Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Nations Guaranteed to Be Swallowed by the Sea

Imagine the street you live on is knee-deep in floodwater, and it’s ruining everything in sight, including your home. Now imagine that those awful floodwaters never, ever recede. Instead, the water just keeps rising and rising until your entire country drowns.

For a number of island nations, that's ultimately the significance of the recent reports about the unstoppable melt of the massive ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, along with hundreds of glaciers.

Tony de Brum (left) at UN climate
COP 19 in Warsaw with US chief
negotiator Todd Stern. Image: US
State Dept

“We’ve already lost some island atolls. On others the rising sea is destroying homes, washing away coffins and skeletons from graves,” Tony de Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, told me. “Now with every full moon the high tides brings salt water into our streets. We’re moving further inland but can’t move much further."

The Marshall Islands are located in the northern Pacific Ocean, and are home to some 70,000 people spread out over 24 low-lying coral atolls. Low-lying, as in six feet above sea level on average. Not only do rising seas flood and erode shorelines, they also make groundwater too salty too drink and “poison” the land with salt so crops and even coconuts trees can’t grow.

Earlier this month Motherboard reported that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet was underway, guaranteeing a minimum of three metres (10 feet) of sea level rise. Another study said the melting ice is 31 per cent faster now than between 2005 and 2011. Way up in Greenland, the same thing is happening, according to anew study in the journal Nature Geoscience. And then there was the recent US National Climate Assessment that found Alaska’s and Canada’s glaciers are pumping huge volumes of water into the ocean.

Add it all up and this means many small island nations like the Marshalls—along with countries like the Maldives, Tuvalu, Micronesia, Kiribati, Palau and others—will be swallowed by the sea. “Where are we to go? How are we to survive? What happens to our culture? Will we become wards of another state?” asked de Brum.

“The news from Antarctica should be sobering to anyone from a coastal region around the world,” said Ambassador Marlene Moses of the Republic of Nauru, a small island in the South Pacific home to fewer than 10,000 people.

Moses is also chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a coalition of 43 low-lying island and coastal nations who are fighting hard to get countries like the US, Canada, China, Japan, and Australia to slash their CO2 emissions and keep future global warming below 1.5 C˚. Anything higher, they believe, and most of these nations will drown.

“I can tell you personally it has been very upsetting to witness what seems like an indifference to the plight of small islands,” Moses said.

When told of the recent science out of Antarctica and Greenland, Claire Anterea, a community worker from the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati responded in despair, “My gosh this is not fair! If the world can’t stop the glacier collapse who will save my people and my country?”

“We have a beautiful life here,” she said, “a simple and subsistence way of living. It is unexplainable to know that our beloved home will disappear.” Kiribati consists of 30-odd pancake flat coral atolls straddling the equator.

The government of Kiribati is hoping to buy thousands of acres on one of Fiji’s islands to relocate its 115,000 residents. While relocation may mean survival, the literal disappearance of their islands risks the overwhelming loss of their culture and identity. When you live on tiny islands in the middle of the enormous Pacific Ocean, land has a very special meaning.

“Without our land how can I explain to my children their roots? Where they come from in the first place?” she said. More