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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Islands at Risk

Air Date: Week of

As part of our continuing coverage of the Kyoto Protocol, Elise Fried reports from the Marshall Islands on the potentially devastating effects of global climate change to islands and other low lying areas. Islanders on these South Pacific atolls say changing weather patterns are already endangering their way of life. This report on the effects of climate change in the South Pacific was produced with help from reporter Peter Kreysler.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

In the warm blue waters of the South Pacific, a spattering of small islands stretch for thousands of miles along either side of the International Date Line. Some of these island nations are the first places on Earth to experience tomorrow. In more ways than one. Residents of fragile atolls are noticing subtle and not so subtle changes in their climate. International policy makers are now gathering thousands of miles away in Argentina to work on details of the Kyoto Protocol to address global warming. But South Pacific Islanders say changing weather patterns are already endangering their way of life. Elise Fried prepared our report.

(A plane's exhaust)

FRIED: Picture 33 grains of sand floating in a bathtub, and you have a pretty good image of the South Pacific atoll group of Kiribas, at least from above. The capitol island Tarawa appears as a long sand-colored ribbon of land only as wide as a city block, stretching in a semi-circle for 12 miles. In its center is a light green protected lagoon, and, on the outside, a shallow coral shelf where women gather crustaceans in the ankle-deep water.

(Voices shouting, clanking shells)

FRIED: It's difficult to appreciate how small and fragile these atolls are until you walk across the width of an island in less than a minute. Like most South Pacific atoll groups, the islands of Tuvalu are experiencing a marked increase in hurricanes, also known in this part of the world as tropical cyclones. The cyclones are now appearing with such frequency that on some of the islands the ecosystems have little time to repair before they're torn down again. These wild storms rip up the local breadfruit and coconut trees, staples of the island diet. The former Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Mr. Toepi Lauti, describes the damage he saw after a hurricane.

LAUTI: There was no house left on this island. In fact, it was just completely wiped out. The coconut trees, I'd say 75% were all on the ground; breadfruit trees were all broken off. I mean, our people had never seen anything like that on this island.

FRIED: Patrick Nunn is a professor of oceanic geoscience and heads the geography department at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. He links the increase in cyclones to global temperature rise and says the region must brace for more.

NUNN: We've only had about half a degree Celsius of temperature rise over the last 100 years in the Pacific Islands. But that has been enough to affect the frequency of tropical cyclones, what you call hurricanes in many places. And also, of course, to cause sea level to rise by about 15 centimeters over that time period. If we go back to the 1930s and the 1940s, we can see that tropical cyclones entered Fiji waters about 3 times every decade. For the decade 1980 to 1989, there were 12 tropical cyclones. And the decade that we're in at the moment, it's probably going to be even higher.

(Bird calls, surf)

FRIED: In addition to the devastating cyclones, a slow rise in sea level, also linked to global warming, threatens the islands. The region is especially vulnerable, since none of the atoll groups is higher than 6 feet above sea level. The islanders depend on fresh water wells for their water. But as the sea level has risen, some of the fresh water supplies are slowly turning saline, or brackish, and are now unfit to drink.

(Surf continues)

FRIED: The Marshall Islands are already seeing pieces of their land disappear as higher storm surges accelerate erosion. On Majuro, the capitol island, the population density is as high as in Hong Kong. Every inch of land is used. The local cemetery is squeezed behind houses on the windward side of the island, where recent erosion is taking a toll. Riad Mystery is the officer in charge of coastal erosion for the Marshall Islands.

MYSTERY: Right where we're standing, there's a cemetery on the shore. And you can see that some of the graves, which look fairly recent, fairly new, have actually slid off the shoreline and are sitting at an angle on the sandy beach itself. Now, this is the result of the retreat of shoreline erosion caused by strong wind and waves.

(Splashing water)

FRIED: On Funafuti in Tuvalu, sea water seeping up from below ground is already harming crops. Traditional food supplies, like a root crop known as palaca, is grown in pits 3 feet below ground level. These plants can't tolerate any excess salinity in the water or soil. President Teotoro Sito of Kiribas says the breadfruit, poipoi, and banana trees, vital for his people's survival, are endangered.

SITO: When that balance is upset, just a slight amount of sea water, that is enough to destroy all these trees overnight. It has been happening many times here in Kiribas.

FRIED: Just as a small amount of sea water can destroy most of the food supplies on land, a small rise in the temperature of water causes coral to spit out its living algae, turn white, and die. This is known as coral bleaching, and it occurs when the waters warm to around 89 degrees Fahrenheit. When this happens, the fish lose their food supply and swim away. Tuvalu has some of the warmest waters on Earth, and scientists say it has already lost half its coral due to human impact and hurricanes. Hilia Vavai runs the weather station on Funafuti, the capitol island of Tuvalu.

VAVAI: We depend 100% or even if there's a figure above 100%, we depend mainly on fish. If the coral is damaged, then we wouldn't be able to have enough food for our people.

FRIED: These island nations are among the smallest countries on Earth, with little political clout. Still, local politicians, like former Prime Minister Tuarepi Lauti of Tuvalu traveled to Kyoto, Japan, for the discussions on global warming last year. He and other leaders of South Pacific islands backed a global 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. He says the international response to the islanders' dilemma has been too little, too late.

LAUTI: Some of them wouldn't understand the real position that we are in. They think that we enlarge these things, talking about these things. But actually, we were stating what has happened.

FRIED: Regional leaders like President Sito of Kiribas say that long before these islands are underwater, they may become uninhabitable due to these precursor effects of global warming. He urged international action.

SITO: People must start readjusting their behaviors and attitudes. They've got to think about us in the process of economic development. They must always think of these people here in the islands. That their survival is now at stake.

(Splashing water and bird calls)

FRIED: President Sito likened the plight of his people to small ants on a leaf in a pond who depend on its calm for survival, and find themselves at the mercy of those who share the same waters. For Living on Earth, I'm Elise Fried.

(Splashing water and bird calls continue)

CURWOOD: Our report on the effects of climate change in the South Pacific was produced with help from reporter Peter Kreysler. Next week, we'll look at how politics here at home in the US is affecting international talks to combat climate change.

MAN: Quite simply, the problem is this: The United States is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and we're not assuming a position of leadership on the climate change issue. On the contrary, the tenor of our domestic political debate makes it clear to other nations that the United States is unable to conduct a rational dialogue on the subject.

CURWOOD: Our coverage of the Kyoto Protocol negotiations continues next week here on Living on Earth.



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