14 Islands Threatened by Climate Change

Tuvalu in Oceania
Tuvalu in Oceania has always been a haven for terrestrial and aquatic flora and fauna, but the land is steadily sinking into the sea.

Lily-Anne Homasi / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Global sea levels are rising and the world’s land ice is disappearing. The global sea level between 1992 and 2018 rose about six to eight inches in total, with 0.7 inches caused by the melting of Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets alone. By the year 2100, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that sea levels will rise between 11.4 and 23.2 inches if the world is able to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions between now and then. If not, these figures could be almost double.

While rising sea levels ultimately influence the entire planet, they pose the greatest threat to islands close to sea level.

Here are 14 islands, many of them small nations, under threat by climate change.

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Republic of Kiribati

Republic of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean

Rafael Ávila Coya / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Pacific Ocean holds the nation of Kiribati, a 313-square-mile republic on 33 atolls divided into three groups. Of the Line Islands, the Gilbert Islands, and the Phoenix Islands, the Gilbert Islands are the most heavily populated and this is also where the capital, Tarawa, is located. Most of the islands in this nation sit at just 6.5 feet above sea level. By 2050, some experts predict that Kiribati will be flooded and the over 100,000 inhabitants forced to leave. Even without mandatory relocation orders, thousands of residents have already fled.

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Republic of Maldives

Maldives in the Indian Ocean

Sarah_Ackerman / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Maldives is a picturesque chain of 1,190 islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean and the lowest country in the world. The islands of Maldives sit at no more than 6.5 feet above sea level with 80% less than 3.3 feet from the ocean's surface, putting the nation at risk of storm surges, tsunamis, and rising seas. Further, extreme coral mining has weakened these islands. Experts predict the Maldives may be underwater by 2050. Geoengineers have designed projects aimed at saving this country from being swallowed, including building artificial islands like Hulhumalé.

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Republic of Fiji

Fiji in the Pacific Ocean

Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

A roughly 11,392-square-mile island nation in the South Pacific, Fiji also faces many challenges. While its larger islands feature towering mountains, the low regions of Fiji's 330 islands experience a brutal wet season that brings tropical storms and flooding. The coasts are at the greatest risk and are also the most densely populated. When Cyclone Winston made landfall in 2016, it forced an estimated 76,000 to evacuate to higher ground. Climate change is expected to dramatically increase wet and dry extremes in the coming years, and this could prove devastating for the coasts of Fiji.

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Republic of Palau

Palau in the Pacific Ocean

LuxTonnerre / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

The Republic of Palau is a sovereign island nation in the western Pacific Ocean that is directly impacted by rising water levels and warming seas. Like many other low-lying archipelagos, Palau is vulnerable to tropical cyclones and coastal erosion. This country of 350 distinct islands is often flooded with seawater, which is not only dangerous to residents but detrimental to agriculture. The Palau economy relies on crops, particularly taro, but many farmers have had their land destroyed from the introduction of ocean water by tropical storms and sea-level rise. Palau has also seen extensive coral bleaching and aquatic resource depletion.

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Federated States of Micronesia

Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean

Patrick Nunn / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) in the Pacific Ocean consists of 607 islands containing both mountains and low-lying coral atolls. These islands are grouped into the states Kosrae, Chuuk, Yap, and Pohnpei. The FSM is not to be confused with Micronesia, a region west of Polynesia and north of Melanesia that includes Kiribati and Palau. The FSM has an area of roughly 271 square miles, but its islands are spread across 1,700 miles—and many are sinking. A 2017 study by the Journal of Coastal Conservation found evidence of severe coastal erosion throughout the FSM that can be traced to rising sea levels.

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Republic of Cabo Verde

Cabo Verde in the Atlantic Ocean

Peter Adams / Getty Images

The islands of Cabo Verde in the Atlantic Ocean, also known as Cape Verde, are the result of volcanic activity that happened between eight and 20 million years ago. Located about 373 miles from western Africa, the 10 Cabo Verde islands are inhabited by people of African and Portuguese descent, many of whom live along the water. There are nearly 600 miles of coastline in this archipelago. Flash floods, tropical cyclones, and torrential rains threaten Cabo Verde. Due to this country's vulnerability to disasters, population density around the coastlines, and limited emergency preparedness, this nation is in danger as seas rise and the planet warms.

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Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean

Jeff Jionisi / Shutterstock

The Solomon Islands is a sovereign nation in the South Pacific Ocean, southeast of Papua New Guinea, comprised of a collection of 992 distinct islands and atolls. Of these islands, five disappeared due to rising sea levels in the 70-year span from 1947 to 2014, according to a study published in Environmental Research Letters, and more are likely to share a similar fate. Another six islands have lost more than 20% of their surface area to shoreline recession. Sea levels in the Solomon Islands have been climbing by about 0.3 inches per year on average since 1994.

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Tangier Island

Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay

self / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Located in the Chesapeake Bay, Tangier Island is a small atoll off the coast of mainland Virginia. This island has lost 65% of its landmass since 1850, and some of the roughly 700 residents are being displaced as their homes flood with seawater. Many islands in the Chesapeake Bay have already started disappearing as sea levels in the Chesapeake Bay rise at an average rate of 0.16 inches annually. Coastal regions of the Bay and tiny islands like Tangier don't have long before they are likely to be underwater; scientists believe Tangier may drown by 2050.

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Sarichef Island

Sarichef Island in the Pacific Ocean

Bering Land Bridge National Preserve / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Sarichef Island is a small stretch of land off the coast of northwestern Alaska, a U.S. state that is growing warmer at a rate two times faster than the rest of the world. Consisting of the village Shishmaref and an airport, there is little space to move around, but many have no choice. In 2016, the Inuit villagers of Shishmaref voted to relocate their ancestral home. Every year, more Sarichef residents are forced to do the same as global warming and glacial melting accelerate sea-level rise. Between 1985 and 2015, as much as 3,000 feet of Sarichef land eroded away.

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Seychelles in the Indian Ocean

Svein-Magne Tunli / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

An archipelago comprised of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean, Seychelles is a biodiverse and naturally beautiful East African country. Roughly half of this nation is made up of nature reserves and parks and Seychelles is home to the Aldabra Atoll, one of the largest coral atolls in the world. Unfortunately, climate change and ocean acidification have worn away coral reefs and put Seychelles' densely populated and developed coastlines at risk. Between roughly 1914 and 2014, the sea level of Seychelles rose about 7.9 inches. If the sea level were to rise 3.3 feet more, about three-quarters of Seychelles would be submerged.

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Torres Strait Islands

Torres Strait Islands in the Pacific Ocean

John Crux / Shutterstock

The Torres Strait Islands are 274 islands in the strait between Australia's Cape York Peninsula and New Guinea. Of these islands, 17 are inhabited by about 4,500 islanders in total. Every year, the sea level rises up to 0.3 inches in the Torres Strait and the ocean grows warmer. Many marine species living around the Torres Strait Islands are being negatively affected by ocean acidification and increased temperatures, and the clean water reservoirs on the islands are likely to be inundated with seawater as the planet warms and wet seasons grow more intense. Coastal erosion is a pressing issue as well.

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Carteret Islands

Map of Carteret Islands in the Pacific Ocean

EVS-Islands / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

The Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea, located in the South Pacific, are also called the Kilinailau Islands. This atoll is made up of five low-lying islands scattered in a 19-mile-long horseshoe shape. The highest elevation is close to five feet above sea level and these islands are pummeled by the ocean's waves. Researchers estimate that the landmass of the Carteret Islands is less than 40% of what it used to be; the people of Carteret are often called climate refugees because they have been forced to leave their homes for higher ground, many fleeing the islands entirely. Some have resettled on nearby Bougainville Island.

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Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean

Davidarfonjones / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

An island nation of nine atolls between Australia and Hawaii, 16-square-mile Tuvalu was home to roughly 11,500 people in 2021. This country is about 6.5 feet above sea level on average, but the rising seas are steadily closing the distance. The atolls and islands of Tuvalu have demonstrated some resistance to sea level rise, thanks in part to sand and coral debris accumulated during cyclones. Coral growth has also helped, but this is not a long-term solution. The more extreme weather Tuvalu experiences and the more the seas rise, the less time it likely has.

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Republic of the Marshall Islands

Republic of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean

Brandi Mueller / Getty Images

The Republic of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean is made up of 1,225 islands spread over 29 coral atolls. Most of them are less than seven feet above sea level and few are more than a mile wide. If the sea levels rise just 3.3 feet more, many of the Marshall Islands will be lost. For example, Roi-Namur of the Kwajalein Atoll will probably be almost completely flooded by no later than 2070. The Marshall Islands are working to combat rising seas by revamping their infrastructure and creating safeguards against flooding, but this nation, like the others on this list, is facing an uphill battle.

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