Rising Oceans, Disappearing Waters
by Josh McDaniel
The 29 atolls and five low islands of the Republic of the Marshall Islands are distinctive in both their remoteness in the central-western Pacific and the seeming precariousness of the impossibly tiny slivers of land that make up the island nation.
Located about halfway between Hawaiʻi and Australia, the entire combined landmass of the Marshall Islands is about the same size as Washington D.C., or the Hawaiian island of Niʻihau, spread across an expanse of ocean the size of Mexico.
About half of the total population of 53,000 lives in the capital city on Majuro Atoll, a ribbon of sand, trees, and urban life encircling a moderately sized lagoon. The second most populous island is Ebeye on Kwajalein Atoll, which has about 11,000 people living on 80 acres, making it the most densely populated island in the world. The outer islands are much more sparsely populated, with populations ranging from less than 10 people to slightly more than a thousand. Each of the atolls has between 10 and 100 islands, and 24 of the 29 atolls are inhabited.
Climate change is already a reality of life in the low-lying atolls of the Marshall Islands.
Sea-level rise is, of course, a serious threat to the islands, where most of the natural landscape lies only a couple of feet above the current sea level. But research in recent years suggests the loss of freshwater resources could make the islands uninhabitable long before they might sink below the ocean waves.
Marshallese culture developed over thousands of years on the delicate atoll ecosystem, with fresh water a constant environmental limitation. Adaptation to water scarcity has always been a matter of survival on the islands, but climate conditions are changing in the central Pacific in ways that make adaptation more challenging than ever.
Air temperatures have risen, especially in the northern atolls. Rainfall has decreased, and persistent droughts have become more common. Sea-level rise is already occurring at rates that are two to three times the global average. Sea surface temperatures have also increased, leading to widespread coral bleaching events, which are weakening the reefs on which the islands are built and on which they depend for food and for protection from rising seas and wave-driven floods.
In the Marshall Islands, there are two main sources of water for use by residents: rainwater catchment systems that homes and communities maintain, and freshwater wells, which tap into the groundwater lens, a convex (or lens-shaped) body of freshwater surrounded by and floating on top of the saltwater from the ocean.
Urban areas also have access to other options for fresh water, such as reverse osmosis desalination units that convert saltwater into potable water. Residents in Majuro and Ebeye can go to the reverse osmosis dispensers in town and pay to fill containers with water for drinking and other household needs.
Over the past decade, the residents of the Marshall Islands have been hit by a devastating one-two punch: droughts have drawn down drinking water supplies to emergency levels and “king tide” flooding events have completely over-washed and inundated the islands, wiping out water supplies in reservoirs and increasing salinization of the islands’ small freshwater lenses.
Moriana Philip, the General Manager for the Republic of the Marshall Islands Environmental Protection Authority, says saltwater contamination of the freshwater lens has become a serious threat to water security.
“Coral rock is relatively permeable, so saltwater does not need to overtop in order to contaminate,” says Phillip. “The pressure on shorelines is enough. Sometimes we see saltwater percolating up in the middle of islands during spring high tides, and especially king tides. This is in addition to wave overtopping, or inundations [which allow saltwater to percolate down into the lens].”
Extreme drought and wave-induced flooding have become so frequent, they sometimes occur simultaneously.
In 2014, a king tide flooded the capital city of Majuro, displacing 1,000 people from their homes. At the same time, a drought on the northern atolls spurred a disaster declaration, as crops withered and emergency solar-powered reverse osmosis units capable of converting 360 gallons of seawater to potable water per day were shipped out to shore up drinking water supplies.
While modeling projections are showing in dramatic detail how sea-level rise could submerge large portions of the islands by the end of the century, these threats to the water availability may impact livability far sooner. And one recent study shows that at least some of the people in the islands are already choosing to leave their homes because of environmental impacts.
In the next few decades, the people of the Marshall Islands will face an extraordinary decision — abandon their land and migrate elsewhere or undertake drastic measures, such as building large-scale desalination plants, and dredging and raising new islands that may provide viable spaces to live on in the future.
The fact that the people of this small nation have to face the question of whether to abandon their islands raises issues of climate justice and the responsibilities of industrialized countries — who are more proportionally responsible for climate change — to help vulnerable places that are experiencing some of the earliest and most severe impacts.
As with many climate change matters, time is running out for the international community to develop workable mechanisms to mitigate future effects and to help the nations and communities on the frontlines adapt to the impacts they are already experiencing.
Apart from Arctic and Antarctic regions, there is perhaps no place on earth where the climate change clock is ticking faster than in atoll nations like the Marshall Islands.
“1.5 to Stay Alive”
The phrase “1.5 to Stay Alive” was made famous by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a Marshallese poet and climate activist, as well as the former foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, Tony De Brum, who passed away in 2017. The phrase refers to the need to hold the rise in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius to save island nations. De Brum played a key role in securing the 2015 Paris climate agreement and convincing the signatory countries to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would achieve the 1.5 degrees Celsius target.
Chip Fletcher, an associate dean for academic affairs and professor of earth sciences in the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, studies the effects sea-level rise has on island environments and communities. He says that despite De Brum’s and Jetnil-Kijiner’s heroic efforts to rally international action, data shows energy use and greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing.
“Globally, we are not likely to stop warming at 1.5 degrees, or even two degrees,” says Fletcher. “We are in fact on a pathway to three or four degrees.”
Fletcher says sea-level rise varies from site to site around the world because of a variety of factors: vertical land motion (land sinking or subsidence); ocean circulation; strength and direction of prevailing winds, localized differences in sea surface temperatures (warmer water expands); and polar ice melt, which under certain conditions can raise sea levels in the tropical Pacific higher than other parts of the globe.
At a climate change conference in Majuro in July 2018, Fletcher presented a series of detailed elevation maps he developed along with the U.S. Geological Survey showing what flooding in the Marshall Islands capital would look like when sea level rose one foot, two feet, and then three feet.
“The maps showed that between two and three feet of sea-level rise, dramatic flooding takes place and large parts of Majuro appear to be unlivable,” Fletcher says. “I think that presentation stunned a lot of people.”
Fletcher has been a proponent of the elevation approach to adaptation in the Marshalls — dredging areas in the central lagoons to raise new islands higher than the existing ones. He points to similar work being done in the Maldives and the island building the Chinese have been engaged in for military purposes in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
“Dredging and reclaiming land is not new — it’s been going on forever,” he says. “It’s just very expensive.”
Moriana Phillip believes international funds and full compensation by the United States for nuclear weapons testing done in the Marshall Islands during the 1940s and 1950s should be used for large adaptation projects, such as raising islands or increasing desalination capabilities.
“Marshallese are resilient by nature, given all we’ve gone through related to nuclear testing and life on atolls,” says Phillip. “Thus we have the ability to quickly adapt our efforts to take advantage of opportunities.”
Sea-level rise and wave-driven flooding also have ramifications for the U.S. military, whose multibillion-dollar Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site is located in the RMI on the island of Roi-Namur in the Kwajalein Atoll. Worried about the long-term future of the military installation, DOD funded a study looking at the interaction between different scenarios of sea-level rise, wave-driven inundations, and the response of the freshwater lens to encroaching saltwater.
A team of researchers from USGS, NOAA, the University of Hawai’i, and a Dutch research institute, discovered that wave-driven floods would inundate the island annually after sea levels had risen only 16 inches, a frequency of saltwater contamination that would be disastrous for infrastructure, but would also not allow the fragile freshwater lens to recover between inundations.
The researchers concluded that saltwater damage to infrastructure and freshwater resources will make many atolls uninhabitable beginning in the 2030s to 2060s.
Migration as Adaptation
Nearly a third of the Marshallese population, or about 22,000 people, currently live in the U.S, where the Compact of Free Association allows them to live, work, and study indefinitely without a visa. (However, the compact does not provide a pathway to U.S. citizenship.) The Marshall Islands entered into the compact with the U.S. in 1986 as part of compensation for the profound impacts U.S. nuclear weapons testing had — and continues to have — on the islands.
A large number of Marshallese (about 12,000 according to the 2010 census, and likely much higher now) have settled in Springdale, Arkansas to work in a Tyson Foods chicken plant. Other large groups of Marshallese have moved to Hawaiʻi and the state of Washington.
Maxine Burkett, a professor in the University of Hawaiʻi William S. Richardson School of Law and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says the Marshall Islands diaspora is expected to grow as climate change impacts life in the islands.
Burkett has been studying the role of climate change and environmental factors in the migration decisions of Marshall Islanders, both within the RMI and to the U.S. She says basic bread-and-butter factors — jobs, health care, family ties, and education — are still the primary reason for migration. But, environmental factors are now driving the decision of some people to migrate, specifically those moving to Majuro from the rural northern islands, which have been hit hard by drought and heat waves.
“In our survey of migrants, we saw that there was a relationship between changes to one’s environment and the decisions to move,” Burkett says. “And it seemed to be the migrants from islands that had greater heat stress, and the greater number of overall environmental impacts, that indicated a greater likelihood to migrate because of the changing environment.”
As one would expect from a culture of expert ocean navigators, circular migration is also common among the Marshallese. People move between islands, and to the U.S. and back.
Anfernee “Nenol” Kaminaga is a return migrant. He was born in the islands, and then moved to Maine when he was young. Now, he and his family have returned to the RMI to be a part of the solution to the challenges the Marshallese face. Kaminaga is now working for the UN’s International Organization of Migration in Majuro, a group working in disaster preparation, response, and reconstruction. He says he remains optimistic about the future of the Marshall Islands mainly because of the energy and engagement he sees among the young people.
“It’s not a ‘pity us’ kind of thing — we’re not just sitting around not doing anything,” Kaminaga says. “There’s a lot of people who’ve chosen to stay and look for solutions.”
In a bit of bright news for the Marshall Islands, the UN’s Green Climate Fund, an international program that distributes financial assistance and resources to vulnerable nations and communities, recently announced it was partnering with the World Bank to supply $44 million for the Pacific Resilience Project in the Marshall Islands. The project aims to “improve resilience to the increasing risk from changes in waves and storm surge through new coastal protection measures. It will also strengthen preparedness of the local population for disaster events and provide financial support for climate-related and other disaster responses.”
This is a critical first step in the future of the Marshall Islands, and while continued financial assistance and resources will be key to adaptive responses, Karl Fellenius, former faculty with the University of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant College Program, says the Marshall Islands already have the key ingredient for facing its challenges — the character of its people.
“Strong-willed, strong family and community ties, motivation, advocacy — all of these are positive attributes that humanity needs to adapt to climate change. These traits are plentiful in the RMI.”
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