Climate Change
Quality of life

Protecting paradise – Sailing towards a more sustainable future

Deborah Kelly Spillane
Deborah Kelly Spillane
11 May 2022

For the second consecutive season opener, SailGP returns to Bermuda to start Season 3. It’s difficult to imagine a more picture-perfect backdrop for the competing catamarans. But Bermuda’s fragile marine environment needs protection, and the global league is in the perfect position to make step-changes and showcase how this can be done.

Protecting paradise – Sailing towards a more sustainable future

Like so many coastal communities all over the world, preserving the delicate marine ecosystem and the health of the ocean is of huge priority on the island of Bermuda. Beloved for its beautiful beaches and abundant coral reefs, many local groups work tirelessly to highlight the potential impact of climate change – and what each inhabitant can do individually to make a difference. As a climate positive sport with a goal to become the world’s most sustainable and purpose-driven one, SailGP used last year’s event to activate on-the-ground projects in Bermuda.

But in which ways is the growing climate crisis apparent on Bermuda, and what can a sporting event do to truly make a difference?

How climate change is affecting Bermuda

It is estimated that 143 million people will be displaced by weather-related events by 2050[1]. From rising sea levels to heat waves and hurricanes, many aspects of life on the island will be impacted. Three of the most visible effects of climate change on Bermuda include:

  1. Rising temperatures

Thanks to the Gulf Stream and the Bermuda-Azores high-pressure system, Bermuda enjoys a sub-tropical climate. The average temperatures range from 18.5°C (65.3°F) in February to 29.6°C (85°F) in August, giving it a comfortable climate all year round.

Due to climate change, the average global temperature could continue to increase within a range of 1.8 to 4.0°C until 2100, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). If we use the model offered by the IPCC, this means that the temperature on Bermuda could increase by an average of 3.6°C by the end of the century.

  1. Rising sea levels

Climate change causes the sea levels to rise in two different ways. Water generally expands when heated – in fact, it is at its most dense at around 4°C. As temperatures rise, the water in the ocean expands causing the sea levels to rise. According to a report commissioned by the Bermuda National Trust[2],  the expansion of the oceans alone could cause sea levels to rise by 0.59 metres by the end of the century, resulting in approximately 462 acres of Bermuda being submerged under water.

The melt water from the world’s glaciers and icecaps adds to the amount of water in the oceans, causing sea levels to rise even further. If the polar ice meltwater is also considered, the sea level could rise by as much as two metres by the end of the century. This would result in a loss of 2,026 acres of land in Bermuda to the sea – a full 14 percent of the island’s total land mass.

  1. Extreme weather

The intensity of extreme weather is also increasing in Bermuda, with hot, humid air being trapped in the atmosphere leading to heavy rainfall, storms and hurricanes. Although rainfall is not occurring more frequently, downpours are heavier, and these can lead to flash flooding as the ground is unable to absorb the water fast enough.

Recent research[3] shows that the maximum wind speeds of hurricanes in in the subtropical Atlantic around Bermuda increased significantly. In fact, the winds have more than doubled on average over the last 60 years due to rising ocean temperatures in the region. This is because hurricanes intensify by taking energy from the warm ocean surface.

 

Purposeful projects in paradise

Last year, SailGP brought their commitment to climate action and a cleaner future to the Season 2 kick off and delivered a number of on-the-ground initiatives to highlight how working together can create a better Bermuda.

These included:

  • revitalising the shoreline by preserving 480m2 of seagrass beds through blue carbon sequestration projects,
  • adopting eight clean energy, zero emissions ePropulsion engines to equip the fleet of support boats during the two days of racing,
  • and the SailGP Inspire Program which saw 295 local young people take part in a variety of learning events from sustainable engineering to photography to boat building and rigging.

 

What is a blue carbon sequestration project?

In a nutshell, blue carbon is the carbon that is stored in coastal and marine ecosystems. These coastal ecosystems include mangroves, seagrass beds and tidal marshes, and they store more carbon per unit area than forests. This means that they are not only vital for their local coastal communities, but also in the battle against climate change.  

Should human activity damage these fragile marine ecosystems, their ability to store carbon is affected. Instead, they release their stored carbon and contribute to the emissions causing climate change.

The Season 3 opener offers an opportunity to revisit these initiatives with new energy and learnings, and share with even larger audiences in 2022. But one project stands out somewhat more than the others, perhaps because it addresses an issue very much in the hearts of those living on Bermuda; the sea grass restoration project.

The Bermuda seagrass restoration project

Seagrass meadows play a vital role in Bermuda’s ecosystem, providing food for green turtles and shelter a wide range of marine life. In addition to human damage, it is actually overgrazing from the famous green turtles that is depleting the seagrass beds.

Bermuda Government Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Senior Marine Conservation Officer, Sarah Manuel, PhD, said: “Bermuda’s inshore seagrass meadows have been impacted by numerous factors over the years, but more recently green turtle grazing has put unprecedented pressure on these habitats, leading to their local collapse. The plants struggle to recover from the intensive grazing by the increasing number of juvenile green turtles. Our offshore seagrass meadows, far from human impacts, were the first to disappear. We’re really grateful for the support from SailGP to bring attention to our efforts.”

One way to help the seagrass meadows to regenerate is to install protective cages that prevent the turtles from overgrazing. The stock gets time to recover while providing shelter for juvenile fish, seahorses and invertebrates. SailGP will continue to fund new cages, and finance research that includes monitoring the sites and assessing their effectiveness in carbon reduction.

Restoring sea grass, fighting climate change

Sea grass is also considered an essential tool in combating climate change, thanks to its ability to  effectively store – or sequester – carbon. As seagrass removes carbon dioxide from seawater and converts it into inactive, organic carbon, it produces oxygen as a process by-product, which is critical for the survival of so many ocean inhabitants. But when damaged, the sea grass meadows emit the carbon they have stored for centuries, becoming instead a source of greenhouse gases. It is estimated that up to 1.02 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide is released per year by degraded coastal ecosystems, making their protection even more vital.  

By returning to Bermuda for Season 3, Sail GP can once more use their platform to share the importance of working together to create a better world powered by nature. The impact of climate change is already visible throughout the island of Bermuda, yet by taking action to project a precious local resources such as sea grass, carbon emissions can be reduced and climate change mitigated.

Discover more Beneath The Surface

Sources

[1] https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/03/19/climate-change-could-force-over-140-million-to-migrate-within-countries-by-2050-world-bank-report

[2] https://www.bnt.bm/news/newsletters-reports

[3] https://www.bios.edu/news/increasing-hurricane-intensity-around-bermuda-linked-to-rising-ocean-temper/