U.S. Territory of Guam Fights the Ravages of Climate Change

In 2013, when the coral reefs surrounding the sandy beaches of Guam started to fade from their usual shades of orange and pink to ashen white, the term coral bleaching was not yet synonymous with the climate crisis. 

It would be another year before warming ocean temperatures inflicted heat stress on coral reefs worldwide—a phenomenon most in the scientific community now regard as the beginning of a three-year global bleaching event that imperiled marine ecosystems by starving them of their food chain’s foundation. 

The fallout from the mass coral bleaching could hold devastating effects for the island’s wildlife. And residents worry the damaged reefs could threaten the culture of Guam’s native Chamorro population and the health of its economy. 

The U.S. territory of Guam, home to large U.S. Navy and Air Force bases, lost one-third of its surrounding coral population in the years that ensued. From 2013 to 2019, Guam experienced coral bleaching four out of the seven years. 

“I think Guam, in some ways, is like a very sad harbinger of reefs of the future,” says Whitney Hoot, the coral reef resilience coordinator for Guam’s Bureau of Statistics and Plans, in an interview in her office in the island’s capital of Hagatna. “As far as we know, we’re the only place to have severe bleaching of that frequency in the world.” 

This is a pattern in Guam: The roughly 210-square-mile island in the Pacific Ocean faces the impacts of climate change early and often, but garners little attention for its strife. As the U.S. federal government continues to roll back environmental regulations and cut research funding for climate science, the island lies on the front lines of the climate crisis. 

The fallout from the mass coral bleaching could hold devastating effects for the island’s wildlife. And residents worry the damaged reefs could threaten the culture of Guam’s native Chamorro population and the health of its economy. 

A threat of global proportions 

Laurie Raymundo is a coral restorationist at the Marine Laboratory at the University of Guam. She co-authored a 2014 paper that reported “the first known severe, widespread bleaching and mortality event across the three largest islands in the lower Marianas Archipelago,” including Guam. 

While previous coral bleaching events had been linked to the fluctuating ocean currents during El Niño years, the current uptick is largely attributed to climate change. 

“Corals are adapted for a certain narrow range of temperatures. But climate change is causing those temperatures to be warmer and to push corals over their comfortable threshold,” Raymundo says.  

Corals are actually animals, and their bright colors come from tiny algae plants that live inside them, Raymundo explains. She says that while scientists don’t fully understand this relationship, they know corals depend on algae for survival. 

But when corals are exposed to unhealthy conditions—most commonly, hot water—they spit out their algae inhabitants as a stress response and lose their vivid colors. And prolonged or severe stress often proves fatal. 

The remaining marine ecosystem, Hoot explains, often collapses without its building block. When corals die from bleaching, algae no longer have to compete with them for space and can grow unchecked. Normally, herbivorous fish can keep the algae at bay, but years of overfishing has left Guam’s fish population depleted and unable to manage the algae. 

The result is an ocean floor overrun with sea plants and without room for coral regrowth. 

“In the states, it’s hard to connect climate change with its impacts, but not here. It’s our reality,”

“In the states, it’s hard to connect climate change with its impacts, but not here. It’s our reality,” says Michelle Voacolo, founder of the Micronesia Climate Change Alliance, a nonprofit promoting climate change education in schools.

Voacolo started her organization to address what she saw as a lacking national discussion around the impact of climate change in Micronesia, particularly after Typhoon Yutu devastated the Northern Mariana Islands—a U.S. commonwealth—in 2018 but drew little media attention. 

“This side of the world gets so little coverage, and we are America,” she says. 

A hit to the island’s largest industry 

Coral reefs lie at the foundation of Guam’s economy as well as its marine habitats. Aside from U.S. military spending, tourism is Guam’s main industry. In recent years, it has generated $1.4 billion annually and represented 60 percent of Guam’s annual business revenue, according to the 2020 Tourism Report from the Guam Visitors Bureau. 

And the reefs play a significant role in attracting visitors. The shores surrounding the small island form the quintessential tropical paradise: warm, turquoise water that’s invitingly tranquil for beachgoers. 

Over 1.5 million tourists visited Guam in 2018, with roughly 85 percent coming from Japan and South Korea, according to the Guam Visitors Bureau 2018 annual report. Of those visitors, the majority cited Guam’s natural beauty as their top reason for selecting it as a vacation destination. 

“The impact of tourism and its accompanying tax dollars is of paramount importance to every island resident,” the report says. 

The number of tourists has been growing in recent years, with the 2018 fiscal year marking the second-highest number of visitors to Guam on record. But coral experts worry that the industry could be in jeopardy without the allure and coastline protection of coral reefs. 

“A huge driver of people coming here is they want beautiful beaches and calm, sandy bays. And we wouldn’t really have that if we didn’t have coral reefs,” Hoot says. 

She cites a 2014 report that found coral reefs absorb an average of 97 percent of global wave energy. This function protects the shores from flooding and maintains the tranquil beaches. 

Snorkeling, scuba diving, and dolphin tours are also popular tourist activities and lucrative business opportunities for locals and transplants. 

“Without corals, and without fish, none of those activities are going to be profitable for very long,” Hoot says. 

Impacts to the local culture 

Beyond the economic hit, the loss of corals is significant for Guam’s native population, known as Chamorros. 

Noel Chargualaf grew up fishing off Guam’s coasts but has since relocated to San Diego. When he returned to visit family and sell shaved ice from the stand he operates next to the Merizo Pier, a trafficked fishing area on the south side of the island, he noticed increased air and water temperatures and a striking drop in the island’s fish populations. 

Chargualaf attributes the changes to global warming and unsustainable fishing practices, and he worries about the impact for future generations of Chamorros. 

“I want my grandchildren to be able to fish,” he says.

Local activists like Marybelle Quinata are working to educate Guam’s residents to keep them invested in the waters that envelop their island. 

According to Quinata, many Guamanians aren’t familiar with the natural habitats surrounding their island because curricula within Guam’s schools favor mainland U.S. and global subjects in order to receive U.S. accreditation.

“[Schoolchildren] should be learning about their own environment and the best way to do that is through experience—not looking at slides in an air-conditioned room,” she says.

Quinata coordinates the Friends of Reefs Guam program as a contractor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The program trains Guam residents to monitor the life forms around the island’s reef flat—including corals, sea cucumbers and sea urchins—as a way to track the reef’s health and foster stewardship of the local marine ecosystems. 

More than 1,300 community members, from ages seven to seventy, have participated since the program’s inception in 2013, Quinata says. She has lived in Guam all her life and keeps in touch with program participants who have gone on to study marine biology at the University of Guam. 

“It’s such a worthwhile investment,” she says.

Resistance through resilience 

Guam’s local science community has united to safeguard its neighboring reefs from irreparable harm. But taking on global forces is a large task for an island with around 160,000 residents.

Hoot and her colleagues at Guam’s Bureau of Statistics and Plans focus on controlling fishing practices and minimizing land-based sources of pollution, such as agricultural fertilizers and sewage that streams into the ocean and affects the water quality. 

“The idea of resilience is that if you reduce local stressors—so if we address the things we can change, like overfishing—we can make our reefs healthier, and, thus, hopefully more resilient to climate change,” Hoot says. 

Much of Hoot and Raymundo’s work relies on partnerships with one another and with local representatives from organizations including NOAA and The Nature Conservancy. They’ve formed a collaboration called the Guam Reef Restoration & Intervention Partnership (GRRIP) to pool resources and provide the manpower to complete projects.

Raymundo moved to Guam from the Philippines in 2004 and began monitoring its reefs ten years ago. Since the bleaching event, her work has focused on scaling up the coral populations decimated by coral bleaching.

They’re starting to reintroduce the nursery-grown corals to reefs around the island in a process called outplanting, and they’ve found early success.

She and her team started a coral nursery a few years ago to cultivate populations of corals that bleaching events hit particularly hard. They’re starting to reintroduce the nursery-grown corals to reefs around the island in a process called outplanting, and they’ve found early success. When conducting a fish survey of a site where she had transplanted coral the prior year, Raymundo found that more abundant and diverse fish now populated the area, along with an increase in coral cover.

“It’s exciting,” Raymundo says. “And we’re trying to figure out ways that we can upscale the work, to make it happen at a more ecologically meaningful scale.”

These local resilience efforts show promise—Guam’s coral reefs didn’t suffer from bleaching the last two summers. But protecting coral reefs long term will require large scale efforts to temper climate change, Hoot and Raymundo agree. 

“Ultimately . . . reducing carbon dioxide concentrations is the only solution to slowing the alarming rate of change and providing species with enough time to adapt to changes that have already been set in motion,” Raymundo wrote in a 2017 report about her research on staghorn coral populations. 

Hoot, too, is wary of placing faith in local resilience measures to prevent the reefs from future harm. “I think it’s a long shot in a lot of ways,” she says. “Because we are facing something that is so severe.” 

Hannah Magnuson is a Chicago-based writer and recent graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where she specialized in health, environment and science reporting. This article, which she reported while on a trip to Guam in 2019, was provided to The Progressive through StorySquare, a platform connecting freelancers with media outlets.

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