Climate Corner: Paradise threatened

Feb 24, 2024

Rebecca Phillips

As winter drags on in the Mid-Ohio Valley, many of us dream of escaping to tropical climes until spring. Since retiring, I have been lucky enough to do just that, spending several winters in the Yucatan peninsula, home to lovely people, peaceful beaches, scores of Mayan ruins, and 400+ species of birds. I am not the only one: in the winter months, snowbirds from the U.S. and Canada increase the population of the Progreso area by more than 10%, and the resort city of Cancun draws millions of vacationers every year. Culturally minded tourists flock to World Heritage sites like Chichen Itzo and Calakmul, while nature lovers come here to view the flamingos, motmots, and other gorgeous tropical birds.

Unfortunately, this beautiful region is one of those most threatened by climate change. Its geology and its location in the hurricane belt explain why. The Yucatan peninsula is a nearly flat limestone slab between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean sea, with no place here more than a few feet above sea level and a water table that lies close to the surface, rendering it vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding.

The last few years have not been kind. As the world’s scientists have noted, warmer oceans are leading to more and stronger hurricanes. In 2020, the year of the pandemic, Yucatan experienced three tropical storms and two hurricanes in four months, along with record-breaking rainfall. Merida, the capital city, experienced serious flooding in a number of areas, with streets underwater, homes inundated, power out, parking garages rendered useless, and a section of its major underpass closed for weeks. With a new Category 6 proposed as a designation for the stronger hurricanes of the last few years, the situation is likely to worsen.

Hurricanes are not required for flooding in this vulnerable land. The winter storms known as Nortes are becoming more frequent due to changes in the atmospheric currents, meaning that the rainy season lasts longer. With the aquifers full, water has no place to go except across the surface. Just last week, a friend sent photos showing the Gulf of Mexico at the top of the steps leading to her terrace and the sand road next to her home completely underwater. Increased development in the area and an expansion of the Progreso pier, combined with the higher sea levels, have caused serious erosion of some areas of the coast. A longtime resident reports the loss of ten feet or more of beach near her home in the last decade.

The winds associated with these winter storms are also becoming stronger. Yucatan Magazine reported that the Feb. 5 storm brought winds of 75 mph — literally hurricane strength in what is not supposed to be hurricane season — due to an atmospheric cold front reaching the record-warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to extensive flooding and property damage, at last report two fishing boats and the five men who crewed them were still missing. Weather forecasters are warning of more such storms this winter.

In a 2023 Washington Post interview, Yucatan governor Mauricio Vila stated that “important. . . [parts] of Yucatan and the Yucatan Peninsula will disappear in the next hundred years.” Yes, you read that right: the conservative-party governor of the state has admitted that climate change-induced sea level rise and flooding will cause some of the area’s fabled beaches to vanish in the possible lifetimes of children born today.

Too much water is not the only problem. Salvador Flores Guido, research professor at the Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan, has noted that both summer temperatures and periods of drought have increased here, leading to crop failures, livestock deaths, and water shortages. With almost no surface water, the population of Yucatan depends on groundwater and an extensive system of underground lakes called cenotes for its water supply. Sea level rise is causing saltwater intrusion into this fragile supply, and a corresponding reduction in freshwater availability. Professor Guido is also concerned about an increase in tropical diseases and heat-related deaths, especially in rural areas.

This place that so many view as paradise is in danger of being lost.


Rebecca Phillips is a WVU Parkersburg retiree and a member of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action and the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta.