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Three islands disappeared in the past year. Is climate change to blame…

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Write SHPP Date19-06-17 11:14 Hit574

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Anote Tong can remember when Tebunginako, on the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati, was a thriving village.

 

But beginning in the 1970s, the tide started inching closer to the houses in the village. Over the years, as strong winds whipped up monster waves and climate change caused sea levels to rise, water inundated the island, overwhelming a seawall that had been built to protect the community.

 

Barely anything remains of the village today.

 

“It’s no longer there,” Tong said. “What we do have is a church sitting in the middle of the sea when the tide comes in.”

 

Tong served as president of Kiribati, a country made up of 32 atolls, from 2003 to 2016. Over that time, he watched as erosion damaged food crops, seawater flooded freshwater ponds and residents were forced to retreat.

 

He has become outspoken in describing the “existential threat from climate change” his country faces.

 

“In the near future, communities may have to relocate,” he said. “When it hits you directly, it's very difficult for you to deny it.”

 

Tong has good reason to be worried. As human activities continue to alter the environment, islands are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of the planet’s changing climate.

 

In October 2018, Hurricane Walaka washed away a remote, 11-acre Hawaiian island as the storm barreled through the Pacific Ocean. Several months before that, Russian scientists reported that a small Arctic island had disappeared, saying that only vast, open water remained at the site. And near the end of 2018, a local newspaper reported that an uninhabited islet off the coast of Japan could no longer be found, presumably because it had sunk beneath the water’s surface.

 

In these recent examples, the islands were small and uninhabited, but scientists say the fate of these tiny pieces of land could be a harbinger of what’s to come.

 

In 2013, the United Nations released a sweeping report projecting that without major reductions in emissions, sea levels could rise between 1.5 feet and 3 feet by 2100.

 

Since the report’s release, some scientists have suggested that these estimates are too conservative. Among them is Patrick Nunn, a professor of geography at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, who was one of the authors of the chapter on sea level rise in the U.N. assessment.

 

Nunn said most scientists now agree that even if countries took steps today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, average sea levels would still rise by up to 6.5 feet by the end of the century.

 

Scientists say the islands that disappeared in Hawaii, Japan and the Arctic are warnings of what could happen to much larger islands and even continental coastlines around the world.

 

“This gives us a window into the future,” Nunn, of the University of the Sunshine Coast, said. “It tells us this is what’s likely to happen in the next 20 years or so, and not just in the island context.”

 

He says governments should pay attention to the islands in the western Pacific and make their own coastal communities more resilient. This includes fortifying critical infrastructure near the coasts and being smart about rebuilding after storms, including not erecting new structures in known flood zones.

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