The Science Behind Sinking Island Nations

Last month, CNN reported some troubling news out of Nauru, the smallest nation in the South Pacific. According to Foreign Minister Kieren Keke, global warming has impacted the tiny republic so dramatically that droughts now last as long as seven or eight years. Climate change has also caused the sea level to significantly rise along the Nauruan coastline. “Now the sea is right up to people’s doorsteps,” said Mr. Keke, who added that the weather patterns have grown increasingly unpredictable in Nauru over the last few decades.

Nauru is just one of several ‘sinking nations’ that may very well vanish beneath the ocean if effective measures for restoring and preserving valuable coastline are not implemented. Last March, Forbes reported that the nearby Solomon Islands — a nation comprised of more than 1,000 islands and atolls — is “approaching extinction” as the ocean slowly creeps inland and wipes out freshwater-based agricultural settlements. In Kiribati, where The Gstaad Project reports climate change is now “an issue of human survival”, many seaside inhabitants have already been relocated from their ancestral homes. And in arguably the most notable instance of ‘sinking island’ awareness advocacy, Maldives President Mohamod Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting to stress the need for immediate climate change reversal.

But the ramifications of this issue are not exclusive to small oceanic republics. For example, authorities in Bangladesh — the world’s eighth most populous country — warn that rising sea levels could displace as many as 20 million citizens from their homes; meanwhile, many areas used to grow the nation’s most valuable cash crop, rice, will be rendered infertile. Egypt is also highly susceptible to catastrophe as a result of global warming; a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development noted that temperatures in the desert country could rise even further, while reduced precipitation could prove disastrous for agricultural settlements situated on the banks of the Nile River (and there are many). The Telegraph recently noted that several islands off the coast of Dubai have been swallowed by the tide. And while most of the affected nations and territories lie between the Middle East and South Pacific, recent developments in Barbados have given environmentalists in the Western Hemisphere reason to pause; the rising sea level has destroyed reef areas and damaged once-pristine beaches, which is bad news for a country that derives roughly 75 percent of its gross domestic product from tourism services.

So, what can be done? According to a coalition of ‘sinking nations’ that formed last year, the world’s largest industrialized countries — i.e., the United States, United Kingdom, China, and other heavy fossil-fuel burners — have an obligation to support those bearing the brunt of global warming. In addition, individual nations have taken proactive efforts to ensure survival for their citizens. Kiribati, for example, is currently procuring a land deal with nearby Fiji that will secure land for inhabitants that will need to be relocated in the coming years. Officials in The Maldives, on the other hand, are exploring an alternative strategy: the construction of artificial islands. The country is currently negotiating a deal with a company named Dutch Docklands to develop a series of floating structures that will not only shelter those displaced by the tide, but also potentially boost tourism for the nation.

Despite glimmers of hope, the outlook remains grim for many of the world’s island residents. Tuvaluan Fanny Héros, whose homeland could become uninhabitable in a matter of decades, told The National that the world cannot afford to turn its back on the ‘sinking nations’. ”This would be the first time that mankind as a whole would be responsible for the loss of a nation,” he said. “A nation like Tuvalu has its own language, its own way of life. If you just take the handicrafts as an example – each island has its own unique way of producing crafts, with only a small number of people weaving fans and threading necklaces in their own way. When you get to know those people it just becomes unacceptable to think that all this could be lost.”

By Brad Nehring