Global Warming Effects Around the World

Cancun, Mexico

Top Impact

Oceans (Sea level)

Other Impacts

People (Costs)

Temperature (Ocean)

Coastal beach errosion in Cancun Mexico

People visit the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and the Caribbean for the warm sun, warm waters, and white sandy beaches. But the beaches are disappearing as sea level rises and waves crash against the shores, eroding the beach and leaving high shelves of sand between the water and the hotels.1

Key Facts

The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and the Caribbean are very dependent on tourism and the employment it creates. Sea–level rise puts this region and its tourist industry at risk, unless people make well–planned adaptations to higher water levels. By the year 2100, scientists estimate that a global sea-level rise of 2.6 feet (80 centimeters) is likely—and that as much as 6.6 feet (2 meters) is possible.2 And recent trends show that sea level in the Caribbean is rising at a rate similar to the global average.3

  • Much of the critical infrastructure for tourism along the Yucatan and Caribbean coasts is close to sea level, including hotels, resorts, roads, airports, and piers for cruise ships. Although a 3.3–foot (1–meter) sea level rise would not permanently inundate a large percentage of land, the real estate would be some of the most valuable in the region.4
  • Tourism and related businesses compose the largest economic sector in the Caribbean, based on both GDP and employment.5
  • Considered a successful economic development strategy,6 tourism infuses large amounts of money into Mexico and the Caribbean each year. In 2010, international tourists brought more than $25 billion to the Caribbean and $3 billion to the Yucatan Peninsula.7,8


Rising sea level in the Caribbean causes three main concerns for the tourism industry on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and the countries of the Caribbean. One is beach erosion–the washing away of the warm sands that draw tourists to the region. A less frequent problem—but one that causes more destruction—is storm surge from hurricanes. Storm surges occur when strong winds pile up water against the shoreline. These surges can wipe out a beach in a day, and the water can flood and damage property.

Some places have already attempted to repair beaches lost to erosion and storm surges, but this can be a very expensive proposition. Record–breaking Hurricane Wilma hit the Riviera Maya in Mexico, including Cancun, Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel in 2005.9 The storm damaged a large percentage of the hotels in Cancun and washed away the beach completely, leaving water lapping at hotel foundations.10

Mexico tried a quick fix of the beaches in 2006, but waves washed away the new sand relatively quickly.10 In 2009 Mexico launched a $70 million project to restore about 7 miles (11.3 kilometers) of beach, at a cost of $10 million per mile ($6.2 million per kilometer).10 However, the ocean has already swept away as much as 8 percent of the new sand—even without any major storms.10 And sea–level rise that has already occurred is making average storm waves riding in on high tide more erosive than the waves of 30 years ago.

As sea level rises, storm surges from hurricanes will be higher. For example, the average storm surge during a hurricane in the Caribbean is now 3 to 4 feet (0.9 to 1.2 meters) above sea level.11 If sea level were to rise by 4 feet (1.2 meters) because of global warming, as scientists predict could happen,2 a storm surge from a hurricane would be that much higher, and could flood and damage homes, resorts, and other businesses farther inland.

Part of a Larger Pattern

Sea level has been rising globally since the end of the last ice age, but the rate of that rise has accelerated significantly. From 1993 to 2009, the rate of sea–level rise increased to around 0.13 inches (3.4 millimeters) per year—nearly twice the average rate for the twentieth century.12,13

Scientists attribute this recent acceleration in global sea–level rise to human–caused climate change. Oceans expand as they warm, and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and glaciers add water to the oceans as they shrink.2 After looking closely at the volume of water that could come from glacial and ice sheet melt by 2100, scientists calculate that a rise of 2.6 feet (80 centimeters) is a reasonable estimate—and that as much as 6.6 feet (2 meters) is possible, depending on the pace at which emissions of heat-trapping gases are released. 2

What the Future Holds

Much of the critical infrastructure for coastal tourism sits close to sea level, including resorts, roads, airports, and seaports. If sea level were to rise 3.3 feet (1 meter), close to one-third of all Caribbean airports—21 of 64 those inventoried—could be partly or fully overrun with water.4 If sea level were to rise 6.6 feet (2 meters), 10 more airports could be partly or fully overrun.4 A sea level rise of 3.3 to 6.6 feet (1 to 2 meters) could also flood 340 to 435 miles (550 to 700 kilometers) of roads.4

International travelers infuse a lot of money into the region. These tourists brought some $3 billion into the states of Quintana Roo and the Yucatan, along Mexico's Caribbean coast, in 2010.8 International tourists also bring $25 billion into the countries of the Caribbean, while the tourism industry and related businesses employ more than 2 million people.7

Relative to the size of the economy, the Caribbean is the world's most tourism–dependent region.7 If climate change makes this region less appealing to tourists because hotels have diminishing beaches, or because resorts experience flooding, the region could suffer serious economic losses and growing poverty.

Countries in the Caribbean that are at particular risk—because their economies are more dependent on tourism, or their resorts and cities are closer to sea level—include the Bahamas, Trinidad & Tobago, and Belize in Central America.4 Most countries with the potential for coastal tourism strive to expand this industry, to increase economic development and prosperity. Rising sea level puts these plans at risk. At the same time, some countries have recognized the problems that climate change can pose, and are promoting sustainable tourism.14

Both the tourism industry and local communities can reduce risk by making well–planned adaptations to higher water levels. Significant efforts around the world to curb heat–trapping emissions are also essential. Reducing human activities that overload the atmosphere with carbon—the root cause of global sea–level rise—can go a long way toward slowing the pace of change, giving coastal communities more time to prepare.



  1. Photograph used by permission from Coastal Care.
    Online at Accessed April 29, 2011
  2. Pfeffer, W.T., et al. 2008. Kinematic constraints on glacier contributions to 21st–century sea–level rise. Science 321(1340). doi:10.1126/science.1159099. Online at
  3. Church, J. A., et al. 2004. Estimates of the regional distribution of sea level rise over the 1950–2000 period. Journal of Climate 17:2609–2625. doi:10.1175/1520–0442(2004)017<2609:EOTRDO>2.0.CO;2.
    Online at
  4. Simpson, M.C., et al. 2010. Quantification and magnitude of losses and damages resulting from the impacts of climate change: Modeling the transformational impacts and costs of sea level rise in the Caribbean. Barbados, West Indies: United Nations Development Programme. Online at
  5. World Travel and Tourism Council. 2004. The Caribbean: The impact of travel & tourism on jobs and the economy. London, UK. Online at Cited in Simpson, M.C., S. Gössling, and D. Scott. 2008. Report on the international policy and market response to global warming and the challenges and opportunities that climate change issues present for the Caribbean tourism sector. Barbados: Caribbean Regional Sustainable Tourism Development Programme, Caribbean Tourism Organization. Online at
  6. Nielson, S.T. 2010. Coastal livelihoods and climate change. In: Reducing poverty, protecting livelihoods, and building assets in a changing climate: Social implications of climate change for Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by D. Verner. Washington, DC: World Bank.
  7. World Travel and Tourism Council. Travel and tourism economic impact 2011: Caribbean. London, UK. Online a:
  8. Sistema Integral de Información de Mercados Turísticos. No date. Dirección de inteligencia de mercados, consejo de promoción turística de México. Online at MMD_DIC_sv.ppt+Direcci%C3%B3n+de+inteligencia+de+mercados,+consejo+de+ promoci%C3%B3n+tur%C3%ADstica+de+M%C3%A9xico&hl=en&gl =us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESgGNwOM2Ik2A6yOAkVbZGX fE5T29EtvJIKfCRZln4X7 E0iE3owt-v0uMj857COcTNs-M_9p8hP ytyzogog1A2Mdk4kyAlzN2VpEappR3hWM8bQ4w0K Q-_UhvGl6dVCMMNQJtJ1t&sig=AHIEtbQMVx9uu4n G-iPY9AOebyDFwRkCzw.
  9. Servicio Meteorólogico Nacional de Mexico. No date. Resumen del Huracán "Wilma" del Océano Atlántico.
    Online at
  10. Stevenson, M. 2010. Man, climate combine to erode Cancun's beaches. Associated Press. December 1.
    Online at
  11. Organization of American States. 2002. Atlas of probable storm effects in the Caribbean Sea. Cited in: Simpson, M.C., et al. 2010. Quantification and magnitude of losses and damages resulting from the impacts of climate change: Modeling the transformational impacts and costs of sea level rise in the Caribbean. Barbados, West Indies: United Nations Development Programme. Online at
  12. Bindoff, N.L., J. Willebrand, V. Artale, A. Cazenave, J. Gregory, S. Gulev, K. Hanawa, C. Le Quéré, S. Levitus, Y. Nojiri, C.K. Shum, L.D. Talley, and A. Unnikrishnan. 2007. Observations: Oceanic climate change and sea level. In: Climate change 2007: The physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, edited by S. Solomon, D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor, and H.L. Miller. Cambridge, UK, and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.
  13. Nerem, R.S., D.P. Chambers, C. Choe, and G.T. Mitchum. 2010. Estimating mean sea level change from the TOPEX and Jason altimeter missions. Marine Geodesy 33(1). Online at
  14. Goodwin, J. 2008. Sustainable tourism development in the Caribbean Island nation–states. Michigan Journal of Public Affairs 5 (spring).
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