Effects of climate change on island nations

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Surface area change of islands in the Central Pacific and Solomon Islands[1]

Global warming and climate change proponents believe because of their low lying, ocean-fronted borders, relatively small land masses, and exposure to extreme weather and climate variability, island nations are especially vulnerable. As sea levels continue to rise, they surmise, island peoples and cultures are being threatened. There are small and low populated islands without adequate resources available to protect the island and its human and natural resources. With the risks to human health, livelihoods and physical space in which to occupy, the pressure to leave the island is often barred by the inability to access the resources needed to relocate.

The former President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak,echoing the climate change philosophy said, "In the last year alone, my country has suffered through unprecedented droughts in the north, and the biggest ever king tide in the south; and we have watched the most devastating typhoons in history leave a trail of death and destruction across the region."[2] Efforts to combat these assumed environmental changes are ongoing and multinational. Particularly notable is the adoption of the Paris agreement at the UN Climate Summit in 2015.

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".[3] Similarly 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.[4] Both of these changes are dependent on global warming as a result of 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 drown." [5] Recent[when?] research which contradicts the claim that rising sea levels will necessarily submerge island nations. Studies 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". At the same time Kench says that "for the areas that have been transformed by human development, such as the capitals of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Maldives, the future is considerably gloomier" because these islands cannot adapt to rising sea levels and are therefore greatly threatened.[6]

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".[7] 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.[8] 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 decreases, 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.[9]


The Maldives are an archipelago of far spread, low-lying islands and atolls located in the Indian Ocean. Climate change severely threatens the 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".[10] President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, says "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." [11] 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 cannot change shape in response to rising sea levels and is increasingly reliant on expensive engineering solutions.[12]

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.[11] The Maldives have already implemented several measures to combat sea level rise including building a wall around the capital of Malé[13] and refurbishing local infrastructure, particularly ports. [14]

The Maldives had an ambitious goal of achieving a carbon-neutral economy by 2020.[needs update] However, the new government decided to take action, instead steering the country towards pursuing a low-carbon footprint. Former environment minister for the Maldives, Mohamed Aslam, says "If Maldives can do it, you can do it. It's important to us not just to talk but to lead by example".[12]

Marshall Islands[edit]

The Marshall Islands are a collection of low-lying islands and atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, all less than six feet in average 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.[15] Sea level rise has already encroached upon the islands, and high tides and frequent storms continue to threaten local homes and property. Recent research indicates that sea levels have been increasing by 3.4 millimetres (0.13 inches) per year. A one-meter rise could result in the loss of 80 percent of the Majuro Atoll, which is home to half the nation's population.[16] The underwater fresh water supply has been salinated by this influx of seawater. In 2013 over 200 homes were damaged in the capital Majuro, and the airport was forced to close due to particularly high tides.[17]

To a certain extent, the Marshallese are trapped on their islands, such as the Majuro Atoll, when large storms or tides occur, having no recourse to evacuate to higher grounds or neighbouring islands. The geographic isolation of the Marshall Islands renders any disaster caused by climate change especially destructive. Particularly dangerous are king tides, exceptionally 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.[18] A study 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".[19] Industries and livelihoods on the Marshall Islands are also threatened by climate change. Fisheries, particularly the tuna industry, are having to adapt to changing ecological inputs.[20] The tourism industry of the Marshall Islands, only recently developed and has even more potential to grow, is seriously threatened by sea level rise and violent storms. Aversion to flying, due to greenhouse gas emissions may also have a role to play.

Satellite Image of Ebeye Island, Marshall Islands

Recently,[when?] the Marshall Islands have begun to call for international aid to ameliorate the effects of climate change on the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands have also 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 to aid 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 helped to counteract the effects of nuclear fallout on the environment and the people of the Marshall Islands.[21] 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.[22] In addition, at the 44th Pacific Islands Forum summit held in 2013, the Marshall Islands proposed the "Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership to galvanize more urgent and concrete action on climate change".[23] 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".[24] Challenges exist when it comes to communicating the effects of climate change in the Marshall Islands to the mainstream outside world and western media. Other 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".[25] On a national governmental level, the Marshall Islands have 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."[26] Global emission rates, 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.[22] 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 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 far away.

Satellite Image of Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu

Other island nations[edit]

Climate change is not only affecting the Maldives and the Marshall Islands. All developing island nations, especially low lying ones with coastal population centers, are threatened by the effects of climate change. These include the islands of the Pacific, Indian Ocean and Caribbean. Many of the Pacific Island nations like the Marshall Islands, including Tuvalu and Kiribati 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 consists 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 capital 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]


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