14 Islands Threatened by Climate Change

Waves crashing against rocks
Photo: Kārlis Dambrāns/flickr

Global sea levels are rising and the world’s land ice is disappearing. Sea levels have risen 6 to 8 inches in the past 100 years, and Antarctica has been losing more than 100 cubic kilometers of ice per year since 2002, according to NASA satellite data. By the year 2100, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that sea levels will rise as much as 20 inches.

While rising sea levels ultimately influence the entire planet, they pose the greatest threat to the islands currently residing at sea level. Here are some of the islands — many of them small nations — likely to face this crisis first.

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Republic of Kiribati

Photo: Rafael Ávila Coya/flickr

The Pacific Ocean holds the nation of Kiribati, a 266-square-mile republic on 32 atolls and one island. With a population of about 100,000, this archipelago of coral atolls covers an oceanic expanse equal to the size of the United States. Most of the island nation does not lie more than a couple of meters above sea level. For this reason, its residents are greatly concerned about the impact of warming seas.

In 2012, then-President Anote Tong revealed that his cabinet had endorsed a plan to buy nearly 6,000 acres on Viti Levu, Fiji's main island. The plan is to move the entire population off Kiribati. "It wouldn't be for me, personally, but would apply more to a younger generation," Tong said. "For them, moving won't be a matter of choice. It's basically going to be a matter of survival."

As of today, the land purchased during Tong's tenure is farmland, and there isn't much political appetite for relocation, both in Fiji and in Kiribati's current president Taneti Maamau. Maamau's administration has refocused on domestic policies and economic plans as a way to increase quality of life on the island.

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Republic of Maldives

Photo: Sarah_Ackerman/flickr

The Maldives are a picturesque chain comprising more than 1,100 islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean. However, this paradise may soon be lost to rising sea levels. The highest parts of the Maldives rise to no more than 8 feet. This leaves nearly 400,000 residents at great risk of storm surges and rising seas. The island received considerable damage in the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which decimated fresh water supplies and damaged homes. Further, extreme mining of the protective sand and coral around the islands has made them even more vulnerable to rising waters. In 2009, then-President Mohamed Nasheed emerged during the Copenhagen Summit as the face of this issue on a planetary scale. As Salon noted, "if his country cannot be saved from rising sea levels, then there may be no saving Tokyo or Mumbai or New Orleans or New York."

The current administration in the Maldives, headed by President Abdulla Yameen, has followed in the footsteps of Kiribati by turning to domestic efforts to keep the country from being swallowed by the ocean. Geoengineering projects are underway, including building new islands.

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Republic of Fiji

Photo: miguel sancheese/flickr

The people of Kiribati may want to rethink their plans to relocate to Fiji, as this 7,056-square-mile island nation in the South Pacific is pondering its own solutions to the challenges of climate change. While its larger islands include mountains that reach high as 4,000 feet above sea level, Fiji is still concerned about the effects of climate change. Indeed, some families are already moving further inland to escape rising sea levels.

Fiji is doing what it can to combat rising sea levels. Villagers are planting mangrove trees, but it may not be enough. According to the country and the World Bank, Fiji will have to spend $4.5 billion over the next decade to combat climate change, including transportation systems, education, house and health services.

As the World Health Organization reports, climate change is expected to influence extremes of too little and too much water in the form of severe storms and droughts. Further, such extreme weather is expected to make the island’s population of 909,000 more sensitive to climate-sensitive diseases, such as water-borne illnesses.

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Republic of Palau

Photo: NOAA

Palau and other island nations have formed an expert advisory committee to bring the issue of rising sea levels to the United Nations. While others see climate change as an economic problem, "For us, it’s about survival," then-President Johnson Toribiong said at a U.N. news conference in 2012. He also noted that waters had risen two or three times higher in Palau's region than anywhere else in the world. The current president, Tommy Remengesau, has uses the example of how he loses his garden to the sea every full moon to illustrate the very real dangers Palau faces.

The 190-square-mile chain of eight main islands and more than 250 islets sits around 500 miles southeast of the Philippines. Geographically, it ranges from mountains to low-lying coral islands. Hopes are that the United Nations would be able to determine the legal ramifications of climate change via international law. Palau, which has roughly 20,000 citizens, is already active in other such arenas and is home to the world’s first national shark sanctuary.

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Federated States of Micronesia

Photo: mattk1979/flickr

Micronesia consists of 607 islands containing both mountains and low-lying coral atolls in the Pacific. It lies 1,800 miles east of the Philippines. This 270-square-mile nation holds a population of roughly 107,000. "The threat is to our existence, survival, not only as a people — as a culture. ... We now have just flat beaches — the wash comes in and hits the roots of coconut trees," Masao Nakayama, a representative of the Federated States of Micronesia to the United Nations, said in 2009. Experts say sea levels will rise more than 3 feet in the next 90 years, and Nakayama contends that "even a small rise of 1 meter" will be devastating to the nation.

And the danger so far is very real. According to a July 2017 study, a number of small uninhabited islands were submerged between 2007 and 2014 thanks to rising sea levels. Islands that are able to trap sediment with mangrove forests seem to withstand the sea levels.

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Republic of Cape Verde

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The Cape Verde Islands are located some 300 miles off the west coast of Africa. An archipelago of 10 islands and five islets, Cape Verde has a population of about 545,000. In 2011, diplomats, legal scholars and other experts met at Columbia University Law School in New York City to discuss the fate of the Republic of Cape Verde and other island nations. One of the main issues discussed was the responsibility of the greatest greenhouse emitters — such as the United States and China — to the nations that may soon disappear into the seas. Ambassador Antonio Lima of the Cape Verde Islands pointed out that the largest nations will condemn themselves to the same fate if they continue to ignore this crisis. "We are sentinels of the world," he told reporters. "What is happening to us will happen to all of us tomorrow."

Cape Verde is doing what it can to reduce its own impact on the environment by expanding its energy portfolio. The country is aggressively shifting to renewable energy sources, including solar, wind and geothermal.

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Solomon Islands

Photo: Jeff Jionisi/Shutterstock

Five of the Solomon Islands in the western Pacific have disappeared due to rising sea levels over the past seven decades, according to a study published in Environmental Research Letters. Another six islands there have lost more than 20 percent of their surface area, forcing people to relocate. Sea levels in the Solomon Islands have been climbing by 7 millimeters per year since 1994. "The human element of this is alarming. Working alongside people on the frontline who have lost their family home — that they've had for four to five generations — it's quite alarming," the study's lead author, Simon Albert of the University of Queensland, told CNN.

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Tangier Island, Virginia

Photo: J. Albert Bowden II/flickr

Located in Chesapeake Bay, Tangier Island is about 12 miles from mainland Virginia. A study led by marine biologist David Schulte with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that the island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850, according to the New York Times. In addition to problems caused by sea level rise, Tangier faces issues because of its location in the center of the bay, as well as its crumbly surface, which is made primarily of sand and silt. The combination leaves the island fragile and unprotected. "They're just in a very untenable position," Schulte tells the Times. "And they don't have any options right now other than something big to turn them around." Schulte outlined a $30 million engineering plan that might preserve the island. If not, he estimates residents have about 50 years before they will have to vacate Tangier.

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Sarichef Island, Alaska

Photo: Bering Land Bridge National Preserve/flickr

Sarichef Island is a 4-mile stretch of land off the coast of Alaska, and it's been the canary in the coal mine for islands facing a losing battle with climate change. Consisting of the village Shishmaref and an airport, the island doesn't offer much in the way of places to move to escape the rising sea levels, and the residents know it. In 2016, the Inuit villagers of Shishmaref voted in favor of relocating their ancestral home to safer ground. This vote comes after similar votes in 1973 and 2002 that saw the villagers agreeing to leaving Sarichef, but as the Christian Science Monitor explains, the villagers have been unable to find a site or secure funding. But time is running out: Over the past 35 years, Sarichef has lost between 2,500 and 3,000 feet of land to coastal erosion, and it shows little sign of easing up any time soon.

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Seychelles

Photo: Hansueli Krapf/Wikimedia Commons

An archipelago and country comprised of 115 islands, Seychelles is home to a little over 94,000 people in the Indian Ocean. Most of the islands are uninhabited, but they do function as nature reserves. The islands total around 2 and half times the size of Washington, D.C., but around 16 percent of this land is less than 16 feet above sea level. When you factor in that 80 percent of the country's population and economic activity is on coastal areas, even a 3-foot increase in sea level could be dire for the islands and result in a 70 percent loss of land mass.

Like many island nations, Seychelles has relied on mangrove forests and coral reefs to fight back against climate change. However, ocean acidification has worn away coral reefs in the area, and the country lacks the economic resources to invest in the infrastructure necessary to give a way to properly fight back against the rising sea levels.

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Torres Strait Islands

Photo: John Crux/Shutterstock

The Torres Strait Islands are 274 islands in the namesake strait between Australia's Cape York Peninsula and the island of New Guinea. Fourteen of the islands are inhabited, but that doesn't mean raising sea levels aren't a threat to the little over 4,000 people who call the islands home.

Or the dead that call it home, for that matter. On the northernmost island, Boigu Island, cemeteries are staring down inundation, and roads are being swept away by the sea. The island also has a failing seawall. To the southeast, Masig Island, which isn't even 2 miles long and less than half a mile across at its widest point, is being "eaten" by the sea. Evacuating the island may be the only option for residents.

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Carteret Islands

Photo: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

This atoll is located in the South Pacific and is made up of five scattered islands scattered in a 19 mile-long horseshoe shape. The total land area of the islands is about 0.2 square miles, and the highest elevation is close to 5 feet above sea level.

Like many islanders, those living on the atoll have constructed sea walls and planted mangrove trees to counter rising sea levels, but it won't be enough, according to some residents.

"The children will have to move later, for sure," school teacher Jarreanne Prabon told UNICEF. "I can see the food becoming scarcer, the clean water harder to come by. There's not enough land to sustain us because the land is disappearing under the ocean."

Many islanders have already left, considered to be the world's first environmental refugees. Some have been resettled on Bougainville Island, about 50 miles away from the atoll.

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Tuvalu

Photo: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Wikimedia Commons

An island nation midway between Australia and Hawaii, Tuvalu is home to 10,640 people as of 2012, with a total land area of 10 square miles across three islands and six atolls. At its highest, Tuvalu is about 15 feet above sea level. Tuvalu has been on the front lines of demanding action on climate change. In 2015, the prime minster, Enele Sopoaga, addressed the United Nations Climate Change Conference and said, "Tuvalu's future at current warming, is already bleak, any further temperature increase will spell the total demise of Tuvalu."

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 neither it or the debris accumulation are long-term solutions should sea levels rise a rate that outpaces those natural occurrences..

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Marshall Islands

Photo: Alan A. Taylor/Shutterstock

One thousand or so islands spread over 29 coral atolls make up the Marshall Islands. Most of them are less than six feet above sea level and few are more than a mile wide. A single meter increase in sea levels could result in 80 percent of Majuro atoll, home to half the country's 53,000 people, being underwater.

Like other island nations, the Marshall Islands struggle with keeping the islands from disappearing while also keeping their population on those islands. "We are trying to look at all opportunities and technologies to make sure our country can remain viable for our people to continue to live there," Marshallese president Hilda Heine said to the Canberra Times. "Our country's survival is based on people living in the Marshall Islands, not elsewhere."

Efforts to combat rising seas ranges from reducing their own emissions, a mostly symbolic gesture, to working with the World Bank to safeguard infrastructure and agriculture and to provide clean water to residents.

However, keeping a population from leaving can difficult when it's somewhat easy for a them to relocate, as it is with the Marshallese. They can live and work legally, without a visa, in the United States thanks to the Compact of Free Association. For those worried about rising sea levels, this can make the logistics of leaving a little bit easier.