Islands

Rising sea levels can have a major impact on islands as well as on larger landmasses. Sea-level increase has caused particular concern in the Pacific, where small islands may be entirely engulfed by the ocean if scientist's predictions are accurate. Indeed, according to environmental journalist and former Congressional staffer Curtis A. Moore, some islands, such as Tebua, have already been completely submerged. Moore notes, "Tebua's disappearance is not the only sign that global warming is making itself felt in the distant reaches of the Pacific, where scientists have long predicted that rising waters would engulf low-lying islands. Other islands have disappeared, too. Cemeteries are crumbling into the ocean. Salt has poisoned water supplies. Malaria and other diseases have spread. And large ocean surges have engulfed once-safe homes with no warning." In one dramatic anecdote, from the island of Tarawa, Moore relates how an inhabitant, Teunaia Abeta, "watched as a high tide came rolling in from the atoll's (a coral island circling a lagoon) turquoise lagoon and did not stop. There was no typhoon, no rain, no wind,

'just an eerie rising tide that lapped higher and higher,' according to one account, swallowing up Abeta's thatched-roof home and scores of others."39

Even island nations that are not in danger of submersion will face serious challenges. Many of these threats are similar to ones that affect coastal regions: erosion of shorelines, contamination of water supplies, increased flooding during storms. There may be additional problems as well. For example, in Hawaii "standing pools of water will accumulate throughout the region without a place to drain. Travel will be limited and many lands will turn to wetlands."40

Although it is clear that rising sea levels will pose a threat to island nations in the Pacific, the exact extent of the threat has been a subject of some debate. One of the most intense discussions has involved Tuvalu, a group of nine atolls with a total land area of only 10 square miles (26 sq. km), located halfway between Hawaii and Australia. In the 1990s, the government of Tuvalu declared its intention to relocate its entire population in order to avoid rising seas caused by global warming. In an article titled "Farewell Tuvalu," on October 29, 2001, reporter Andrew Simms noted that "A group of nine islands, home to 11,000 people, is the first nation to pay the ultimate price for global warming."41

It is not at all clear, however, that Tuvalu is actually sinking. In fact, "sea level in Tuvalu has been falling—and precipitously so —for decades," according to Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist and Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.42 Michaels suggests that Tuvaluans wanted to evacuate because Tuvalu has few natural resources; the threat of rising waters was simply a convenient excuse. Michaels adds that "Oceans don't rise or fall uniformly around the globe. Instead they primarily respond to local change in ocean temperature and wind."43 Michaels argues that worries about Tuvalu's submergence are unfounded, and that concerns about sea-level rise on other Pacific island nations may be exaggerated as well.

Other writers have also noted the difficulty of predicting future sea-level rise in the Pacific. For example, the U.S. Global Change Research Program notes that "a number of Pacific islands are themselves rising due to geologic uplift—plate tectonic movements. As a result of this uplift, it can look like sea level is not changing or even falling in some locations. Therefore it is difficult to establish an average relative sea-level rise rate for the Pacific, and the global rise rate can even be hidden."44

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