How Nations Are Coping With Rising Seas

Aerial view of road cutting through a large body of water
Photo: maloff/Shutterstock

As the planet warms and ice sheets melt, sea levels are rising worldwide. During the last century, the oceans rose about 5-9 inches, according to the EPA, and sea levels could increase by up to 5 feet by 2100, threatening 180 U.S. coastal cities. But in some parts of the world, entire countries are at risk of vanishing beneath the seas. From Alaskan coastal communities to tiny Pacific island nations like Tuvalu (pictured), political leaders and concerned citizens are working together to save their homes, their sovereignty and their identities from disappearing beneath the waves.

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Building seawalls

Photo: ShoreZone/Flickr

One of the first steps many countries take — if they can afford it — is to build seawalls to hold the tides back. In 2008, former Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom persuaded Japan to pay for a $60 million seawall of concrete tetrapods around the capital city of Male, and retaining walls have since been built on other islands. Island nations, such as Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Kiribati are also at risk, but sea wall construction is extremely costly, especially for those islands on the U.N.’s Least Developed Countries list.

Seawaters aren’t just intruding upon the lands of poor countries. In the U.S., Alaska's village of Kivalina (pictured) has constructed a wall to hold the waters back. Sea ice used to protect the barrier reef the village is situated on, but the ice melts sooner each year, leaving the community unprotected from storm waves. Even California coastal towns are preparing for rising waters. City planners in Newport Beach are raising seawalls, and new homes along the city’s harbor are being built on foundations several feet higher.

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Floating islands

Photo: Dutch Docklands

Man-made islands aren’t anything new, but the Maldives may be the first country to construct islands for the survival of climate change refugees. In January, the government signed an agreement with Dutch Docklands to develop five floating islands for $5 million. The star-shaped, tiered islands will feature beaches, golf courses and an environmentally friendly convention center — features the country hopes will help it maintain tourism revenue.

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Going carbon neutral

Photo: Christopher Johnson/Wikimedia Commons [CC by SA-2.0]

The tragic irony of these island nations struggling against encroaching seas is that most of them don’t have much of a carbon footprint. Many residents live without cars or electricity and subsist on food they catch or grow themselves. In fact, countries at the greatest risk from rising seas, such as Kiribati, Nauru, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives, account for less than 0.1 percent of the total output of carbon dioxide emissions. (Combined, the U.S. and China account for nearly half.) Still, some of these nations are leading the world in reducing carbon emissions. Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed says his country will be carbon neutral by 2020, and he’s investing $1.1 billion in alternative energy. “Going green might cost a lot, but refusing to act now will cost us the Earth,” he said.

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Relocation plans

Photo: AusAID/Wikimedia Commons [CC by 2.0]

In 2003, the people of the Carteret Islands became the world’s first environmental refugees when Papua New Guinea authorized a government-funded evacuation of the islands. It currently takes just 15 minutes to walk the length of the largest island.

Not one of the Maldives' 1,200 islands is more than 6 feet above sea level, so as the world continues to heat up, it’s likely the country’s 400,000 residents could soon be homeless. President Nasheed has established a fund using tourism dollars to buy land in other countries where his people can relocate if the nation is flooded. Possible relocation spots include India and Sri Lanka.

Anote Tong, president of Kiribati, a low-lying Pacific nation made up of multiple islands, says the international community has a duty to look after those people forced from their homes by climate change, and he has asked Australia and New Zealand to give his people, some of whom are pictured walking along an ocean-side street, homes.

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Education programs

Photo: Roger Wheatley/Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Wikimedia Commons [CC by 2.0]

The 33 islands that make up Kiribati sit barely above sea level these days, and more than half of the country’s 100,000 people are crowded onto the capital island of South Tarawa. Land is scarce and drinking water is in short supply, so to combat both overpopulation and rising seas, Kiribati has begun sending young citizens to Australia to study nursing. The Kiribati Australia Nursing Initiative is sponsored by the foreign aid organization AusAID and is aimed at educating Kiribati’s youth and getting them jobs. Most students who receive AusAID scholarships are trained and then sent home to help their developing countries; however, the KANI program is a little different because the graduates will work in Australia and someday bring their families to join them. KANI seeks to educate and relocate the people of Kiribati because their entire country may soon be underwater.

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Suing oil, power companies

Photo: i threw a guitar at him./Flickr [CC by 2.0]

The Inupiat Eskimo village of Kivalina sits on an 8-mile barrier reef in Alaska that’s being threatened by rising waters. Sea ice historically protected the village, but the ice is forming later and melting sooner, leaving the village unprotected. Residents understand that they will have to relocate, but relocation costs have been estimated at more than $400 million. So in February 2008, the village decided to take action, and it sued nine oil companies, 14 power companies and a coal company, claiming that the greenhouse gases they generate are to blame for the rising waters endangering their community. The case was dismissed on grounds that no one could demonstrate the "causal effect" of global warming, but in 2010 Kivalina filed an appeal, citing that damage to the village from global warming has been documented in reports by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the General Accounting Office.

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Seeking sovereignty

Photo: Chumash Maxim/Shutterstock

If a country disappears beneath the sea, is it still a country? Does it have fishing rights? What about a seat at the United Nations? Many small island states are seeking answers to these questions and exploring ways that they can exist as legal entities even if the entire population lives elsewhere.

The U.N. has yet to investigate these topics, but a seminar conceived by the Marshall Islands on "Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate" took place this year at Columbia Law School, attracting hundreds of international law experts. They say the first step is to define coastlines as they exist today and establish these as legal baselines. However, questions remain about what exactly constitutes an island’s baseline. Some say a set of fixed geographic points could define an island’s boundaries even after it’s no longer above sea level. Others argue that a baseline is defined as a coastline at low tide, which means a country’s territory decreases as its coastline erodes.

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Permanent installations

Photo: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Kanto Regional Development Bureau/Wikimedia Commons [CC by 4.0]

Legal experts have also suggested that disappearing nations consider establishing permanent installations to stake territorial claims. Such an installation could take the form of an artificial island or a simple platform, such as the one on Okinotoishima, an atoll claimed by Japan. An installation that housed a few “caretakers,” could take the place of an island nation’s land and help it maintain its sovereignty. Maxine Burkett of the University of Hawaii’s Richardson School of Law has proposed a new type of international status for governments who have lost their natural territory to the sea. She says “nation ex situ” is a status that "allows for the continued existence of a sovereign nation afforded all the rights and benefits amongst the family of nations in perpetuity.”

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What else is being done?

Photo: Dan Collier/Shutterstock

In 1990, the Alliance of Small Island States, a coalition of 42 small island and low-lying coastal areas, was formed to consolidate the voices of those nations most at risk from global warming. The body works primarily through the U.N. and has been extremely active, frequently calling for rich nations to cut their emissions. However, while developing countries have put a high priority on cutting emissions and the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, industrialized nations like Japan, Russia and Canada have said they won’t support an extended protocol. The Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2012, and many nations have expressed interest in scrapping it and developing a new agreement.

But the search for a solution to rising sea levels isn’t confined to climate policy debates. Others are taking a more hands-on approach, creating models and designs for much more than just a floating island. Architects like Vincent Callebaut have suggested that we develop entire floating cities, such as his Lilypad, to accommodate climate change refugees. Check out more innovative designs that would let us live on water.