Earth Week: Kiribati Struggles With Global Warming

Guam EPA Earth Week 2006 - Logo from CJ Santiago of GW High School
A couple weeks ago I mentioned a piece on Living On Earth about climate refugees from Tuvalu that relocated to Auckland. Yesterday Living On Earth continued their series Early Signs with a long story on another Pacific atoll nation facing the rising waters of global warming.

Flooding in South Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati (Photo: Alice Leney)Kiribati, also known at the Gilbert Islands, is a small island nation lying athwart the equator about 2100 miles to the southeast of Guam. The total land mass is a little over 500 square miles, but it is dispersed through 33 atolls covering 2.1 million square miles.

I just mentioned Kiribati when I applauded the creation of a vast marine preserve in the Phoenix Islands. Looks like the accelerated loss of glacial coverage in West Antarctica and Greenland will inundate the low lying atolls of the Pacific and turn that preserve into a lost world.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, estimates that a 1 meter rise in sea levels will submerge 63 square miles of Kiribati. In 2003 the IPCC reported that sea levels rose almost an inch per decade in the 20th century and will likely rise between 3 and 9 feet in the next 100 years.

Wave crashing over sandbags on South Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati. (Photo: Alice Leney)What is frightening is that these estimates are now highly conservative. The IPCC did not account for the rapid glacial melt-off that is occurring in Greenland and West Antarctica. A study published this February in Science concluded that the glaciers of Greenland are melting faster than predicted in response to global warming and predictions of global sea level rise could be severely underestimated. The author of the Science report says the IPCC predictions “are probably low,” and that sea-level rise is likely to be two to three times as great, which could mean a rise of anywhere from six to 27 feet in the next hundred years.

The average height of the Gilbert Islands is six feet above sea level. It looks grim for Kiribati and other low lying nations. Even before the atolls succumb to the waves, wave action will cause massive erosion and what little freshwater exists on the island will become tainted with salt, poisoning crops and trees. These things are already happening, and it will only become worse. Life is becoming unsustainable on these low islands

Flooding at the Lagoon Breeze Hotel, South Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati (Photo: Republic of Kiribati Ministry of Environment, Lands, and Agricultural Development)The accelerated loss of the Greenland ice sheet is just one of a number of startling changes in the Arctic. The polar regions are becoming warmer, in a deadly feedback loop. As the snow melts, the region becomes warmer, the warmth prevents more snow from forming, and things just keep getting warmer. It is a controversial conclusion, politically charged for certain, but despite political posturing, the scientific facts are becoming incontrovertible. It is getting warmer, and the people living on atolls will become the first casualties in a growing list of climate refugees.