Melting ice a ticking time bomb for Pacific islands

© CI/Greg Stone

On the island of Tarawa, under gently drifting popcorn-shaped clouds in the remotest part of the south Pacific, you don’t think of ice.

Tarawa is a sliver of land bent like a sickle against the blue flat sheen of tropical ocean that seems to stretch forever in all directions. There is no naturally formed ice within thousands of miles. Yet in this capital city of the Republic of Kiribati, ice will have much to do with the survival of its people.

Sea-level rise caused by the expansion of warmer water and the addition of new water from melting ice due to global climate change represents a serious threat to the world’s low-lying regions. For an atoll like Tarawa — an island built of coral resting atop an underwater volcano — it is a clear and imminent danger.

While these islands could continue to grow along with their coral, as some researchers believe, the reality is that the many pressures of climate change — including acidification, which inhibits coral growth, and bleaching, which can kill coral and is brought on by a rise in ocean temperature — won’t allow for the natural and steady rate of growth for these atolls. Just last month, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared only the third recorded global coral bleaching event. If the frequency of these events increases due to rising ocean temperatures, there is little doubt that these islands will be swallowed by the sea.

This inundation — and the humanitarian crisis it will bring about — is not peculiar to Kiribati. At current rates, sea-level rise will either submerge or make unlivable a host of islands within a century, maybe sooner.

Rising seas have already made their mark on these islands: In some areas, severe coastal erosion and flooding have forced the relocation of entire villages. The invading sea also wipes out food crops and contaminates the islands’ sole source of drinking water, formed by rainwater that seeps through the soil and floats atop the seawater, about 1.5 meters (5 feet) below ground level. The effects of this slow-moving disaster on people are devastating — with groups such as women, children, the disabled and the elderly becoming more vulnerable.

In response, islanders have been forced to move from more remote areas to urban centers such as Tarawa, which has seen its population double in the past 20 years, putting greater pressure on the city’s ability to provide adequate waste management, health care and other social services. Meanwhile, Tarawa itself faces diminishing land for its growing population: The World Bank predicts that the island will be up to 54% inundated by water in the south and up to 80% inundated in the north by 2050 unless significant steps are taken.

How to adapt?

Against this looming threat, an extraordinary meeting took place on Tarawa last month. High-level delegates from the United Nations, disaster relief and development agencies, and various ministers and heads of state from Fiji, Kiribati, Monaco, Tokelau and Tuvalu gathered to discuss climate change with a new and urgent focus: what to do when island nations go underwater.

Kiribati President Anote Tong, a Conservation International (CI) board member, convened this group with Prince Albert II of Monaco to draw attention to this issue leading up to the U.N. climate talks to be held in Paris in December.

Among the chief sticking points in Paris will be finding moral and legal equity for populations who stand to be adversely affected by a changing climate, yet who have historically had little to do with creating the problem. In the case of the low-lying Pacific islands, there is an added dimension: how to manage the likelihood of a full-fledged displacement of entire countries.

“Every day more than a million tons of ice turn into water,” Prince Albert told delegates to kick off the meeting in Tarawa. A longtime climate activist, the leader of the tiny European principality outlined the scope of the problem and urged concrete actions to shelter those who will be most affected by sea-level rise.

The meeting took aim at the prospects and challenges of how countries could adapt to rising seas.

In some cases, islands could be fortified or protected from the rising seas — but these nations would need the technical expertise and funding from global partners to successfully implement coastal armoring. Relocation is a response of last resort; however, a looming refugee crisis appears to be a stark reality for the populations on low-lying islands. In order to “migrate with dignity” and offer contributions to other nations’ economies after relocation, countries on the front lines would need support from the rest of the world to execute education and health programs for their people.

After five days of emotional addresses and inspiring discussions, these leaders will head to Paris with an appeal to the global community to acknowledge that action on climate change is a moral obligation and that inaction would be a violation of vulnerable peoples’ human rights — rights to food and water, rights to shelter, rights to survival.

On this remote atoll, I was witness to leaders from different nations aligning themselves on an action for their peoples’ survival — a plan to be unveiled in Paris. Will the rest of the world hear it?

Dr. Greg Stone is chief scientist for oceans and executive vice president at Conservation International.

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