National Parks Trust Director Dr. Cassander Titley-O’Neal speaks during the launch of a Darwin Plus-funded project that will provide the public with information about the territory through maps and other documents posted online. (Photo: Rushton Skinner)

For decades, the National Parks Trust has researched and monitored the Virgin Islands’ natural environment as part of its efforts to manage the territory’s 21 protected parks and identify potential areas for new ones.

But following the hurricanes of 2017 and the Covid-19 pandemic, the agency has seen its funds for such efforts dramatically reduced.

It will soon have help. An ongoing project will provide a web-based portal through which the NPT and the public can view a variety of detailed maps and other visual aids designed in part to help monitor areas affected by climate change, officials said.

“The National Parks Trust continues to conduct fieldwork to assess the health of protected areas, but we have a small staff and limited resources,” NPT Director Dr. Cassander Titley-O’Neal said of the project, which is expected to be completed in April. “Sometimes these changes and threats to biodiversity within the national parks, unfortunately, have occurred undetected.”

The territory’s terrain also strains the NPT’s employees, making it difficult to consistently monitor the natural flora and fauna the trust has been researching for more than two decades, according to Dr. Titley-O’Neal.

The project

Funded with £175,195 from the United Kingdom government’s Darwin Plus initiative, the project was carried out by both the NPT and the UK-based consultancy Environment Systems.

Since May 2022, ESC has worked to acquire data recorded in the past by the NPT and other sources, such as global climate data models, aerial laser scans known as lidar, and records from the Department of Disaster Management.

With one office in Wales and another in Colombia, Environment Systems specialises in turning scientific research data into usable graphics and information to be utilised by clients’ everyday operations.

On Jan. 26, the NPT and ESC held a press conference at the DDM offices to explain the project and its deliverables.

“A web-based dashboard, which is one of the outputs of this project, will be created and therefore help the [NPT] to be more efficient and cost-effective,” Dr. Titley-O’Neal said, adding, “Targeted fieldwork, such as remote sensing technology, will automatically identify sudden changes to the environment.”

Currently, not all the information to be offered to the public is uploaded to the portal, but more will be added in the coming weeks, officials said.

“All of this information will be available to the public,” the NPT director added. “The data sets from this project will be used by the trust to update the Protected Area Systems Plan and highlight the key areas that are critical island and country ecosystems.”

The above graph represents the average amount of storms on an upward trajectory.
“Each of these bars is a good year, not many storms, or a bad year, huge number of storms,” Dr. Katie Medcalf said. “What I find slightly scary is now the good years are worse than some of the bad years in the past. And you can also see this trajectory is heading upwards.” (Screenshot: Environmental Systems Consultancy)

At the press conference, Environment Systems was represented by Environment Director Dr. Katie Medcalf and Remote Sensing and GIS Consultant Samuel Pike.

“Overall, we’ve modelled and created over 5,000 data sets specific to the BVI,” Dr. Medcalf said. “These provide the value of the national natural environment and show the best place to undertake action to mitigate climate change.”

Since the portal will be open to the public, it could prove valuable for such purposes as school projects, media coverage, and helping VI residents “make better choices about their land in the life of climate change,” she said.

To that end, many of the preliminary maps shown at the Jan. 26 press conference conveyed information that she said could help residents make educated decisions on the future of the VI.

According to Dr. Katie Medcalf, this visual aid was created using satellite imagery and ‘AI-type’ technology. The red pixels show land that’s been recently cleared. (Screenshot: Environmental Systems Consultancy)

While showing maps that illustrated tree cover, for instance, Dr. Medcalf said one of the VI’s greatest threats is wholesale land clearing. Instead of clear-cutting, she advised property owners to keep the largest trees on their land to minimise risks associated with erosion, runoff and other issues.

Operational funding

After the project is complete, the NPT must look to the territory’s Climate Change Trust Fund to bankroll continual updates and maintenance of the web portal, according to Dr. Medcalf.