Effects of climate change on island nations

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Climate change is producing drastic changes to Earth processes and changing Earth's environmental status quo. Especially pertinent to human development is the threat of climate change on island nations. As sea levels continue to rise, island peoples and cultures are being threatened. As the former President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak, noted "In the last year alone, my country has suffered through unprecedented droughts in the north, and the biggest ever king tides in the south; and we have watched the most devastating typhoons in history leave a trail of death and destruction across the region."[1] Efforts to combat these environmental changes are ongoing and multinational. Particularly notable is the adoption of the Paris agreement at the UN Climate Summit in Paris in 2015, which by no means an unqualified success, is certainly a step in the right direction in regards to fighting the effects of climate by aiming to slow the pace of global warming.

Sea level rise[edit]

One of the dominant manifestations of climate change is sea level rise. NOAA estimates that "since 1992, new methods of satellite altimetry (the measurement of elevation or altitude) indicate a rate of rise of 0.12 inches per year".[2] In addition, NASA calculates that average sea level rise is 3.41 mm per year and that sea level rise is directly caused by the expansion of water as it warms and the melting of polar ice caps.[3] Both of these changes are dependent on global warming and thus climate change. Sea level rise is especially threatening to low-lying island nations because seas are encroaching upon limited habitable land and threatening existing cultures. As Stefan Rahmstorf, a professor of Ocean Physics at Potsdam University in Germany notes "even limiting warming to 2 degrees, in my view, will still commit some island nations and coastal cities to drowning." [4] However it is also important to consider recent research which contradicts the claim that rising sea levels will necessarily submerge island nations. Studies done by Paul Kench, a geomorphologist at the University of Auckland, have shown that "reef islands change shape and move around in response to shifting sediments, and that many of them are growing in size, not shrinking, as sea level inches upward". However at the same time Kench states that "for the areas that have been transformed by human development, such as the capitals of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Maldives, the future is considerably gloomier" because these islands can not adapt to rising sea levels and are therefore greatly threatened.[5]

Other effects of climate change[edit]

There are many secondary effects of climate change and sea level rise particular to island nations. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service climate change in the Pacific Islands will cause "continued increases in air and ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and increased rainfall during the summer months and a decrease in rainfall during the winter months".[6] This would entail distinct changes to the small, diverse, and isolated island ecosystems and biospheres present within many of these island nations. As sea level rises island nations are at increased risk of losing coastal arable land to degradation as well as salinification. Once the limited available soil on these islands is salinified it becomes very difficult to produce subsistence crops such as breadfruit. This would severely impact the agricultural and commercial sector in nations such as the Marshall Islands and Kiribati.[7] In addition local fisheries would also be severely affected by higher ocean temperatures and increased ocean acidification. As ocean temperatures rise and the pH of oceans increases, many fish and other marine species would die out or change their habits and range. As well as this, water supplies and local ecosystems such as mangroves, are threatened by global warming. The tourism sector would be particularly threatened by increased occurrences of extreme weather events such as hurricanes and droughts.[8]


The Maldives are an archipelago of far spread, low-lying islands and atolls located in the Indian Ocean. Climate change is severely threatening the very existence of the Maldives as well as diminishing existing human capabilities on these islands. According to the World Bank, with "future sea levels projected to increase in the range of 10 to 100 centimeters by the year 2100, the entire country could be submerged".[9] Obviously this would seriously impact the culture and livelihood of all the citizens of the Maldives. As the President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, notes "to the three hundred thousand inhabitants of the Maldives none of these threats compare, in magnitude and likelihood, to global climate change and consequent sea level rise." [10] The majority of the population of the Maldives lives on small, flat, densely populated atolls that are threatened by violent storms or even the slightest sea level rise. The capital Malé is especially threatened because it is on a small, flat, extremely densely populated atoll that is surrounded by sea walls, and other barriers to protect against storms. This means the Malé atoll can not change shape in response to rising sea levels and is increasingly reliant on expensive engineering solutions.[11] To prepare against climate change and the resulting sea level rise, the national government of the Maldives has prepared a comprehensive National Adaptation Programme of Action, that attempts to critically consider and alleviate many of the serious threats the Maldives faces.[12] The Maldives have already implemented several measures to combat sea level rise including building a wall around the capital of Malé and refurbishing local infrastructure, particularly ports. The Maldives is also taking the lead in attempting to arrest global climate change by instituting a goal of achieving a carbon-neutral economy by 2020. According to the former environment minister for the Maldives, Mohamed Aslam, it is a case of "'If Maldives can do it, you can do it. It's important to us not just to talk but to lead by example".[13] In addition the local economy of the Maldives is greatly threatened by climate change. One example is the tourism sector which is being threatened by the increased likelihood of violent storms, damage to coral reefs, and beach erosion.

Marshall Islands[edit]

The Marshall Islands are a collection of low-lying islands and atolls located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, all less than six feet in elevation. Due to the geographic and topographic situation of these islands, they are placed in a position of intense risk in terms of exposure to the effects of climate change.[14] Of particular risk is the danger of sea level rise. Sea level rise has already encroached landwards and high tides and frequent storms continue to threaten local homes and property. Recent research indicates that sea levels have been increasing by 25millilitres per year. A one meter rise could result in the loss of 80 per cent of the Majuro atoll which is home to half the nation's population.[15] In addition, the underwater fresh water supply has been salinated by this influx of sea water. In 2013 over 200 homes were damaged in the capital Majuro, and the airport was forced to close due to particularly high tides.[16] To a certain extent the Marshallese are trapped on island, such as the Majuro atoll, when large storms or tides occur, having no recourse to higher grounds or neighboring islands. The geographic isolation of the Marshall Islands causes renders any disasters caused by climate change particularly destructive. Particularly dangerous are king tides, especially high tides, which occur only a few times a year. To preserve their land and fight off tides and storms, residents have resorted to building private sea walls for their immediate protection.[17] Additionally, a study conducted by Murray Ford which compared aerial photographs of the Wotje Atoll of the Marshall Islands found that "shorelines interpreted from high resolution satellite imagery captured between 2004 and 2012 indicate that shorelines within this sample of islands are largely in an erosive state".[18] Industries and livelihoods on the Marshall Islands are also threatened by climate change. Fisheries, particularly the tuna industry, are being forced to adapt to changing ecological inputs.[19] As well as this the tourism industry of the Marshall Islands which was only recently developed and has even more potential to grow, is seriously threatened by sea level rise and violent storms which are natural tourist deterrents.

Satellite Image of Ebeye Island, Marshall Islands

Recently the Marshall Islands have begun to call for international aid to ameliorate the effects of climate change on the Marshall Islands. In equal measure, the Marshall Islands have called for a joint international effort to slow the rate of climate change, especially in regards to increasing sea levels. Following a drought in 2013, the US sent supplies to aid the Marshall Islands. There is also a historical precedent for the United States causing and then aiding the Marshall Islands when it comes to natural climate change and catastrophe. After testing fifty-four nuclear bombs on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands during the 1940s and 1950s, the United States paid $604 million in reparations. These reparations have gone someway, although arguably not far enough in helping to counter act the effects of nuclear fallout on the environment and the people of the Marshall Islands.[20] Considering that the United States is the "largest aggregate polluter of carbon dioxide" in the world, there has been some outcry among the global community to "hold the United States liable" for the effects of increased emissions and climate change.[21] In addition, at the 44th Pacific Islands Forum summit held in 2013, the Marshall Islands proposed the "Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership to galvanise more urgent and concrete action on climate change".[22] As the president of the Marshall Islands noted, this declaration sought to "stave off the dangers of the ever-rising seas" by committing to "bold emissions reductions and renewable and energy efficiency targets".[23] However certain challenges exist when it comes to communicating the effects of climate change in the Marshall Islands to the mainstream outside world and western media. Alternately problems also exist when it comes to transferring the western scientific notion of climate change to the people of the Marshall Islands. A study by Peter Rudiak-Gould recognizes the need for "climate change communicators" to "carefully consider the transformations introduced by various translations of ‘climate change,’ yet also appreciate ‘mistranslation’ for its ability to render concepts meaningful to local actors and to stimulate citizen–scientist dialogue".[24] On a national governmental level, the Marshall Islands has been extremely proactive, especially for a developing nation, in attempting to arrest climate change. The Marshall Island pledged to decrease emission levels for 2025 by 32% from 2010 levels, and by 2050 to have a net total of zero emissions. While announcing these targets the President of the Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak noted that "going low carbon is in everyone’s interests. It improves our economy, our security, our health and our prosperity, particularly in the Pacific and more broadly in the developing world." [25] While this action by the Marshall Islands is highly commendable, it will not have much effect on global emission rates which will be predominantly determined by the largest emission producers which include the United States and China.

Image of Majuro, Marshall Islands

Among the many efforts to protect the culture of the Marshall Islands is an effort to buy land and relocate the people to other locations. Currently several of the biggest relocation sites outside of the Marshall Islands are Hawaii, Washington state, and Springdale, Arkansas, where over 10,000 Marshall Islanders currently live. The Marshall Islanders living outside of the United States participate in Marshallese culture, including voting in national elections by mail.[26] However, the Marshallese who have resettled in Arkansas have encountered many cultural difficulties and differences between the Marshall Islands and Arkansas. Several examples include the different types of available food, the geographic setting, and the cultural institutions. As a result of sea level rise, one of the largest issues facing the Marshall Islands is how to preserve cultural and historical traditions if the Marshallese are forced to adapt to a new, totally different area potentially in a far away locale.

Satellite Image of Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu

Other island nations[edit]

Climate change is not only affecting the Maldives and the Marshall Islands. All islands, especially low lying ones with coastal population centers, are threatened by the effects of climate change. Many of the Pacific Island nations like the Marshall Islands, including Tuvalu and Nauru, are currently having to deal with rising sea levels. Tuvalu is a small Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean. It can be found about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. It is made up of nine tiny islands, five of which are coral atolls while the other four consist of land rising from the sea bed. All are low-lying islands with no point on Tuvalu being higher than 4.5m above sea level.[27] Beside Funafuti, the capitol of Tuvalu, sea level rise is estimated at 1.2 ± 0.8 mm/year.[28] As well as this, the dangerous peak high tides in Tuvalu are becoming higher causing greater danger. In response to sea level rise, Tuvalu is considering resettlement plans in addition to pushing for increased action in confronting climate change at the UN.[29] As well as island nations, nations with significant coastal low-lying topography, such as Bangladesh, and low-lying coastal cities, such as Miami, are also threatened by sea level rise.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Loeak, Christopher Jorebon. "A Clarion Call From the Climate Change Frontline." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-jorebon-loeak/a-clarion-call-from-the-c_b_5833180.html. Website.
  2. ^ "Is Sea Level Rising?" Is Sea Level Rising? NOAA, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2016. http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/sealevel.html.
  3. ^ "Sea Level." NASA, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2016. <https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/ sea-level/>.
  4. ^ Sutter, John D. "Life in a Disappearing Country." CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2016. <http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2015/06/opinions/sutter-two-degrees-marshall-islands/
  5. ^ Warne, Kennedy (February 13, 2015). "Will Pacific Island Nations Disappear as Seas Rise? Maybe Not". National Geographic.
  6. ^ "Climate Change in the Pacific Islands." Climate Change in the Pacific Islands. US Fish and Wildlife Service, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2016. http://www.fws.gov/pacific/climatechange/changepi.html.
  7. ^ "Climate Change Impacts - Pacific Islands -." The Global Mechanism (n.d.): n.pag. IFAD. Web. 21 Feb. 2016. http://www.ifad.org/events/apr09/impact/islands.pdf.
  8. ^ "Coping with Climate Change in the Pacific Island Region." Coping with Climate Change in the Pacific Island Region. GIZ, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2016. https://www.giz.de/en/worldwide/14200.html.
  9. ^ "Climate Change in the Maldives." South Asia -. World Bank, n.d. Web. 21 Feb.2016 http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/SOUTHASIAEXT/0,,contentMDK:22413695~pagePK:146736~piPK:146830~theSitePK:223547,00.html.
  10. ^ "National Adaptation Programme of Action." (n.d.): n. pag. Republic of Maldives. Web. 21 Feb. 2016. http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/napa/mdv01.pdf
  11. ^ http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/02/150213-tuvalu-sopoaga-kench-kiribati-maldives-cyclone-marshall-islands/[full citation needed]
  12. ^ "National Adaptation Programme of Action." (n.d.): n. pag. Republic of Maldives. Web. 21 Feb. 2016. http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/napa/mdv01.pdf
  13. ^ http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/02/150213-tuvalu-sopoaga-kench-kiribati-maldives-cyclone-marshall-islands/[full citation needed]
  14. ^ Climate Change in the Marshall Islands on YouTube American Museum of Natural History
  15. ^ Gillespie & Burns (1999). Climate Change in the South Pacific: Impacts and Responses in Australia, New Zealand, and Small Island States. Kluwewr Academic Publishers. ISBN 0-7923-6077-X.
  16. ^ Davenport, Coral, and Josh Haner. "The Marshall Islands Are Disappearing." The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Dec. 2015. Web. 28 Jan. 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/12/02/world/The-Marshall-Islands-Are-Disappearing.html?_r=0. Website.
  17. ^ Lewis, Renee. "‘Nowhere to Move’: Marshall Islands Adapts amid Climate Change Threat." Adapting to Climate Change in the Marshall Islands. Al Jazeera, 19 May 2015. Web. 28 Jan. 2016 <http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/5/19/Marshall-Islands-climate.html>. Website.
  18. ^ Ford, Murray (2013). "Shoreline changes interpreted from multi-temporal aerial photographs and high resolution satellite images: Wotje Atoll, Marshall Islands". Remote Sensing of Environment. 135: 130–40. doi:10.1016/j.rse.2013.03.027.
  19. ^ Gilman, Eric; Owens, Matthew; Kraft, Thomas (2014). "Ecological risk assessment of the Marshall Islands longline tuna fishery". Marine Policy. 44: 239–55. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2013.08.029.
  20. ^ Zak, Dan. "A Ground Zero Forgotten." Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2016. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2015/11/27/a-ground-zero-forgotten
  21. ^ Sutter, John D. "Life in a Disappearing Country." CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2016 <http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2015/06/opinions/sutter-two-degrees-marshall-islands/
  22. ^ "NEWS: Marshall Islands Call for "New Wave of Climate Leadership" at Upcoming Pacific Islands Forum." Climate and Development Knowledge Network. N.p., 02 July 2013. Web. 28 Jan. 2016. http://cdkn.org/2013/07/news-marshall-islands-call-for-new-wave-of-climate-leadership-at-upcoming-pacific-islands-forum/?loclang=en_gb.
  23. ^ Loeak, Christopher Jorebon. "UN Climate Summit: The Chance to Prove That We Are Climate Leaders." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2016. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-jorebon-loeak/un-climate-summit-the-cha_b_5532314.html>. Website.
  24. ^ Rudiak-Gould, Peter (2012). "Promiscuous corroboration and climate change translation: A case study from the Marshall Islands". Global Environmental Change. 22 (1): 46–54. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2011.09.011.
  25. ^ Saddington, David. "Small Islands, Big Impact: Marshall Islands Set Bold Carbon Targets." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 28 Jan.2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-saddington/small-islandsbig-impact-m_b_7834276.html>
  26. ^ Sutter, John D. "Life in a Disappearing Country." CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2016 <http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2015/06/opinions/sutter-two-degrees-marshall-islands/
  27. ^ "Tuvalu country profile". BBC. 24 August 2017.
  28. ^ Hunter, J.A. (August 12, 2002). "A Note on Relative Sea Level Rise at Funafuti, Tuvalu" (PDF). "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-10-07. Retrieved 2011-10-13.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  29. ^ Patel, Samir S. (2006). "Climate science: A sinking feeling". Nature. 440 (7085): 734–6. Bibcode:2006Natur.440..734P. doi:10.1038/440734a. PMID 16598226.