San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Global Warming Threatens Coastal Cities

If the latest round of climate change predictions comes true, Costa Ricans’ grandchildren may be running for higher ground – and packing their belongings with them.

According to a recent study by the National Meteorological Institute (IMN), 60-90% of the Puntarenas peninsula, a narrow, sea level sand spit that juts into the Gulf of Nicoya on the north-central Pacific coast, could be underwater by 2100.

The study is based on the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which predicts a sea level rise of between seven and 23 inches and a temperature rise of between two and 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

Puntarenas – a city almost entirely surrounded by the sea, has already been subject to flooding on extreme high tides – and scientists predict these will become worse over time.

Other lowland Pacific coastal cities – including Quepos, Golfito, and low-lying islands in the Gulf of Nicoya, could also be affected, according to a recent report in the daily La Nacíon.

And for the unlucky bunch who are forced to relocate to higher ground, there’s more bad news: Dengue fever and other tropical diseases may come with them.

The mosquitoes that carry dengue fever, called Aedis Aegypti, have found higher altitude climates warmer, and thus more hospitable, so are climbing hillsides and infecting people in areas where such illnesses were once rare, or non-existent.

“There’s a whole range of infectious diseases that are spreading because of climate change,” explained Dr. Paul Epstein, a professor from the Harvard School of Public Health and an expert in tropical medicines.

“Warming can affect the altitude at which we see these diseases, but also, after heavy rains and flooding, incidents can increase,” he said.

Epstein believes Costa Rica is in better shape to deal with such problems – in part, because of its relatively advanced public health institutions, and also, because of its long history of attentiveness to environmental issues.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and representatives from Central American overnments chose Costa Rica for a workshop held last week, which analyzed the effects of climate change on the health of Central Americans.

The outlook is alarming.

Representatives from WHO, the Pan-American Health Organization, the United Nations, the Red Cross and the Central American Integration System (SICA) were among the participants.

The event sought to draw attention to the “very important link” between the environment and health, explained María Neira, WHO director of public health and the environment.

“We are in a critical phase of modifying our lifestyles and making decisions about the types of energy and collective transportation we should use. If these decisions aren’t taken into consideration, the impact on our health will be serious,” Neira said.

This year’s onslaught of dengue – in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, earlier this year, and more recently in Límon on the Caribbean coast, has alarmed authorities and jump-started nationwide community campaigns to combat its spread. Incidents have also been reported in the Central Valley (TT June 29).

Costa Rican Public Health Minister María Luisa Avila acknowledged that outbreaks of dengue might be consequences of climate change in Costa Rica.

“This is a topic with important repercussions because during the 14 years since dengue was first registered here, we have seen serious economic and social costs and difficulty in controlling the disease,” she said.

But mosquito-born viruses, including malaria, dengue and yellow fever are not the only problem.

In Central America, climate change has already affected the population’s health through increasing incidents of hurricanes and droughts in recent years, according to Luis Galvao, WHO sustainable development manager.

He said countries should take two actions to decrease long-term production of greenhouse gases: switching to cleaner energy sources and planning cities better. That, most agree, could mean relocating cities like Puntarenas to avoid disaster.

In the short-term, countries should also improve their health systems to provide better epidemiological vigilance and improve access to water and food during and after disasters.

In the past three months, global warming has made headlines almost daily in major newspapers, with announcements of conferences, like the recent International Symposium on Remote Sensing of the Environment, or last week’s World Health Organization, and subsequent doomsday predictions (TT June 29).

In recent months, scientists in Costa Rica, studying jungles, mountain peaks and the country’s coastlines have made startling discoveries.

According to Carlos Drews, of the World Wildlife Fund, the citizens of Puntarenas aren’t the only ones threatened by rising ocean levels.

Sea turtles are too. The beaches they nest on, along both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, are slowly being lost to the encroaching ocean, and rising temperatures are baking eggs in the sand (TT, June 15).

While scientists compile and study data on climate change, area students have been exploring the issue artistically. This year global warming was the theme for the country’s annual environmental mural contest in which more than 100 students participated.

The country, known for its incredible biodiversity and species density, has perhaps  as much to lose as any country in the world – as plants and animals are restricted in their ability to adapt in such a small area with so many ecosystems.

It’s not just the number of species, explains Jesús Ugalde, director of biodiversity studies at the National Biodiversity Institute (InBio) in Heredia, north of San José, but “their density, and dependence on fragile microclimates and ecosystems” that makes them so vulnerable to mounting threats from so many different angles –development, deforestation, pollution, and of course, climate change (TT, June 15).

But such dire reports of climate change disasters are matched by increasing research and prevention efforts in Costa Rica – which has quickly made a world-wide name for itself for its pioneering efforts.

Last month, President Oscar Arias announced his Peace with Nature initiative –and his intentions that Costa Rica become carbon neutral by 2021. In the long-term, he hopes the country, well known for its green image, would lead a group of carbon-neutral countries, thereby setting an example for the rest of the world (TT, July 27).

The country also welcomes, with open arms, researchers to its jungles, oceans and laboratories, including the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration,which has used the country as a base for research on climate change (see separate story).

Special correspondent John McPhaul contributed to this report.


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