The Pacific Islands: An Archipelago threatened by Climate Change

The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world, spanning 155 million square kilometers. All islands positioned on the Pacific Ocean are known as the Pacific Islands, and there is estimated to be upwards of 30,000 individual islands in the Pacific, with over 2.3 million people inhabiting these islands. As some of the most remote locations on planet earth, these islands are usually associated with the beautiful images of lagoons with turquoise waters, white sandy beaches with palm trees and the colourful world of coral reefs. However, these paradise-like places are increasingly experiencing the severe effects of climate change.

Due to the positioning of these islands, many are subject to intense weather and natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, drought, heavy rainfall, water shortages and stricter resource availability. In 2012, the Pacific Islands Regional Climate Assessment (PIRCA) identified multiple key indicators of Climate Change within the Pacific Region, including:

* Increased average surface temperatures;

* Overall decrease in rainfall;

* Decrease in groundwater storage;

* Increase in average sea levels;

* Changes in frequency and intensity of climatic extremes such as droughts and tropical cyclones;

* Changes in habitat and species distributions; and

* Change in oceanic chemistry and rise in ocean heat

In May 2016, The Guardian noted that 6 of the larger Solomon Islands had large amounts of lands submerged underwater, with several villages destroyed. 5 of the smaller Solomon Islands (uninhabited by humans) were completely lost. The sea surrounding the Solomon Islands has risen at an alarming rate of approximately 7-10mm per year since 1993, forcing islanders to relocate their communities and rebuild their homes at higher topographical gradients. Changes and fluctuations in global climate have occurred throughout geological time periods, however anthropogenic activity is altering air and ocean circulations to such an extent that the Earth cannot keep up.

           (the remains of one of the six partially eroded islands in the Solomons. Photograph: Handout/reuters)

Sadly, the communities living on these Pacific Islands are at the forefront of climate change and are faced with the consequences of problems they have not created. On these Pacific Islands agriculture is a fundamental part of the economy, however sea level rise has had detrimental impacts upon this land leaving hundreds with no financial aid and support. Pacific Islanders are being forced, by alterations in the environment, to flee from their homes and leave their ancestry and livelihoods behind. Prior to the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris 2015, there was no governmental initiative to aid islanders in need, however funding models such as the Green Climate Fund have been established to support remote communities in dealing with the consequences of climate change. It is very easy for us, in our busy daily lives, to forget about the devastating headlines we read in the morning, and ignore the challenges of climate change that is not directly impacting us.

The two major driving forces of rising sea levels are the shrinking of land ice releasing water into the oceans and increasing water temperatures causing the water to expand, both of which are a result of climate change. Approximately 40% of the world population live within 62 miles of the ocean, rising sea levels puts millions of peoples of lives at risk and threatens billions of dollars’ worth of damage to infrastructure. It’s not just the lives of people who live within close proximity to the sea or ocean that may be affected; fresh water supplies risk being contaminated via saltwater intrusion through contamination of underground drinking water, overruns into agricultural land and the pollution of irrigation reservoirs.

As oceans absorb more and more of the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere it alters the pH causing it to become more acidic, a process known as ocean acidification. Acidification has altered the oceans pH by 0.11 units from 8.179 to 8.069 meaning the ocean is now 30% more acidic than is was in 1751. This change has drastic effects on coral reefs. Hard corals, also known as reef builders use calcium carbonate to grow and provide a support for other species of coral to grow. As the ocean becomes more acidic it erodes hard coral, the rate in which coral grows is known as calcification, this process is greatly slowed when the ocean becomes more acidic and the skeleton is weakened. In order for coral reefs to remain healthy the rate of calcification needs to be equal to or excel the rate of erosion, unfortunately as our oceans become increasingly acidic, the rate of destruction exceeds that of regrowth as a result we see coral bleaching and reef loss.

 

(In some areas of The Marshall Islands, almost all the coral is bleached. Photograph Remi Chauvin)

Coral reefs act as a buffer, protecting coastlines from storms, large waves and floods, a trait that is becoming increasingly important in protecting coastlands as we witness harsher tropical storms much more frequently as a result of climate change. For many of the small islands we mentioned earlier, their coral reefs are the only natural barrier that remains to offer some protection from rising sea levels and the destruction of homes, farmlands and breakwaters. Since the 1970s the Caribbean has witnessed the loss of approximately 50% of its coral reefs opening up large areas of the islands to the full force of the ocean. This is devastating loss that has direct impacts on the livelihoods of fisherman, the health of mangroves, species abundance and habitat.

Nations like the Maldives, Kiribati or the Marshall Islands are all countries that do not have the luxury of moving towards higher regions should scientific predictions that these islands could disappear, become reality. Nature can mitigate and adapt to these changes if flora and fauna continue to thrive with biodiversity and having the support of humans protecting and restoring the environment. Natural barriers like coral reefs or mangroves play a crucial role if we still want to enjoy paradise 100 years from now.

What is being done?

Unfortunately, in the case of sea level rise the best weapon we have is preparation, this is a process that we see already taking place and many charities and governments are taking steps to safeguard cities and villages in an attempt to minimise the damage caused:

  • Surat, India have taken steps to improving their flood warning systems giving people plenty of time to prepare themselves or evacuate the area.
  • In Da Nang, Vietnam partnerships between the Rockefeller Foundation's Climate Change Coordination office and Institute for Social and Environmental Transition to provide locals with the funds they need to build flood-resistant homes.
  • New York invested $1 billion into a flood prevention plan as well as other projects that included a $66 million living breakwater along Staten Island’s South shore.

For smaller more vulnerable islands such as the Marshall Islands their fight against climate change and rising sea levels is represented by their voice at UN climate talks. The Marshall Islands contribute less than 0.1% to the worlds emissions, yet have still taken steps to reduce their emissions by substituting diesel powered energy for more renewable methods such as biodiesel from coconut palms. The outer island of the Marshall Islands is now run on solar power alone and the island of Tokelau (3,418 km from the Marshall Islands) has become the first territory in the world to powered 100% by solar energy. Despite their tiny contribution to global emissions the Marshall Islands continue to take active steps into the future of renewable energy, understanding that global warming has no care of emissions per country, this is an issue that threatens us all.

You can help; the daily choices that we make can contribute to climate change, take the time to educate yourself on the driving factors of climate change and make changes to the choices you make to reduce your contribution. The time to consider the implications for future generations has passed, it is now our generation that is facing the very real threat of climate change and it is immensely important, now more than ever to ensure we,as individuals are doing all or anything we can to safeguard our planet.

For more information on climate change and the issues we face as result of climate change see links below:

http://morethanscientists.org/get-involved/

How to get involved in the fight against climate change

Five Groups Fighting Climate Change

Youth climate change coalition: http://ukycc.org/apply/

An article put together by:

Tahnee Barnes: Founder of End Extinction International-

 

Abi Croker: Wildlife Conservation Student at Bournemouth University

 

Ahmad "Aki" Allahgholi: Partner of coralive.org 

 

Kelsey Flynn: BSC Applied Animal Science, South Devon College