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Rising Sea Levels

The Crisis Of Disappearing Island Nations

By James Donahue

The warming planet and subsequent melting ice caps and glaciers are doing just what climatologists predicted back when the greenhouse gas effect of carbon and methane gas buildup in the Earth’s atmosphere was first recognized as a serious problem. Sea levels are rising and low-lying waterfront lands are beginning to disappear.

The effects of the super storms like Katrina and Sandy on the Gulf and New England coastal areas have made the big news in the United States. The storm that recently flooded Venice also acquired significant media attention.

What the media has not been noticing is that the people living on the low-lying island nations, mostly in the South Pacific, are quickly losing their homes and property as the islands appear to sink into the sea. And this is becoming a very big problem for the thousands of people living on the island atolls. The islands are not only losing their land and their sovereignty as independent nations but the people living on them have no place to go.

President Anote Tong of the remote Republic of Kiribati, recently appeared before the United Nations to discuss the situation facing the islands and others like them as sea levels continue to rise. It wasn’t the first time Tong and delegates from the island chain have been before the UN. In fact, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been a vocal advocate for bringing assistance to Kiribati since visiting the island in 2011.

While a recognized member of the United Nations, anyone looking for Kiribati on a world map might have difficulty finding it. That is because it will appear in the central tropical Pacific Ocean as a cluster of dots representing the 32 atolls and the one raised coral island straddling the equator. Those islands, however, make up a land mass of 445 square miles and are the home of over 100,000 people.

The islands are all disappearing as sea levels rise. Most of the land is only a few meters above sea level. One village has already been destroyed by the rising water levels. And some freshwater sites have been contaminated by saltwater.

To fight off the water the islanders planted mangroves to protect the stability of coastal ecosystems, started construction of seawalls, and are preparing for eventual relocation to other countries as the land under their feet becomes submerged or destroyed by the violent seas.

One extreme solution debated at last year’s Pacific Islands Forum was building man-made ocean platforms similar to offshore oil rigs as an alternative home at sea.

Another threatened island chain is the Republic of Maldives, located in the Indian Ocean. This is a low-lying chain of 26 atolls and a population of 320,000 people that is also feeling the destructive effects of rising sea levels. The islanders are negotiating to move its people to unoccupied lands in Sri Lanka and even Australia.

Then there is the tiny Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu, located in the Pacific Ocean about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. It holds the distinction of being the fourth smallest country in the world with 10,500 people packed on four reef islands and five atolls comprising about ten square miles.

With its highest elevation at only 15 feet above sea level on Niulakita, Tuvalu is especially vulnerable not only to rising sea levels, but the tropical storms that sweep the Southern Pacific. This little nation is facing total eventual destruction as the ice continues to melt and the storms become more and more violent.

Poplar Island, located in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, also has been eroding and slowly disappearing because of the rising seas and erosion from ongoing storms. The island, now measuring about five acres in size, once covered about 1,500 acres and was the site of a fishing industry and several homes.

It is interesting to note that the State of Maryland is using the island as a disposal site for a 20-year, $427 million dredging project of the shipping channels in and out of Baltimore. The dredged material is literally rebuilding the island to its original shape and size.