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 at close to sea level.

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

1
of 14

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. As of 2021, thousands of residents have already fled.

2
of 14

Republic of Maldives

Maldives in the Indian Ocean

Sarah_Ackerman / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

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 Maldives may be underwater by 2050. Geoengineering projects aimed at saving this country from being swallowed, including building artificial islands like Hulhumalé, are underway.

3
of 14

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 Fjij.

4
of 14

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 by the introduction of ocean water by tropical storms and sea-level rise. Palau has also seen extensive coral bleaching and aquatic resource depletion.

5
of 14

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.

6
of 14

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 ten 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.

7
of 14

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.

8
of 14

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.

9
of 14

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.

10
of 14

Seychelles

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.

11
of 14

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. 17 of these islands 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.

12
of 14

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 made to leave their homes for higher ground, many fleeing the islands entirely. Some have resettled on nearby Bougainville Island.

13
of 14

Tuvalu

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 is home to roughly 11,500 people as of 2021. This country is about 6.5 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.

14
of 14

Republic of the Marshall Islands

Republic of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean

Brandi Mueller / Getty Images

1,225 islands spread over 29 coral atolls make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. 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.

View Article Sources
  1. "Climate Change Indicators: Ice Sheets." EPA. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Apr. 2021.

  2. "How Long Have Sea Levels Been Rising? How Does Recent Sea Level Rise Compare to That Over the Previous Centuries?" Sea Level Change: Observations From Space. NASA.

  3. "Summary for Policymakers." Special Report: Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2019.

  4. "About Kiribati." Kiribati for Travellers.

  5. "Migration Not a Matter of Choice but Survival, Says Kiribati President." UNDRR. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 15 Mar. 2012.

  6. Walker, Ben. "An Island Nation Turns Away from Climate Migration, Despite Rising Seas." Inside Climate News. 20 Nov. 2017.

  7. "Atolls of Maldives." Atolls of Maldives. Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture.

  8. "Preparing for Rising Seas in the Maldives." NASA Earth Observatory. 19 Feb. 2020.

  9. "Facts About Fiji." Embassy of the Republic of Fiji.

  10. Sabunas, Audrius, et al. "Impact Assessment of Climate Change on Storm Surge and Sea Level Rise Around Viti Levu, Fiji." Frontiers in Climate, 26 Nov. 2020, doi:10.3389/fclim.2020.579715

  11. "Palau PACC Country Brief: Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change." United Nations Development Programme, July 2012.

  12. "About the Federated States of Micronesia." Federated States of Micronesia. FSK Visitors Board.

  13. Nunn, Patrick D., et al. "Identifying and Assessing Evidence for Recent Shoreline Change Attributable to Uncommonly Rapid Sea-Level Rise in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia, Northwest Pacific Ocean." Journal of Coastal Conservation, vol. 21, 2017, pp. 719–730.

  14. "The Republic of Cabo Verde." West Africa: Land Use and Land Cover Dynamics. United States Agency for International Development and United States Geological Survey.

  15. "Cabo Verde." The World Factbook. CIA.

  16. "Country Facts." The Permanent Mission of Solomon Islands to the United Nations. United Nations.

  17. Albert, Simon, et al. "Interactions Between Sea-Level Rise and Wave Exposure on Reef Island Dynamics in the Solomon Islands." Environmental Research Letters, vol. 11, no. 5, 2016.

  18. "Come High Water: Sea Level Rise and Chesapeake Bay." Chesapeake Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 2 & 3, 2014.

  19. "Great Fox Is Disappearing." NASA Earth Observatory. 1 Dec. 2019.

  20. Showstack, Randy. "Helping Alaskan Communities Facing Climate Risks." Eos: Science News by AGU. American Geophysical Union, 7 Feb. 2020.

  21. Sinnok, Esau. "My World Interrupted." U.S. Department of the Interior, 8 Dec. 2015.

  22. "Discover." The Seychelles Islands: Another World. Seychelles Tourism Board.

  23. "An Uncertain Future for Seychelles? Study Shows Sea Levels Are at Their Highest In the Past 6,000 Years." Seychelles News Agency. 19 Oct. 2014.

  24. "Where to Go: Torres Straight." Cairnes & Great Barrier Reef. Tourism Tropical North Queensland.

  25. "2016 Census QuickStats: Torres Strait Island (R)." Australian Bureau of Statistics.

  26. "Adapting to Climate Change." TSRA. Australian Government.

  27. Connell, John. "Last Days in the Carteret Islands? Climate Change, Livelihoods and Migration on Coral Atolls." Asia Pacific Viewpoint, vol. 57, no. 1, 2016, pp. 3–15.

  28. Connell, John. "Nothing There Atoll? 'Farewell to the Carteret Islands': Living Climate Change in Oceania." Pacific Climate Cultures, 2018, doi:0.2478/9783110591415-007

  29. "Tuvalu." The World Factbook. CIA.

  30. "Marshall Islands." The World Factbook. CIA.

  31. Korenek, Martin. "The Impacts of a Changing Climate to DOD Coastal Facilities in the Tropical Pacific Ocean." Natural Selections, 2020.