Evidence that global warming may cause an increase in the number and/or intensity of Atlantic hurricanes has serious implications for the Yucatán Peninsula , already known to be on Hurricane Alley.
The region has weathered countless storms, but something was different about Hurricanes Wilma (2005) and Dean (2007)—both storms broke records for intensity and caused major structural damage, but they also reshaped the shoreline in a way not seen before.
Cancún ’s beaches were especially hard hit, the sand stripped away in many places to expose the hardened limestone beneath. Elsewhere, unusually thick deposits of sand on the coral reef and inland mangroves wiped out large portions of both important ecosystems.
Runaway construction along the Riviera Maya  has a host of interconnected environmental impacts, some well known, others poorly understood (and surely many that have yet to be identified). An obvious impact is the destruction of mangrove swamps, which extend along much of the coast a short distance inland from the beach.
Well known for supporting wildlife, mangroves also help buffer the effects of hurricane-related surge and currents, and are an important source of nutrients for coral and other sealife, as water from the wetlands drains into the ocean.
Although protected by federal law, mangroves have been a primary victim of massive development projects.
Mangroves are emblematic of a more general characteristic of the Riviera Maya: highly porous earth and a weblike underground watershed. Contamination is extremely difficult to clean up or even contain, as it spreads quickly in multiple directions via underground currents, including into the ocean. This is damaging not only to the environment but to local communities—and the resorts themselves—which draw drinking water from the same system.
And those local communities are growing even faster than the resorts—by some estimates, resorts require an average of five employees for every guest room. Multiply that by the number of resorts operating and being built, and it’s no surprise that the region’s population is booming. In that sense, development is doubly dangerous: increasing the risk of contamination while simultaneously spurring demand for the very resource it most threatens.
Among the top concerns of environmentalists in Mexico is deforestation, which has accelerated with Mexico’s burgeoning population. Slash-and-burn farming is still widely practiced in remote areas, with or without regulation.
In an effort to protect the land, environmentalists are searching for alternative sources of income for locals. One is to train them to become guides by teaching them about the flora and fauna of the region as well as how to speak English. While not solving the problem, it does place an economic value on the forest itself and provides an incentive for preserving it.
Another focus is the plight of the palm tree. The palm is an important part of the cultural and practical lifestyle of the indigenous people of Quintana Roo—it is used for thatch roofing and to construct lobster traps. However, the palms used—Thrinax radiata and Coccothrinax readii—are becoming increasingly rare. Amigos de Sian Ka’an together with the World Wildlife Fund are studying the palms’ growth patterns and rates; they are anticipating a management plan that will encourage future growth.
Other environmental projects include limiting commercial fishing, halting tourist development where it endangers the ecology, and studying the lobster industry and its future. A number of other worthwhile projects are still waiting in line.