Pummeled by climate change’s impacts, the British Virgin Islands stands at a crossroads. Rising temperatures, intensifying storms and flash floods increasingly jeopardize these islands’ communities and economic lifelines. The territory faces an existential crisis — and a capability gap.

For the BVI, climate change is no hypothetical menace — it’s an inescapable reality battering the territory on all fronts.

Rising ocean temperatures have made the islands a bullseye for increasingly destructive hurricanes like 2017’s Irma and Maria.

“This year the factors will be working together, because the driving factors this year are mainly the La Nina and the surface temperatures that are abnormally high,” said Meteorologist Andrew Jackson, looking at forecasts for the 2024 Atlantic Hurricane Season. “The thing about it is these oceans have been warming up for a while so the heat is not just at the surface, it goes deep. What that means is that when a hurricane or a system passes, even if it churns up the water that’s at the surface, it still has more warmth to draw from and that is a cause for concern. That’s what leads to rapid intensification.”

The BVI’s frontline battle against the climate crisis wages on shorthanded, lacking a local meteorological authority to forecast looming hazards, issue localised early warnings and fortify disaster preparedness efforts.

The consequences have been concerning. In February, May and June 2024, significant flash flooding events exposed this gap.

“The British Virgin Islands experienced torrential rains that caused severe flash floods and landslides across the islands. A great deal of our infrastructure has been impacted,” Premier Natalio Wheatley told the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization on June 10, 2024. 

“This is the second extreme weather event we have had to endure in five weeks. In early May we also had torrential rains and flash floods that affected our infrastructure, particularly roads. These two recent events are a setback to our hurricane recovery efforts which have continued ever since Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the British Virgin Islands in 2017, causing $2.3 billion in damage,” he said. “We are very vulnerable at this time, which is just the beginning of what is forecast to be a very active Atlantic Hurricane Season.”

“This is the new reality of a warmer planet. Climate change is an existential threat to the existence of Small Island Developing States like the British Virgin Islands,” Wheatley stressed.

The public was caught off guard during each recent event with official warnings issued after major flooding had already occurred. The result was chaos, with helpless residents watching floodwaters carry away vehicles and belongings, businesses suffering significant losses, and emergency responders scrambling to assist stranded motorists — scenes that could’ve been mitigated with alerts driven by local meteorological data.

The lack of advanced weather warnings left residents feeling blindsided during the flooding.

“It caught us by surprise. I don’t know of any alerts issued beforehand about what was expected that day,” said Rayonne Victor Frett, whose vehicle was damaged after colliding with another during May’s flood. “No one spoke about the weather risks, so it was very surprising. Going forward, I want that information out there and in people’s faces so we can respond effectively.”


Frett described feeling “defeated” by the incident’s financial and mental toll. “Covering everything financially was a huge burden. Mentally, it was draining with the challenges of insurance claims and finding an available mechanic because so many were affected. It was a long wait.”

For Elvon Pope, the flooding underscored broader preparedness concerns. 

“I feel we aren’t properly informed, and we aren’t taking our safety seriously enough,” Pope said. “Even after the flood, it took a while to clear things. If it had rained again, the same thing would have happened. We are very lackadaisical.”

Noting the increasing frequency of such events, Pope questioned what it would take for serious action: “It’s becoming more frequent. I don’t know what it will take for them to get serious about the BVI – people dropping down in front of them? But it is an ongoing thing. Before, it would only flood once in a while.”

This deficit partly stems from relying on Antigua and Barbuda’s Meteorological Service for weather information and warnings, failing to account for the BVI’s unique conditions and the timeliness of the information. 

While Jackson is based in the territory with the Department of Disaster Management,  the department’s messages carry an inarguable disclaimer – “the Department of Disaster Management is not a Meteorological Office”. 

As climate change outpaces the territory’s adaptive capacities, dedicated meteorologists understanding local threats and vulnerabilities have become essential.

Recognizing the BVI’s elevated risks as a small island developing state, the government prioritized dedicated meteorological capacities under its National Sustainable Development Plan.

In June 2023, Communications and Works Minister Kye Rymer underscored meteorology’s vital role in safeguarding future resilience and sustainable development.

“The efficient and timely movement of meteorological information is a fundamental requirement of modern meteorology, and it provides information about weather conditions that can affect life and safety,” Rymer told the House of Assembly. “The National Sustainable Development Plan highlights concerns with severe or extreme weather events, climate, and climate change that warrant action to mitigate these effects on the islands.”

“A National Meteorological Service would improve weather observations and forecasting, provide data for infrastructure planning, and issue warnings and alerts for hydro-meteorological hazards. It would also maintain a historical record and provide relevant advice on national weather, climate, water, and environmental data issues for decision-making by the public and private sectors,” Rymer added. “The Virgin Islands’ economy relies on tourism, fishing, the marine environment, agriculture, aviation, and other services, which are all affected by the territory’s weather and climate conditions.”

Emphasising the constitution’s obligation to protect citizens’ right to life and safety, Rymer said enhanced monitoring, forecasting, risk analysis and climate advisories are essential for the new service. “Recent events like floods and hurricanes demonstrate the need to invest in local weather forecasting capabilities to reduce disaster risks,” he asserted. 

Despite the plan emphasising meteorological capacities and Rymer’s declarations, tangible progress in establishing the proposed service has been virtually non-existent.

As the world’s climate realities give rise to more storms, floods and ecological disruptions, a race is on to equip communities like the BVI to confront this new reality.

For frontline territories, prioritizing meteorological capacities could mean the difference between preparedness and calamity.

The BVI’s meteorological challenges mirror those faced by other vulnerable regions, particularly in Africa.

A recent article by Chelsea Harvey in E&E News highlighted similar issues in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where devastating floods and landslides in May 2023 killed hundreds.

The article  points out that sparse weather stations and limited public access to data hinder scientists’ ability to investigate climate change’s role in extreme weather events.

Izidine Pinto, a senior researcher at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, cited funding as a major obstacle: “The meteorological offices don’t have enough funding.”

This global pattern of insufficient meteorological infrastructure in vulnerable areas underscores the urgency of the BVI’s situation and the broader need for investment in climate resilience worldwide.

This story was published with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture of Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.