Challenges to Sustainability in the Caribbean Karst

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Mick Day


Karst landscapes in the Caribbean cover nearly 130,000km2, more than half the total land area of the region.  Approximately 90% of the karst is on the Greater Antilles, with other significant areas in the Bahamas, Anguilla, Antigua, the Cayman Islands, the Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Netherlands Antilles.  There is considerable heterogeneity, but the Caribbean contains many “classic” karst landscapes, including cockpits, towers, dry valleys, dolines (sinkholes), blue holes and caves.  The karst has played an important role in Caribbean history, as a focus of resistance to colonial power, and as a basis for subsistence agriculture following emancipation and independence, increasingly incorporating commercial agriculture, urbanization and industrial activities, and tourism.  Karst landscape provides a critical physical backdrop for many of the Caribbean’s environmental, agricultural, economic and cultural issues, and its sustainability is critical to regional wellbeing.   

The Caribbean karstlands are challenging to human habitation, since they possess a broad array of natural hazards, such as drought and flooding, but they are also inherently fragile, at risk of degradation and vulnerable to environmental change.  Despite this vulnerability to environmental change, under rational management regimes there is no inherent reason why human use should not be sustainable in the long term.  Human impacts, however, have been long-term and severe, particularly through destruction of natural vegetation, contamination of water supplies, urbanization and quarrying.  .

The Caribbean karst continues to play important roles locally, nationally and regionally in water supply, mining and quarrying, agriculture, tourism and conservation, all of which represent specific and collective challenges to sustainability of the karst environment.  Additionally, sustainability is threatened by the consequences of anthropogenic climatic change, which is predicted to lead to increasing air and water temperatures, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns, including decreasing precipitation totals, and the increasing frequency of extreme events, such as droughts and hurricanes, the effects of all of which will be magnified in the karst, particularly with respect to karst hydrology.  

Disruption of the karst hydrological cycle may lead to increasing aridity and desertification, with concomitant impacts on ecology and potential land use.  Increasing population and economic development will further exacerbate human impacts on the karst landscapes. Climate change and other human impacts will increasingly threaten already at-risk and vulnerable ecosystems and human communities, necessitating integration of climate change parameters and the adoption of appropriate risk management measures.  The severity of these impacts may be reduced by appropriate land management and land use planning, which are necessary ingredients for long-term sustainability.


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Article Details

Original Scientific Papers
Author Biography

Mick Day, Geography, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Professor, Geography