Off the coast of the small island nation of Tuvalu lies an even smaller island called Tepuka. Since 1986, the size of Tepuka’s land mass has decreased by 22 percent. , reflecting a current trend among Pacific islands as climate change continues to raise sea levels. The governments of low-lying island nations now must decide how to react to the impending threat to their livelihoods.
Large nations such as China and the United States are the leading emitters of greenhouse gases, which contribute to rising sea levels. In the past century, the Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) has risen four to eight inches. In the past 20 years, the rate has been 0.13 inches annually, double the speed of the previous 80 years.
In addition to increased carbon emissions, the number of tropical cyclones has also undergone a sharp increase. According to the World Bank’s Acting on Climate Change & Disaster Risk for the Pacific Report for 2015, in the past 60 years there have been 2,400 tropical storms. Such storms pose a problem by bringing heavy rains, along with strong winds and storm surges that eat away at the coastline sediment.
As more land becomes submerged under water, negative effects have also developed below the surface. One of the most pressing concerns is addressing the health concerns that arise from warmer rising water. Rising sea levels have caused saltwater to infiltrate the freshwater system, which along with higher temperatures, exacerbates the risk of waterborne diseases.
Meanwhile, the at-risk countries have found only nominal solutions. The Samoan Water Authority, working with other Samoan establishments has constructed personal water production boreholes to meet water demands.
Preparing for the worst, many island nations believe that migration to Australia and New Zealand may be their only option. However, several of the islanders’ efforts to claim refugee status have failed. This past summer, the New Zealand High Court dismissed a man’s request for refugee status based on the premise that he had been “passively persecuted” by the change in climate. The court denied his request because his situation did not require “protection from political or other forms of political persecution,” according to the UNHCR.
Various countries and organizations have donated money toward coordinating proper disaster and crisis planning. Recently, the Japanese government pledged to allocate $450 million, part of which would go toward disaster and risk response.
However, not everyone is fully convinced that rising sea levels mark the end of the islands. Scientists have discovered the existence of sediments underneath certain reef islands. The constant shifting of these sediments has caused some islands to grow by 14 acres in the past decade. Additionally, islands have been forming through rising sea levels and powerful storms. Jabat, in the Marshall Islands, began forming 5,000 years ago when the sea level had risen three feet above its current level.
The disappearing islands, among other issues, will be discussed at COP21, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris. While its main priority will be to form a “Paris Climate Alliance” of 146 countries in order to cap the global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), conference attendees will also work toward reversing climate change-related repercussions such as those seen in the Pacific islands.