State of the Environment: Post Dorian Report

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Introduction to the Report

On September 1, 2019, Hurricane Dorian made landfall in The Bahamas as a category-five storm with sustained winds up to 185 mph, taking almost four days to travel over the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama. Since its passing, scientists have collaborated to document the environmental damage exacted by the catastrophic storm in order to inform restoration efforts and monitor recovery. Several Non-Governmental and Governmental agencies partnered to assess the impact of Hurricane Dorian on the various habitat types, species groups, and ecosystems affected by the storm. The work represented in this report includes water quality analysis, avian and forest surveys, and marine surveys.

This work was made possible by funding from generous donors including, but not limited to the Moore Bahamas Foundation.

Read The Executive Summary

Executive Summary

Hurricane Dorian challenged the people and environments of The Bahamas, exacting a grave toll on the communities of Abaco and Grand Bahama. The pine forests, mangroves and coral reefs that support life on the islands sustained significant damage in many areas. A confluence of anthropogenic factors challenge the recovery of Abaco and Grand Bahama including 1) increasing storm frequency and intensity due to global climate change, 2) infrastructure development, dredging, mining, and agricultural activities that destroy or degrade natural habitats 3) coral diseases like Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) 4) invasive and introduced species that outcompete native plants and compromise shorelines, and 5) the impact of pollutants like the petroleum released during the Equinor Oil Spill. 

In the context of a future with higher storm frequency, this situation is dire and demands swift and effective restorative actions to prepare for the next storm. The Bahamas’ vulnerability is even greater considering the threat of oil exploration and other high-risk infrastructure and development projects proposed in the country. Healthier ecosystems are more resilient and more likely to rebound following a disturbance, like a hurricane, and sustainably deliver the ecosystem services upon which a society depends.

Following Hurricane Dorian, The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT) reported damage to 40 percent of mangrove habitat on Abaco and 73 percent of mangrove habitat on Grand Bahama. The Bahamas’ Ministry of Environment & Housing’s Forestry Unit reported that 24 percent of forests on Abaco were damaged and 77 percent of forests on Grand Bahama were damaged. In those forests, the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) has documented a significant decline in bird populations in storm-affected areas of Grand Bahama and Abaco with the complete loss of Bahama Warblers from the pine forests of Grand Bahama. The Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) recorded the death of two whales and, in collaboration with Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) and Florida International University (FIU), noted changes in community composition in seagrass beds within the path of the hurricane. And finally, even after efforts to remediate the impacts of the oil spill, Waterkeepers Bahamas (WKB) has recorded petroleum concentrations of up to 1,910 mg/kg in the soil and 9.3 mg/L in standing water on Grand Bahama near the Equinor oil storage facility damaged by the storm, which has likely resulted in negative physical and toxicological impacts on the organisms in those habitats.

Four primary recommendations characterize the suggestions put forward by the organizations that contributed to this report:

  1. Restoration and monitoring will be pivotal in protecting coral reefs and other ecosystems from threats including: hurricanes, coral bleaching, Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, and pollution such as oil spills.
  2. The pine forests and mangroves of Abaco and Grand Bahama require rehabilitation, restoration and monitoring efforts to return to a functional state as habitats, protective structures, and community and tourism resources.
  3. It is important to recognize the value of ongoing long-term studies as these studies have provided a critical baseline from which the extent of damage from Dorian can be more thoroughly documented.
  4. The Petroleum related policies of The Bahamas should include taxation or other revenue streams related to the petrochemical industry (including fuel transport, etc.) to provide for national risk management investments and regulations to ensure adequate prevention, preparedness and response capability to disasters that reflect the value of ecosystems and the communities that rely on them.

Contributing Organizations:

Bahamas National Trust

American Bird Conservancy

Perry Institute for Marine Science

University of Alabama

Forestry Unit (Bahamas Ministry of Environment & Housing)

Bonefish & Tarpon Trust

Science and Perspective

Waterkeepers Bahamas

Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation

Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium

Florida International University