Environment

​Disappearing Tuvalu: First Modern Nation to Drown?

With sea levels rising due to climate change, low lying areas are at the most risk. Only 6ft above sea level, the pacific island of Tuvalu will likely disappear first.

The ocean is a powerful force that can change the land it touches rapidly and dramatically.

Climate change, spurred by human activity, has created disruptions in the otherwise relatively predictable forces of the oceans. This change threatens to swallow the finite land of low lying islands and the limited freshwater reserves. The ocean also absorbs the increased carbon dioxide responsible for rising temperatures, increasing acid levels in the saltwater, further eroding protective reef formations and reducing the survival ability of fish stocks upon which many island nations subsist.

The Alliance of Small Island States represents a group of 44 nations fighting against these dire circumstances that threaten to destroy their existence.

Tuvalu, a member of AOSIS, faces a dangerous, uncertain scenario as one of the first countries in the world who will need to tackle the challenge of swelling oceans. Despite international efforts to curb the effects of drastically altering the climate, low-lying island nations continue to feel the brunt of the ocean's inexorable response. As the country gradually becomes inundated, tiny Tuvalu might become the first casualty of human-induced climate change and a harbinger of events unfolding on shores across the planet.

Saltwater Threat

Tuvalu's office of Meteorology flooded by a high tide

Located in-between the well known islands of Australia and Hawaii, surrounded by thousands of miles of open ocean, the nation of Tuvalu inhabits an area one-tenth the size of Washington, D.C. Consisting of three reef islands and six atolls in the South Pacific Ocean, the peak elevation of Tuvalu rises about five meters above the ocean and the majority of the country rests below the two-meter mark. As such, the United Nations considers it likely that Tuvalu will be the first nation to suffer a complete loss of landmass due to climate change, although, before the land is covered, other issues will prevent human populations from surviving on the island.

A loss of the freshwater supply on Tuvalu presents the first dire threat originating from rising ocean water. As the severe storm surges increase, sewage treatment facilities will become contaminated by saltwater, ruining the process that sterilizes raw sewage. The untreated sewage and seawater will then overflow and filter into freshwater sources, spoiling the already scarce supply of potable water.

The sewage and saltwater contamination of Tuvaluan freshwater also threatens agricultural production. Changing climate patterns have already increased the occurrence of drought on northern islands, creating difficult conditions for crop production and livestock maintenance. Limited freshwater reserves, reduced by drought and contamination, will prevent Tuvalu from feeding themselves without imports, even before drinking water runs out.

Salting Fertile Lands, Sterilizing the Ocean

The capital island of Tuvalu, Funafuti, is on average 2 meters above sea level

Rising oceans will displace fertile land in a similar way that seawater will slowly replace freshwater; contaminating, then sweeping away these vital resources. This isn't without precedent, regular storm surges have resulted in catastrophe on Tuvalu.

In 1972, Cyclone Bene eliminated critical vegetation and tree crops through saltwater saturation of fertile soil. One of the main staples of the island, swamp taro, tends to be sensitive to surges because the crop grows in pits where saltwater will pool instead of retreating into the ocean. Facing food scarcity, many residents during this crisis also dealt with near-complete destruction of homes on the biggest atoll, Funafuti.

Increased temperature and acidification of oceans will create additional stress on Tuvaluan food production. Human-driven climate change is expected to increase the amount of carbon dioxide and warmth absorbed into the ocean, spiking acid levels and average water temperature. Acid will weaken local feeding reefs and the armor of shellfish, while heat bleaches the coral and reduces survival rates among heat-sensitive species.

Eliminating the habitat of edible sea creatures while intensifying the stress of heat will exacerbate the food production issues. The erosion of coral will reduce the protection that reefs provide against surges during severe weather and tsunamis, magnifying the damage caused by these events.

Destruction of Sovereignty Threatens Culture

Traditional Polynesian dancing in an international cultural display

The culture and politics of Tuvalu revolve mostly around peaceful existence. In fact, the country does not bother maintaining a standing military. However, when culture faces a struggle for survival, the stress placed on residents may result in cultural collapse.

Food scarcity triggered by the destruction of land and freshwater exposes residents of Tuvalu to greater risk of illness as a result of poor nutrition or contaminated water. Tuvalu's geographic isolation precludes escape from pandemics while increasing the difficulty of receiving international aid. Disasters like tsunamis and cyclones exert a greater destructive force because of climate change, increasing the chance of another catastrophic event similar to the one that took place in 1972.

As more and more Tuvaluans migrate to New Zealand and Australia, individual representatives of the culture who would normally pass on the traditions of Tuvalu assimilate into foreign lifestyles. Eventually, as water completely claims the land, Tuvalu will completely lose its sovereignty, forcing Tuvaluans to follow the laws and customs of other nations.

The reduction in quality of health and elimination of Tuvalu sovereignty will place unprecedented stress on the culture of the 10,782 residents, most of whom claim Polynesian heritage with a minority born from Micronesian roots. Despite the peaceful nature of Tuvaluans, competition for increasingly scare resources, exposure to intensifying natural disasters and absorption into societies more violent than their own will likely change the culture of Tuvalu on a permanent basis.

Saving Tuvalu

The 2014 Lima climate conference is seen as a prelude to the 2015 Paris climate talks

A series of United Nations meetings have been held on climate change and the ocean-based threats to focus on recommendations that limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by nations, particularly from large economies that have benefited the most from an Industrial Age powered by fossil fuel. Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will decrease the probability of hotter temperatures and the continued acidification of the oceans - the main causes of severe problems facing Tuvalu and other island nations.

Non-profits such as the Red Cross work with Tuvaluan residents to educate locals about safety, preparedness, health, and education issues. These organizations help reduce the risk that Tuvalu faces through a variety of means, such as organizing debris clean-up on shore and planting trees in flat areas of low density. Cleaning twigs, branches, and other debris removes potentially deadly projectiles picked up by typhoon winds, while planting natural barriers slow ocean surges.

Scientists study sedimentation patterns, hoping to mimic natural processes that appear to strengthen the island against encroaching water with the potential of bolstering overall landmass. While none of these solutions offer guarantees, they provide hope that enough can be done in the long term to prevent the country from destruction.

Dissenting Opinions

The coral that built the islands of Tuvalu has shown to be more resilient than believed

Despite the cataclysm of relentless ocean water that most climate observers believe will drown Tuvalu, research conducted by Paul Kench from the University of Auckland's School of Environment suggests that the disappearance of Tuvalu is not a foregone conclusion.

His study of coral reef islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans gathered data on over 600 of these land masses, measuring the islands' response to swelling ocean levels. He found that approximately 80 percent of coral reef islands have the same landmass or increased in size while only 20 percent witnessed landmass reductions. This evidence suggests that the amount of land lost due to rising ocean water amounts to less than most observers would expect.

Kench points to the fact that coral reefs are much more malleable than other types of land, allowing for greater ocean adaptation compared to more solid types of soil. The atolls and reefs respond to waves of sediment by lifting and shifting position. Some areas of Tuvalu have gained up to 14 acres of land in a decade while the most populated island, Funafuti, has traveled more than 106 meters in four decades.

Uncertain Future

Enele Sopoaga is the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, who has focused his career on fighting climate change globally

Tuvalu faces extinction with no easy solutions and zero guarantee that any attempts to save the island nation will work or even make a difference against the immense force of the ocean. Some researchers believe a two-meter rise in ocean levels may occur by 2100, which would obliterate the land and homes of many island nations and coastal territories close to large bodies of water. Tuvalu appears likely to become the first drowned nation, an occurrence that should serve as a warning to the millions of people exposed to rising water on low-elevation lands.

AOSIS nations have repeatedly expressed dismay at U.N. assembly meetings about the lack of progress towards international climate change goals, such as the reduction of greenhouse gases that should help mitigate problems caused by changes in the world's oceans. One of the most recent U.N. Climate Summits in Lima continued to develop policies that reduce emissions, raise money for the U.N. Green Climate Fund and compensate countries who have benefited the least from fossil fuels while suffering most from the consequences.

In the meantime, residents of Tuvalu continue to live their lives under the constant threat of eventually being washed away from the islands they love as climate events such as droughts and storm surges become more severe.

Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, presented the following hypothetical to world leaders in Lima, expressing the essence of the catastrophe his country faces due to climate change:

“If you were faced with the threat of the disappearance of your nation, what would you do?”

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