Cyclone Pam signals slow-motion disaster in Kiribati

Editor's note: This week, dire news continues to come in from Vanuatu, as residents struggle to recover from the destruction unleashed by Cyclone Pam on the island nation. Although Vanuatu may have experienced the most damage, it’s not the only place to feel the impacts. Today on Human Nature, CI’s Greg Stone reports from Kiribati.

The sun rose quick and quiet over Tarawa. This island is home to the capital of the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, the largest atoll nation in the world and the only country that is in all four hemispheres; its 33 islands in the Central Pacific straddle both the equator and the international dateline.

The previous evening had been pleasant, with a genial ocean breeze. Now the sun commanded the sky and drove the temperature above 90 degrees Fahrenheit [32 degrees Celsius]. Sweat ran down my back and off my forehead as I walked along the edge of the lagoon.

I had returned to Kiribati to meet with government officials and partners working together on the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), a project CI has been involved with for over 10 years. I had more than PIPA on my mind, however, as Cyclone Pam — a Category 5 storm — had just spun like a giant pinwheel across the South Pacific. At its strongest, it generated gusts of wind up to nearly 200 miles an hour, flattening thousands of buildings and killing at least 11.

Unlike Vanuatu, Cyclone Pam did not directly hit Tarawa, nor any of the islands in Kiribati. However, the waves it generated pummeled many of the islands, which rise no more than a few meters above the ocean.

“I have never seen this kind of destruction from waves here in Kiribati,” Dr. Kautu Tenaua, the Kiribati minister of health, told me. “We had to conduct an emergency evacuation of our maternity ward at the Betio Hospital because water was pounding the outside of the building and crashing through doors and windows. It was frightening and horrible.”

The Betio Hospital only has 23 beds and serves about 20,000 people in a densely populated area of the main island. It is an old colonial facility and has been over capacity for years. The beds are always occupied and often there is only space for patients on the floors. Before Pam, it housed a 16-bed main ward, an 8-bed observation ward and a maternity ward allowing for 16–20 deliveries per month. It will need to be completely rebuilt.

But this wasn’t the only evidence of destruction. The main causeway connecting two parts of the atoll was severely damaged; it’s been estimated that US$ 35 million will be needed to repair it. Losing the causeway for the 100,000 people who live in Kiribati would be like losing the Brooklyn Bridge in the U.S. Along with the damage to the causeway, private homes along the shore were washed away by the cyclone.

Why did this happen? There are several contributing factors.

Kiribati was experiencing its “king tide,” an especially high tide that occurs periodically when the moon comes especially close to the Earth with the sun behind it and gravity pulls ocean water to extreme heights.

Global sea levels have also been rising due to climate change, the melting of glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, and from the “thermal expansion” of the ocean. As the ocean warms, it swells a little, like any liquid will as it absorbs more energy.

Science also indicates that storms will increase in intensity as we add more heat to the oceans and atmosphere, though it’s impossible to know if Cyclone Pam in particular was the result of this.

All of these factors combined to make Cyclone Pam the “perfect storm” as it swept past this vast island nation — and the effects of the storm are a harbinger of things to come.

As more CO₂ is emitted into the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect will continue to warm both the atmosphere (which melts glaciers) and the ocean. Scientists predict that events like this will get worse and more frequent. While the combined effect of the king tide and Cyclone Pam created an unprecedented event last week, even with a normal high tide and strong wind, the ocean has washed over the islands more frequently in recent years. We are seeing a slow-motion disaster.

Kiribati is on the front lines of a changing climate. It is expected to be uninhabitable by the end of this century, as more events like this couple with the rising sea level. (Learn more in the video spotlight of President Tong below.)

As Kiribati struggles to recover, so far few aid agencies have stepped up, with the exception of a small coalition of independent organizations, led by humanitarian architect (and TED Prize winner) Cameron Sinclair. Last week CI held a dinner in Los Angeles and featured Kiribati President and CI board member Anote Tong as the speaker. Cameron was in the audience and when he heard about the impacts, he reached out to President Tong’s staff and me to offer immediate assistance in rebuilding the maternity ward and other damaged structures.

Cameron and his team are launching a crowdfunded initiative that will provide temporary relief, which both Kiribati and CI greatly appreciate. But we must remember this is just the beginning of a long difficult time for Kiribati, as it and other low-lying nations must plan to meet their challenging and inevitable future with dignity.

In some places, protecting and restoring ecosystems can help countries adapt to climate change impacts. For example, maintaining healthy coral reefs can help buffer coasts from storm surges. In the case of Kiribati, however, ecosystem-based adaptation may not be sufficient. Recognizing that the islands his people have lived on for millennia may soon be uninhabitable, President Tong recently finalized the purchase of land in Fiji that could become a home for many of his country’s people as their land disappears under the waves.

As I write this, alongside the inescapable beauty of the Tarawa lagoon on a placid day, it’s a struggle to imagine the waves that so recently pounded this shore, and those that will come in the future.

There is a large and strange dynamic here: Countries like Kiribati are expected to figure out what to do largely on their own. I strongly believe that now is the time for the international community to work together to meet the challenges of a changing climate to complement the solutions spearheaded by leaders like President Tong. This 8,000-year-old culture must find a new and prosperous place and home in the global community.

Greg Stone is an executive vice president at CI and the head of CI’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans.