A while ago, I wrote a post on this website on “The effects of rising sea levels on island nations” and have regularly added more information to it, as I found information on new island groups.
I get a regular number of “hits” to the posting from Pacific Island nations and have been pleased about this as the plight of such nations is often overlooked in our modern western-focused world. Whilst doing a search to add more island nations to the posting, I came across a disturbing article by Laray Polk in the Asia-Pacific Journal:
Laray Polk’s article is entitled “American Polynesia, Rising Seas and Relocation” and concentrates on American Polynesia and the Guano islands. Shockingly, these beautiful island groups were heavily exploited by the US and UK for nuclear testing over many decades and further detail of this can be found in a book, co-authored with Noam Chomsky Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (Seven Stories Press).
However, the Asia-Pacific Journal article provides detail on the effects of rising sea levels and climate change on these islands. Because of its importance, I will quote directly from parts of it. Here is the abstract:
Abstract: In the next 30 to 50 years, rising sea levels caused by global warming will subsume low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean. Inhabitants will have to relocate, but there are few choices. Among nations (with the exception of Fiji and New Zealand) there is little preparation for the inevitable migration of Pacific Islanders. Which nations should commit to the processes of equitable relocation? The following article will address this question through historical context and colonial occupation; current legal debates surrounding climate change and maritime migration; and the potential rights of “deterritorialized” states, such as retention of exclusive economic zones. Historical context includes an examination of U.S. insular territories in the Pacific and the continued exercise of presidential authority over island possessions.
Rate of Rising Seas
Pacific island nations and territories are at different stages of addressing the pressing issues of sea-level rise. Discussions involving retention of EEZs—and the rights and financial security maritime zones confer—represent the long game, and enters into a conceptual realm of “What is nationhood, if a nation no longer exists?” Legitimate answers to questions of this magnitude would require changes in international law, a notoriously slow process. As scientific data on climate change feedbacks demonstrate, island nations and territories need answers now.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts the oceans will rise by between 11 and 38 inches by the end of the century, with the potential to submerge low-lying islands. A report from 2016, written by former NASA scientist James Hansen and 16 co-authors, predicts that without serious mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, global sea level is likely to increase “several meters over a timescale of 50 to 150 years.”34 If less than one meter of sea-level rise has the potential to cause an island to disappear by 2100, then Hansen’s numbers portend something more urgent. The question, then, is not when will islands be submerged, but when will sea-level rise make life on low-lying islands impossible.
The answer to that question is close at hand for a number of Pacific islands. Sea-level rise increases both the frequency and magnitude of flooding caused by high tides and storms; saltwater intrusion destroys freshwater sources and the prospect of productive agriculture. Writer and filmmaker Jack Niedenthal, who lives in the Marshall Islands, says that on the island of Kili, “there have been huge changes since about 2011.” That was the first year the island was heavily flooded, and he says it’s happened every year since. Kili, which averages an elevation of 6 feet, is home to many displaced families originally from Bikini Atoll.35
The population there, he says, is trying to raise awareness of climate change with the rest of the world, but it’s challenging. “I find it stunning that there are still so many climate change deniers out there. In the Marshall Islands, we are building numerous seawalls, some very large, others are just building them with old tires and broken down cars.”
At a climate change symposium in 2015, Fiji’s Foreign Affairs secretary Esala Nayasi explained the dilemma of Islanders succinctly: “These are people who are on the verge of losing their land that they call home, losing their critical basic necessities and infrastructure, culture, identity and traditional knowledge. This is no longer a news story, it is happening now.”
Nayasi’s sense of urgency is reflected in policy. Among nations, the Republic of Fiji is in the vanguard of relocation efforts. In 2014, the government’s climate change program assisted the village of Vunidogolo in moving to higher ground and provided the means for economic transition. The new village includes “30 houses, fish ponds and copra drier, farms and other projects.” There are 34 more villages slated for relocation within in its territory.39 Because Fiji is a combination of high and low islands, it’s geographically advantaged (though not immune to climate disruption). For other nations such as Tuvalu, comprised of nine coral atolls with a mean elevation of 2 meters, all choices look the same.
Options for relocation are limited in other ways, such as the exclusion of “climate change refugees” from the 1951 Refugee Convention. Under the convention, there are five grounds to qualify for refugee status and fleeing the catastrophic conditions caused by climate change is not one of them. It hasn’t stopped legal challenge in several recent cases in New Zealand. Asylum-seeker Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati lost his case, and was deported in 2015. Sigeo Alesana from Tuvalu had his asylum application declined, but he won his immigration case based partially on the “vulnerability of the couple’s children to illnesses as a result of poor water quality.” According to Radio New Zealand, it’s the first time climate change has been successfully used in an immigration case.40
Perhaps the biggest legal stride in New Zealand is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent announcement of plans for a special refugee visa for Pacific Islanders, starting with 100 places annually. “We are anchored in the Pacific,” Ardern told reporters. “Surrounding us are a number of nations, not least ourselves, who will be dramatically impacted by the effects of climate change. I see it as a personal and national responsibility to do our part.”
I have also come across an important piece about the island of Guam, written in August 2016 by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “What Climate Change means for Guam”
“In the coming decades, changes in the earth’s atmosphere are
likely to alter several aspects of life in Guam. The air and ocean are
warming, sea level is rising, and the ocean is becoming more acidic.
These changes are likely to damage or destroy much of Guam’s coral
reef ecosystems, increase damages from flooding and typhoons,
reduce the availability of fresh water during the dry season, and make
air temperatures uncomfortably hot more often than they are today.
Our planet is warming and the climate is changing. People have
increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the air by 40 percent
since the late 1700s. Other heat-trapping greenhouse gases are also
increasing. These gases have warmed the surface and lower atmosphere of the earth about one degree (F) during the last 50 years.
Evaporation increases as the atmosphere warms, which increases
humidity, average rainfall, and the frequency of heavy rainstorms in
many places—but contributes to drought in others.
Greenhouse gases are also changing the world’s oceans and ice
cover. Carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid, so
the oceans are becoming more acidic. Worldwide, the surface of
the ocean has warmed about one degree during the last 80 years.
Mountain glaciers are retreating and even the great ice sheets on
Greenland and Antarctica are shrinking. Thus the sea is rising at an
Climate Change and Coral Loss
Warming waters are likely to damage much of the coral around Guam.
Average water temperatures around Guam have risen more than one
degree over the last century, in addition to the year-to-year changes
associated with the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (“El Niño”). Rising water
temperatures harm the algae that live inside corals and provide food for
them. The loss of algae weakens corals and can eventually kill them. This
process is commonly known as “coral bleaching” because the loss of the
algae also causes the corals to turn white. Coral bleaching is becoming
more common around Guam, including record-breaking bleaching that
has occurred throughout the western Pacific since 2013. Elevated water
temperatures also cause outbreaks of diseases that can harm or kill corals.
Increasing ocean acidity also damages corals. By changing the balance
of minerals in sea water, higher acidity decreases the ability of corals
to produce calcium carbonate, which is the primary component of their
skeletons. The Pacific Ocean has become about 25 percent more acidic in
the past three centuries, and acidity is likely to increase another
40 to 50 percent by 2100. Over the next 50 to 60 years, warming and
acidification are likely to harm coral reefs around Guam and throughout the world, and widespread loss of coral is likely.
Warming and acidification could result in widespread damage to marine
ecosystems. Guam is home to a diverse array of fish species. Sharks, rays,
grouper, snapper, and hundreds of other fish species rely on healthy coral
reefs for habitat. Reefs also protect nearshore fish nurseries and feeding
grounds. A significant fraction of reef-dwelling fish are likely to lose their
habitats by 2100. Increasing acidity would also reduce populations of
shellfish and other organisms that depend on minerals in the water to build
their skeletons and shells.
Bleached corals in the Tumon Bay Marine Preserve in 2007. Credit: Dave Burdick,
Change in sea surface temperature (°F)
Rising sea surface temperatures since 1901. The waters around Guam have
warmed by more than one degree. Source: EPA, Climate Change Indicators in the United States.
As the climate changes, typhoons may cause more damage. Guam lies
in one of the world’s most active regions for tropical storms. In 2002,
Typhoon Pongsona caused $700 million in damages, destroyed 1,300
homes, and left the island without power. In just the last few years,
neighboring islands have suffered from some of the strongest and most
damaging tropical cyclones ever recorded, including Super Typhoons
Haiyan (2013), Maysak (2015), and Soudelor (2015). Although warming
oceans provide typhoons with more potential energy, scientists are not
yet sure whether typhoons have become stronger or more frequent.
Nevertheless, wind speeds and rainfall rates during typhoons are likely to
increase as the climate continues to warm. Higher wind speeds and the
resulting damages can make insurance for wind damage more expensive
or difficult to obtain.
Rising Sea Level and Coastal Flooding
Sea level has risen by about four inches relative to Guam’s shoreline since 1993. If the oceans and atmosphere continue to warm, sea level around
Guam is likely to rise one to three feet in the next century. Sea level rise
submerges low-lying areas, erodes beaches, and exacerbates coastal
flooding from typhoons and tsunamis. Coastal homes and infrastructure
will flood more often as sea level rises because storm surges will become
higher as well. Homes, businesses, roads, and the Port of Guam are
vulnerable to the impacts of storms and sea level rise.
The loss of coral reefs compounds this problem because reefs help
protect the shore from waves and storm damage. As reefs die, they lose
their structural integrity and provide less protection to the shore. If larger
waves strike the shore, beaches will erode more rapidly.
Rainfall and Water Supplies
Average rainfall in Guam has increased slightly since 1950, but scientists
are not sure whether total rainfall here will increase in the future. Nevertheless, Guam’s wet season may become wetter, while dry periods may become drier. Warmer temperatures tend to make both rainstorms and droughts more intense. Moreover, Guam’s climate tends to be dry during El Niño years and wet during La Niña years, and scientists generally
expect the differences between El Niño and La Niña years to become
greater in most places.
Inland flooding in Guam may increase as the climate changes. Heavy
rainstorms occasionally overwhelm Guam’s rivers, streams, and urban
storm drains, leading to damaging floods. Flooding is most common in the
southern part of Guam, where the local bedrock is less permeable than
the limestone in the north. This means that rainfall in the south runs off
into rivers and streams instead of filtering into the ground. Flooding during
the wet season could become worse as rainstorms become more intense.
Conversely, water may be less available in the dry season. Less rainfall
occurs during El Niño years, such as during the drought that affected the
island in 2015–2016. Thus, if the El Niño cycle becomes more intense,
less rain might fall during the dry season. Moreover, rising temperatures
increase the rate at which water evaporates (or transpires) into the air
from soils, plants, and reservoirs, which would further exacerbate drought
During droughts, rising sea level could make fresh water less available—
particularly groundwater, which provides 80 percent of Guam’s water
supply. Most of Guam’s fresh water comes from the northern part of the
island, which has a “lens” of fresh groundwater floating on top of the
heavier, saltier water. Some wells already produce salty water during dry
periods when the freshwater lens becomes thinner; prolonged drought
could make more of Guam’s wells salty. Rising sea level could also cause
salt water to infiltrate farther into the island’s groundwater.
Inland Plants and Animals
Warmer temperatures and changes in rainfall could expand, shrink, or
shift the ranges of various plants and animals in Guam’s forests, depending on the conditions that each species requires. Many tropical plants
and animals could be threatened by warming, as they are accustomed to
the temperatures that currently prevail in Guam, which are fairly steady
year-round. It is unclear whether species could tolerate the weather often
being warmer than it ever is today. Some native species could be crowded
out by invasive species better adapted to the changing climate, and some
could face extinction.
Hot days can be unhealthy—even dangerous. Rising temperatures will increase the frequency of hot days and warm nights. High air temperatures
can cause heat stroke and dehydration and affect people’s cardiovascular
and nervous systems. Warm nights are especially dangerous because
they prevent the human body from cooling off after a hot day. Certain people are especially vulnerable, including children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor. Military personnel also face a higher risk of heat-related illness because they perform intense physical activities outdoors, they often wear layers of protective equipment, and many are from cooler climates and not acclimated to Guam’s warm and humid climate.
The sources of information about climate and the impacts of climate change in this publication are: the national climate assessments by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, synthesis and assessment products by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, assessment reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and EPA’s Climate Change Indicators in the United States. Mention of a particular season, location, species, or any other aspect of an impact does not imply anything about the likelihood or importance of aspects that are not mentioned.