues from multiple perspectives in order to arrive at the best and most comprehensive solutions to a variety of multifaceted problems. Now that I am a Coasts and Communities Fellow in the Integrative Graduate and Research Traineeship (IGERT), I am able to hone in these skills, and learn in greater detail how to achieve these goals. Transdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs are critical in today’s complex interconnected world, and truly need to be fostered in every aspect of society to solve the world’s most critical issues.


Aquatic nuisance species coalition participation act S145-2011 (2011) []

Carlton, J. T., Geller, J. B., (1993) Ecological roulette: the global transport of nonindigenous marine organisms, Science 261: 78-82

Carlton, J. T., (1996) Marine bioinvasions: the alteration of marine ecosystems by non-indigenous species Oceanography, 9:1

Carlton, J. T., (1999) The scale and ecological consequences of biological invasions in the world’s oceans, Invasive Species and Biodiversity Management, 195-212

New York Sea Grant 1994