Surf's Up - Way Up

Oceans begin to slosh over world's vulnerable low-lying islands

Of all places, this one is supposed to be permanent: The white tombstones directly face the balmy Central Pacific, coconut palms in the foreground wave in the trade winds, and the turquoise surf breaks on the reefs in the distance.

But it's the wind and surf that are slowly attacking this burial ground and everything around it. Storms, rogue waves, and unusually high tides overcome the concrete sea walls with increasing frequency, eroding the plots and strewing corrugated metal, plastic netting, and other flotsam over headstones.

In fact, the sea is attacking virtually the entire coastline of the Republic of the Marshall Islands - a sobering prospect for its 60,000 people because the country is nothing but coastline.

It consists of some 1,225 islets clustered into 29 delicate coral atolls, strewn across 750,000 square miles of the Central Pacific. Most of the islands are only five or six feet above sea level and only a few hundred yards wide. Add all the dry land together and the Marshall Islands aren't much bigger than the District of Columbia.

Scientists predict that as polar glaciers melt, and gradually warming sea water expands in volume, the world's sea level will rise by 1 to 3 feet over the next century. Some say that "greenhouse-gas" emissions from cars, power plants, and industry may be to blame. While industrialized countries ponder the evidence and potential damage in coastal areas, low-lying island nations like the Marshalls worry that their countries will be rendered uninhabitable by rising seas and associated changes in weather patterns.

"Sea-level rise is something so horrible here that people just don't want to think about it, especially since there's nothing they can do to stop it," says Jorelik Tibon, general manager of the national environmental protection agency. "We're seeing so much erosion that people are building sea walls everywhere, but that won't keep the sea out if the predicted rise occurs."

Island nations at risk

Coral atolls are extremely vulnerable: Their islands are low, flat, sandy-soil places resembling oversized sandbars. All of the countries likely to be rendered uninhabitable if predicted sea-level rises occur are made up entirely of such atolls. In addition to the Marshalls, they include Kiribati and Tuvalu in the Pacific, and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Large parts of Tonga, Palau, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia - all Pacific island nations - would also be lost, as would densely populated flood plains in Bangladesh, Egypt, China, and other mainland countries.

"Sea-level rise is an immediate problem, which needs to be dealt with now," says Espen Ronnenberg of the Marshallese mission to the UN, who represented threatened island countries at last year's climate-change summit in Kyoto, Japan. "We always seem to get the reaction from the US that this is something we can put off, study, and see how it goes. We don't really have that luxury."

Small island states in the Pacific report that they are already experiencing the effects of accelerated sea-level rise, such as increased erosion, seawater-tainted water supplies, and property damage. The leaders of Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, Niue, and the Cook Islands issued a joint communique prior to last year's Kyoto meeting declaring sea-level rise a fact of daily life in their countries, and the most serious threat to Pacific nations.

The Marshalls and French Polynesia supported the statement. Another atoll nation, the Maldives, has joined Pacific nations in loudly calling for developed countries to curb their greenhouse-gas emissions.

Epel Ilon, foreign minister of Micronesia, says his home island in the Mortlock Atolls is suffering extensive erosion damage. "Climate change is impacting us directly, and there is no doubt that there is a human impact on climate change," he says.

There is scientific consensus that global warming and sea-level rise are occurring, but scientists remain divided as to whether it is due to normal climate cycles, greenhouse-gas emissions, or some combination of the two. Most suspect that such emissions are at least partly responsible.

Disappearing beaches

Signs of erosion can be seen almost everywhere in the Marshalls. On Majuro - home to the government, half the country's population, and three-quarters of its infrastructure - concrete sea walls have been battered away, allowing the sea to consume large swaths of scarce topsoil and chunks of roadways. Coconut palms slowly die and fall along the waterfront as their roots are exposed by waves during storms or especially high tides. The airport has been inundated on several occasions, despite an eight-foot sea wall. A popular beach on the west end of the main island has all but disappeared, the sand carried off into the lagoon. People dump old cars and machinery on the shore to form sea breaks.

"I never believed in global warming before. Now I do because the tides flood the land not twice a year as before, but at any time," says hotel manager Issac Maurau, who moved here from Fiji 10 years ago. "I'm very worried about it and am glad my family and children are still in [high-lying] Fiji."

Some of the erosion on Majuro is probably created or enhanced by poor coastal-development practices and the dredging of the lagoon for sand to use in construction projects, local officials say. But erosion is also occurring on outer islands that have no development. Bikini and Rongelap atolls were evacuated due to fallout from US atomic testing years ago, but on recent visits elders noticed alarming shoreline changes and loss of scarce land.

A 1992 study produced by the South Pacific Regional Environment Program of the effects of predicted sea-level rise on Majuro Atoll warns of chronic erosion and minor flooding punctuated with major flooding and land loss during storm surges and typhoons. The latter is expected to cause long-term damage due to massive land loss, salinization of groundwater, and the destruction of vegetation.

The study prescribes preparation of sea wall, the construction of buildings on stilts, and - as a last resort - the complete evacuation of the population.

The latter would be extremely traumatic. The Marshallese have lived here for thousands of years, longer than Germanic or Slavic people have lived in Europe or Anglo-Saxons in Britain.

Preparations needed

The country is poorly equipped to deal with the predicted effects of global warming. An extensive system of sea wall would cost more than $100 million for Majuro atoll alone. The total gross domestic product of the country is about $80 million, more than half of which consists of annual grants from the United States, which could terminate as early as 2001. Unemployment, foreign debt, and the population growth rate are all high, making responses to global warming a low priority.

"We don't even have warning systems to alert people that danger is approaching," says Danny Wase, director of the national Marine Resources Authority. "If science has shown this will happen, our people need to be prepared for the worst."

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