What Climate Change Means for Puerto Rico Page: 2 of 2
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Although heavy rainstorms may become more common, total rainfall is
likely to decrease in the Caribbean region, especially during spring and
summer. Warmer temperatures also reduce the amount of water available
because they increase the rate at which water evaporates (or transpires)
into the air from soils, plants, and surface waters. With less rain and
drier soils, Puerto Rico may face an increased risk of drought, which in
turn can affect public water supplies, agriculture, and the economy. For
example, during the 2015 drought-one of the worst in Puerto Rico's
history-hundreds of thousands of people faced water restrictions, and
some people's water was turned off for one or two days at a time.
Coral Reefs and Ocean Acidification
In the next several decades, warming waters are likely to harm most coral
reefs, and widespread loss of coral is likely due to warming and increas-
ing acidity of coastal waters. Rising water temperatures can harm the
algae that live inside corals and provide food for them. This loss of algae
weakens corals and can eventually kill them. This process is commonly
known as "coral bleaching" because the loss of algae also causes corals
to turn white.
Bleached corals off the coast of Puerto Rico. Hector Ruiz; used by permission.
Increasing acidity can also damage corals. Ocean acidity has increased
by about 25 percent in the past three centuries, and it is likely to increase
another 40 to 50 percent by 2100. As the ocean becomes more acidic,
corals are less able to remove minerals from the water to build their
skeletons. Shellfish and other organisms also depend on these minerals,
and acidity interferes with their ability to build protective skeletons and
Warming and acidification could harm Puerto Rico's marine ecosystems
and economic activities that depend on them. Coral reefs provide critical
habitat for a diverse range of species, while shellfish and small shell-
producing plankton are an important source of food for larger animals.
Healthy reefs and fish populations support fisheries and tourism.
Warmer temperatures and changes in rainfall could expand, shrink, or
shift the ranges of various plants and animals in Puerto Rico's forests,
depending on the conditions that each species requires. For example, as
summer rainfall decreases, tree species that prefer drier conditions could
move into areas once dominated by wet forest species. Other species
might shift to higher altitudes. Many tropical plants and animals live in
places where the temperature range is fairly steady year-round, so they
cannot necessarily tolerate significant changes in temperature. Coqui
frogs, bromeliads, mosses, and lichens are potentially vulnerable.
Freshwater ecosystems also face risks due to climate change. Rivers,
streams, and lakes hold less dissolved oxygen as they get warmer, which
can make conditions less hospitable for fish and other animals.
Higher temperatures are likely to interfere with agricultural productivity
in Puerto Rico. Hot temperatures threaten cows' health and cause them
to eat less, grow more slowly, and produce less milk. Reduced water
availability during the dry season could stress crops, while warmer
temperatures could also reduce yields of certain crops. Studies in other
tropical countries indicate that climate change may reduce plantain,
banana, and coffee yields.
Hot days can be unhealthy-even dangerous. Certain people are espe-
cially vulnerable, including children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor.
Rising temperatures will increase the frequency of hot days and warm
nights. High air temperatures can cause heat stroke and dehydration and
affect people's cardiovascular and nervous systems. Warm nights are
especially dangerous because they prevent the human body from cooling
off after a hot day. Since 1950, the frequency of warm nights in Puerto
Rico has increased by about 50 percent. Currently in San Juan, the
overnight low is above 77 degrees about 10 percent of the time.
Puerto Rico's climate is suitable for mosquito species that carry diseases
such as malaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever. While the transmission
of disease depends on a variety of conditions, higher air temperatures
will likely accelerate the mosquito life cycle and the rate at which viruses
replicate in mosquitoes.
Certain types of water-related illnesses already occur in Puerto Rico,
supported by its warm marine environment. These include vibriosis, a
bacterial infection that can come from direct contact with water or eating
infected shellfish, and ciguatera poisoning, which comes from eating fish
that contain a toxic substance produced by a type of algae. Higher ocean
temperatures can increase the growth of these bacteria and algae, which
may increase the risk of these associated illnesses.
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United States. Environmental Protection Agency. What Climate Change Means for Puerto Rico, pamphlet, August 2016; United States. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc949168/m1/2/?rotate=270: accessed August 20, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.