Climate Change, Rising Sea Levels & the Island Nation of Kiribati


The Tarawa atoll, a highly vulnerable part of the sinking Kiribati islands. Photo: AP

Re-post form SURFER Magazine – “Underwater Kiribati” – by Jeff Mull

Amid the tranquil and seemingly picturesque waters of the Central Pacific, climate change and rising sea levels are slowly inundating the small island nation of Kiribati. Stretched across 32 atolls and marked by desolate reef passes that have called out to surfers for decades, rising oceans have created a situation that’s grown so dire that the country’s president has initiated a migration policy for his citizens. While much of the conversation about the effects of global warming have been focused on future projections, the situation facing the people of Kiribati is very much real and in the present.

If scientific predictions are correct, by 2100 sea level rise, coupled with storm surge and king tides, will swamp much of the island, which sits just 7-9 feet above sea level. However, much of the country’s drinking water, which is located underground, is already being saturated by higher tides and rising seas. Some of the country’s limited farmland now lays fallow, the fields poisoned with saltwater. Slowly, the ocean is taking back Kiribati.

The harsh reality of the situation facing Kiribati—which is one of the world’s poorest countries—was outlined in a cover story by Bloomberg Business in November of 2013. In the feature, the country’s president, Anote Tong, described the plight facing his country and its 103,000 residents.

“If nothing is done, Kiribati will go down into the ocean. By about 2030 we start disappearing. Our existence will come to an end in stages. First, the freshwater lens will be destroyed. The breadfruit trees, the taro, the saltwater is going to kill them. So we won’t be able to maintain the integrity of all the islands. There’s no high ground. So we will have to evacuate islands.”

As a means to preserve his people and culture, President Tong recently solidified a land purchase in Fiji of about 20 square kilometers, where he hopes to relocate some of his people. “We would hope not to put everyone on this one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it,” Tong said.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) outlook for Kiribati is equally dire and cited the island nation as being on the frontline in the fight against climate change.

In the capital of Tarawa, which is home to almost half of all the country’s residents, a World Bank report estimates that between 25 to 54 percent of the southern portion of the island could be inundated and up to 80 percent of the north could be swamped by encroaching seas in the next half century.

The lineups on Fanning Island and Christmas Island that have been featured in SURFER will surely be altered, but in comparison to the impending crisis facing the people of these islands and atolls, any potential impact on these waves pale in comparison. Also, Kiribati is not alone. The Marshall Islands—along with many other Central and South Pacific island nations—are also facing similarly harsh realities.

“If the world continues the way it is, continues with the behavior that they have become accustomed to and continues to pollute, we are not talking about a dangerous situation that is going to happen a 100 years from now,” Tony De Brum, spokesperson for the Marshall Islands told EuroNews. “We are talking about something that is happening now.”