The second largest coral reef system in the world dominates the offshore area of the western Caribbean (Milliman, 1993), and all but the northern Gulf coast have extensive reef systems. Growth of individual coral organisms is estimated to be 1-20 cm yr-1 (Vicent et al., 1993), and reef growth rates as a whole are known to be up to 1.5 cm yr-1 (Hendry, 1993). Reefs that accumulate at these rates could keep pace with a sea-level rise of 20 cm by 2025 (UNEP, 1993) if other factors do not alter growth conditions.
Accurate predictions on the effect of sea-level rise may be possible in reefs that already have been physically and biologically monitored, such as in Panama, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Belize (UNEP, 1993; Gischler and Hudson, 1998).
Latin America coastal zones with economies that are based in fishing and tourism are particularly vulnerable to physical changes associated with sea-level rise.
Tourism is one of the most important industries in the region, especially in the Caribbean. Shoreline migration will create new areas of economic opportunity as new beaches are built, but protection, replenishment, and stabilization of existing beaches represents a principal socioeconomic impact. It is difficult to separate the impact of climate-induced sea-level rise from erosion associated with the persistent interaction of the sea on the coast. In addition, certain sand-mining practices (such as in Trinidad and Tobago) already have important effects on the ecosystem. Indirect socioeconomic effects on tourism from increasing pollution, coral reef mortality, and storm damage also are involved (UNEP, 1993).
Latin American economies could be severely affected by climate change. Coastal wetlands in Central America could generate US$750 million. Shrimp fisheries at the Estero Real in Nicaragua, which could provide US$60 million annually to the economy of the country, and the Gulf of Fonsecawhich supplies important fishing, firewood, and transport to the rural communities of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaraguacould be affected by sea-level rise (Quesada and Jiménez, 1988).
Socioeconomic issues in the context of local response to global changesuch as tourism, settlements and structures, and cultural heritageand the influence of tropical storms are considered most important regarding levels of vulnerability (Mainardi, 1996; Tabilo-Baldivieso, 1997; Windovoxhel et al., 1998). Approximately 1,600 km of coral reefs and 870 km of mangroves are located in the region of Central America (Tabilo-Valdivieso, 1997). More than 15,000 species of plants and 800 species of vertebrates identified in the region would be at risk from sea-level rise, along with resources for rural communities (about 450,000 people) that inhabit the coastal areas of Central America (Windovoxhel et al., 1998).
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