All the Disappearing Islands

As the ice caps melt and oceans rise, will Tuvalu become a modern Atlantis?

From the air the tiny islets of Funafuti atoll appear as a broken pearl necklace scattered on the blue throat of the tropical sea. No other land is in sight, only an ocean without end and its own billowy breath rising as cumulus clouds that seem far more substantive than the tiny landforms below. As the twin-engine turboprop banks for final approach, the atoll assumes the classic dimensions of a desert island—a sand outpost studded with coconut palms and surrounded by impossibly huge swells topped with wave crests longer than the island is wide. This leaves me to ponder, as Charles Darwin did, how "these low hollow coral islands bear no proportion to the vast ocean out of which they abruptly rise; and it seems wonderful that such weak invaders are not overwhelmed, by the all-powerful and never-tiring waves of that great sea."

Although Darwin eventually discovered the reef-building mechanisms of corals that keep atoll islands from succumbing to the waves, even his prescient mind never considered the dread possibilities of the 21st century: that global warming could cause the sea to expand and rise faster than the corals could fortify themselves against it, and that these fragile spits of sand might disappear beneath the waves that tossed them into being in the first place.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Today, roughly 1 million people live on coral islands worldwide, and many more millions live on low-lying real estate vulnerable to the rising waves. At risk are not just people, but unique human cultures, born and bred in watery isolation. Faced with inundation, some of these people are beginning to envision the wholesale abandonment of their nations. Others are buying higher land wherever they can. A few are preparing lawsuits that will challenge the right of the developed world to emit the greenhouse gases threatening to cause the flooding of their homelands. But whatever their actions or inactions, the citizens of tropical island nations are likely destined to become the world's first global-warming refugees—although they contribute only 0.6 percent of greenhouse-gas pollution.

At no point is the sandy island of Funafuti higher than 13 feet above sea level, as is the case throughout the nine coral atolls of this South Pacific nation of Tuvalu. Surrounded by the sea, the people here have been shaped by it as few others on earth. Every afternoon, rain or shine, Tuvaluan children romp in its unsupervised playground. Fishing at dusk for the night's dinner, the men cast nets weighted with coral into the surf. Those islanders without outhouses wade into the privacy of the waves, where—they laugh and tell me—they feed the same fish who will soon feed them. Inescapably, this is a nation of waterfront property; even the plywood and corrugated-tin houses standing "inland" a block or two enjoy the ambience of the ocean. No one here has ever lived a moment without hearing the thunder of surf.

"Tuvaluans are blessed," wrote former Prime Minister Faimalaga Luka. "We have the sea, and above all we have our land. [We] are closely knit through kinship, a small population, and a single binding culture. What this mixture stirs up is a sensation that runs deep, a supreme sense of place."

That place, now in danger of disappearing beneath the waves, is located halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Once part of the British empire, Tuvalu is among the smallest and most remote countries on earth, with a total land mass comprising only 10 square miles, less than half the size of Manhattan and scattered over 347,400 square miles of ocean, an area larger than California, Oregon, and Washington combined. Nine thousand people live on these nine atolls, 95 percent of whom are Polynesians, having arrived variously from Samoa, Tonga, and Uvea over the past 2,000 years.

Life on a motu (the low island atop a coral reef) is always precarious, and when the first Polynesians arrived in Tuvalu, they found it hard going. With only sand for soil, they became dependent on the sea, coconuts, their pigs, and a threadbare agriculture of pulaka (a tarolike root). When high winds and waves from tropical storms and cyclones overcame their low-lying islands, the Tuvaluans sometimes tied themselves to spindly coconut palms, hoping the wind might spare these tenuous anchors.

Yet now, ominously, the high tides and resultant floods that used to visit Tuvalu in February are occurring nearly half the year, from November to March. And whereas in the past big cyclones rampaged through these islands only once or twice a decade—the most violent in recent memory being Cyclone Bebe, which in 1972 inundated Funafuti, killing six people, razing most buildings, flattening nearly every coconut palm—the 1990s saw seven of them. When three cyclones ripped through Fiji and Tonga in 1997, a 124-acre motu in the Funafuti atoll washed away. On my visit across the lagoon to see what is left, I find only a dome of petrified coral cement—the basement, as it were, for the sandy beaches and palm trees that once comprised a favorite Funafutian picnic site.

And these islands could be rendered uninhabitable by other effects of climate change. Floods and rogue waves raise the saltwater table underlying the atolls, poisoning the Tuvaluans' staple crops. Already some farmers have been forced to grow their pulaka in tin containers, and already some of the smaller motus have lost their coconut palms to saltwater intrusion. Nor are storms a prerequisite for disaster. "Last August," Prime Minister Saufatu Sopoanga tells me, "on a clear, calm day, a sudden wave surge rolled in from the sea and washed across Funafuti into the lagoon, flooding houses."

There was no apparent reason for it, and during my stay on the atoll, I find the sensation of threat to be ever present—the sea on both sides, the constant drumroll of surf, a thin strip of land between—like living on a liquid fault line.

The Tuvaluans face a difficult choice. If the seas rise and they stay in Tuvalu, they will die. But if they leave, some part of them will die. In the event of abandonment, says Sopoanga, "we'd like to stay as close to Tuvalu as possible, where we could still have the same water and the same air." Despite a prevalent Western belief that all the world would like to emigrate to its shores, the Tuvaluans feel differently. Not at all happily, they are preparing to become a nation of fakaalofa—their word for landless people, which literally means "deserving of pity."

Because there are no motor scooters or even push-bikes in work-ing order for me to rent, I am hitchhiking on Funafuti, although thumbs are not required here, simply a suitably heat-stricken gait. It's a good way to meet the locals, albeit only men, who immediately inquire as to my marital status. Recently a Funafutian married a palangi (white) woman, and his reports on the novelty of my kind are apparently piquing some interest.

Most of these men turn out not to be native Funafutians, but transplants from the outer atolls of Tuvalu. They have come here in search of economic opportunity, swelling the population of the capital to around 5,000. When I ask if they have seen many changes on the atoll since they arrived, they avoid talk of rising seas, turning instead to more immediate concerns. Eight months ago, the only road in the country was paved along a 7.5-mile span in Funafuti, and everyone agrees the island has gotten much hotter since the black tarmac usurped so much white sand. One elderly passenger complains that the Funafutians won't walk anywhere anymore, and worse yet, they won't go barefoot, but insist on wearing flip-flops. He blames this preponderance of newfangled footwear on the road too, saying the pavement is too hot to walk on, even for coral-calloused feet.

There is little or no television here, only a few hours of radio a day, and most of these drivers have never been farther than their home islands, although some have traveled to Fiji or New Zealand. But most don't have much to compare their country to, and when I mention that Tuvalu is graced with universal literacy and almost no violent crime (the only jail is currently empty)—the Funafutians smile and nod politely. Because it would be unseemly to acknowledge that their world is that much better than mine.

But whereas I had expected to meet a nation of people eager for me to broadcast their plight to the world, instead I am finding citizens wary of the topic of sea levels. To a person, they seem quietly disappointed that I am not a tourist. Despite the country's international airport code of FUN, virtually no vacationers make it to these islands. Perhaps the Tuvaluans are afraid that talk of flooded islands will squash any hopes that tourism will ever establish itself on their 13-foot-high shores. Yet I also sense something of shame, as if they feel responsible for their impending status as fakaalofa.

Thirty-one years ago, when Cyclone Bebe inundated Funafuti, its waves tossed coral rubble onto the windward side of the atoll, creating a rampart that still stands as the highest point on the motu. This rampart is now colonized by coconut palms, pandanus, and breadfruit trees, and I like to sit here in the late after-noons and watch the sea rolling ashore. As each wave climbs and then withdraws, it rolls the coral rubble back and forth. The chattering sounds these stones make are like the noise of thousands of falling dominoes, sharply audible even above the pounding surf.

The precariousness of dominoes seems an apt metaphor for Tuvalu's fate, where changes to either sea levels or the coral cover will likely result in the entire nation succumbing to what Darwin described as the "irresistible power" of the "miscalled Pacific." Snor-keling in the lagoon each afternoon, I see evidence of the struggle already under way. Stands of Acropora (staghorn) corals, the densest I have seen in more than two decades of diving and filming reef life, rise in a tangle as chaotic as blackberry thickets. Yet, by my estimate, 80 percent of these reefs are dead, killed in the 1997 and 2002 El Niños, which uprooted corals in a rash of cyclones and raised sea temperatures enough to cause the most massive, fatal, worldwide episodes of coral bleaching ever recorded.

The live corals still found inside Funafuti's lagoon are all young colonies, decorating the pointy tips of the dead staghorns like gaudy blue and pink fingernails. Below them, the thicket of what obviously was once a spectacular coral world is now choked in velvety algae and aswarm with the herbivorous species of parrotfishes, surgeon-fishes, rabbitfishes, blennies, damselfishes, mollusks, and sea ur-chins. Together, these browsers and grazers form a bioerosive army that will eventually convert the bones of this reef to sand.

In the event that these corals—the backbone of the atoll—never recover their health, the whole island will eventually be swept away as well. Yet even with robust reefs, a rising ocean will likewise overwhelm these low-lying islands, and the most likely cause of rising oceans is rising global temperatures. Most scientists (even those employed by oil companies) now agree that the dangerous rate by which global temperatures are escalating is largely due to human activity. Forecasts predict the earth will warm three to nine degrees Fahrenheit over the next century—far more rapid than any previous fluctuations—with a three-degree rise akin to moving the climate bands poleward 30 feet a day. "Squirrels might be able to move at those kinds of rates, but an oak tree can't," says climatologist Ken Caldeira of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Neither can islands. At their best, the reef-building corals grow only an inch per year.

Evidence of global climate change is already mounting from the most distant reaches of the globe. The snows of Kilimanjaro are melting away. In 2002, the ice covering the Arctic and Greenland shrank by a record 650,000 square miles, while a study published in Science found that Alaskan glaciers were melting at more than twice the rate previously assumed, adding 12 cubic miles of freshwater to the world's oceans each year. Also in 2002, a piece of ice the size of Rhode Island broke from the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica, where it had been firmly cemented for 12,000 years. New research reveals that the rapidly melting glaciers are even changing the shape of the planet, making the earth more oblate than spherical. Yet another study in Science suggests that the warming oceans might trigger intense eruptions of methane now frozen beneath the seafloor, leading to global warming on a cata-strophic scale.

More alarming still is the fact that this melting creates a feedback loop difficult to escape. Because compact sea ice reflects 80 percent of the sun's heat back into space, and water absorbs 80 percent, any reduction in the ratio of ice to water further increases the warming of the oceans and the thermal expansion that will eventually raise sea levels worldwide—if it is not doing so already. "Once the process is set in motion," warns Robert Watson, chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), "it cannot be slowed down in anything less than a few millennia."

But the evidence is not without controversy. Tangled up with the science is the reality that nations prefer not to alter the fossil-fuel- consuming habits that make them globally powerful, even at the expense of a stable climate. Chief among these are the United States and Australia, both of which refused to sign the 1997 U.N. Kyoto Protocol—calling upon the developed world to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 5.2 percent of 1990 levels by 2012—even though Australia is the world's highest greenhouse-gas emitter per capita, followed closely by the United States, the largest overall polluter.

Perhaps in light of this stance, in 1999 Australia was quick to trumpet its own evidence that sea levels in the Pacific are not rising after all. The report came from Australia's National Tidal Facility, which monitors a network of tidal gauges across the Pacific, including one on Funafuti. Yet much less noted was the evidence from the University of Hawaii's tidal gauge in Tuvalu—which has been recording sea levels for nearly three times as long as the Australians', and which indicates a mean one-to-two-centimeter rise per decade. Mark Merri-field of the Hawaii study tells me that what's really worrying is that the maximum sea levels—the highest of the high tides—have been increasing at a much faster rate. "This might explain why the inhabitants of Tuvalu have seen more extreme flooding events than one might expect from just looking at the change in mean sea level."

Aware of the ambiguities in the science, Prime Minister Sopoanga reminds me, "Here in Tuvalu we don't need to refer to reports because we see the evidence with our own eyes every day."

Because I am on foot in Funafuti, moving slowly through the heat and the afternoon rainstorms, I have ample time to savor the ambiguities. In 2001, Tuvalu began actively lobbying Australia and New Zealand to accept its entire population as environmental refugees, a request that Australia, with its strict no-refugee policy, refused, citing its tidal-gauge data. New Zealand, on the other hand, agreed to accept the citizens of Tuvalu, although only 75 islanders a year—at which rate the country will not be emptied for 120 years. By that time, according to the 2001 IPCC report, the seas may well have risen more than 35 inches, rendering the atolls uninhabitable.

Yet, paradoxically, Funafuti appears to be building like a nation with a long-term future. A three-story government office building is under construction in the center of town. Destined to be the tallest structure in the nation, this veritable high-rise is a thank-you gift from Taiwan, which won this round in the Pacific cold war by convincing Tuvalu to formally recognize it as the real China. Nearby, a new hospital is also under construction, funded by Japan. At both sites, Tuvaluan workers lounge in the shade, while their Australian handlers march around in Blundstone boots and khaki shorts.

On much of the rest of the atoll I see new houses springing up—evidence of Tuvaluans moving to Funafuti from the outer atolls, and of the growing prosperity of the nation as a whole, as money flows in from Tuvaluans working overseas, from foreign-aid organizations, and from a host of innovative money-making plans implemented by the government. Presumably in acknowledgment of the rising waters, the new houses are all being built on 10-foot-tall stilts—notably different from traditional dwellings—and overall, this tiny nation appears to be caught in a tidal cycle of doubt, ebbing and flowing between plans to abandon the country and hopes of developing it.

Of course, the stilt houses might also be due to the rising tide of garbage. Until recently, the only refuse the Tuvaluans created was coconut husks and fish bones, and in keeping with past practices, they now throw everything from plastic bottles to beer cans and disposable diapers more or less out their front doors. Paul Scells, an Australian aid worker who's helping to establish a waste-management program here, jokes that sea levels might or might not be rising, but for sure the housewives of Tuvalu are sweeping the island away. I, too, have heard the pleasant soundtrack of their work in the cool hour after dawn, as they brush away the leaves and fronds that have fallen in the night, and dutifully weed the tenacious green shoots growing in their yards. Apparently, the people here prefer un-vegetated plots (garbage or no), and the ex-pat Aussies and Kiwis, who gather each afternoon for lunch on the terrace of the Vaiaku Lagi—Tuvalu's only hotel—shake their heads in shared cultural confusion. But this is what I like best about this place, and what I fear most when I imagine its eventual abandonment: a different point of view that could only survive out here. Transplanted to New Zea-land, the Tuvaluans will doubtless learn to grow lawns.

Before I left home, a friend suggested that Tuvalu might have a bright future as a postapocalyptic tourist destination, and with this in mind, I find myself assessing future attractions. The lobby of the Vaiaku Lagi would make a pleasant dive site—open and airy (watery), with the guest rooms adding the thrill of exploration, all of which might be clothed in pretty corals if the sea temperatures permit. The windowless kitchen would provide an excellent daytime sleeping site for white-tipped reef sharks, while the small dining room could house a large humphead wrasse and his harem of females. Ordering a can of Victoria Bitter, I see ample room behind the bar for a moray eel, and plenty of whiskey bottles to provide homes for shy octopuses.

Because of the building boom and the accompanying population boom of Aussie and Kiwi construction workers, I've been unable to get a room at the Vaiaku Lagi, or at any of the guest houses in the village, or even at the houses of relatives of the sympathetic young woman at the front desk. Her aunties' houses are filled with family from the outer islands, who have come to Funafuti for a weekend wedding. And so I find myself three miles out of town at the Hide-Away guest house, home of Rolf Koepke, a German who came to the South Pacific 40 years ago, and his Tuvaluan wife, Emily.

When they built their home on Funafuti 20 years ago it was a novelty: a two-story palangi house, Emily says, "way out in the bush." Her Tuvaluan family was mystified as to why she would want to live so high up or so far away. Rolf insisted on moving in before the house was completed, then stepped off the unfinished second floor in the dark one night, breaking a leg so badly that he spent the next nine months in the hospital, fighting the doctor's urge to amputate.

Emily ascribes Rolf's troubles to the fact that he loves his beer too much, although he is also a good man, she says, a "working-hard man." My first night at the Hide-Away, Rolf's legs have taken another hit, as he fell off his bicycle earlier that day. Oblivious to his blood dripping onto the bed where I will soon be sleeping, he tells me that he doesn't believe a word of this rising sea-level business. The Tuvaluans are building everywhere, he says, and he has personally seen no signs of rising waters, although he concedes that the climate is "all buggered up," and that none of the seasons arrive when they should anymore.

The next morning, when he looks surprised to see me there, and anxious over what to do about it, he delivers me into the company of Father Camille Desrosiers, better known among his tiny congregation as Father Kamilo—a fit, 74-year-old French Canadian Catholic missionary who has been on Funafuti for 17 years, where he claims, only half jokingly, to have been forgotten by his superiors. Father Kamilo also disdains the disappearing-island theory, citing the contradiction of the building boom. But the news of even the nearby world could easily pass him by, I realize. Chatting with me at his desk in his tiny office, he tells me that letters from England arrive "pretty fast"—this as he opens a Christmas card on Valentine's Day.

Father Kamilo strives mostly in vain against the dominant Protestant Church of Tuvalu, which has been in the islands for more than a century, and whose pealing bells call its brethren to services seemingly more often than a muezzin. The church's followers—97 percent of the population—hold to a strong belief in the Genesis story, in which rainbows are proof of God's promise to Noah that he will not flood the earth again. Apparently, Tuvalu's daily rainbows reinforce this belief, and whenever I hear the sound of Tuvaluan voices raised in a cappella church song, their harmonies weaving sweetly and effortlessly through the sky where rainbows blossom and fade, I can understand the comfort such faith could provide.

Somewhere in Father Kamilo's mind must be the thought that he will likely die on Funafuti, having converted few, having never been posted back to the bigger world, and having never even seen the outer atolls of Tuvalu. Perhaps he will end up like all the other Tuvaluans: buried in the private cemeteries gracing everyone's front yards, the graves surrounded by hog fencing decorated with plastic flowers. The Hide-Away has just such a cemetery, including the grave of Emily's and Rolf's 11-year-old son, who died of leukemia in faraway New Zealand, where Rolf, in desperation, took him for treatment.

It occurs to me that after 2,000 years of human habitation, a fair amount of Tuvalu's tiny landmass must be composed of the bones of its people, and when I think of the future, this thought saddens me as well. What will become of these other Tuvaluans—the ones whom the people still consider important enough to erect roofs over their graves for shade? Surely the New Zealanders will not accept the dead Tuvaluans, too, or the soil they have become.

Many young Tuvaluans are already being sent away. Promising students go to universities in Fiji, New Zealand, or Australia. At any given time 750 Tuvaluans—about 1 in 4 of the adult males—are employed as merchant mariners. When these young people return, despite being richer or better educated or both, they still have no pigs, a condition considered pitiable by the older generation.

Pigs and land have traditionally been the measure of wealth in Tuvalu. Although Emily says they love their pigs and cry when they must kill them, when two rogue pigs go rampaging through her garden, she doesn't hesitate to tell me that, by law, she has the right to kill them, which would "give us all a good excuse for a feast." Apparently, slaughtering your neighbor's pigs sidesteps the sadness issue.

Because Emily is the groom's aunt, I am invited to the weekend wedding that has drawn so many people from the outer atolls. The feast is overflowing with pork, delivered whole on spits from underground umu ovens. In two days' time the newly married couple will go back to their university studies in Fiji. Meantime, they tear into the pig carcasses with their bare hands. Like a growing number of their countrymen, they are Tuvaluans who do not live in Tuvalu. Recent population estimates indicate that in the last two years some 2,000 have fled the rising waters, or the limited opportunities, and are now scattered across the South Pacific—many in Auckland, the largest Polynesian city in the world, and a place decidedly pigless and landless, at least for refugees.

During its brief decades of independence, Tuvalu has behaved differently from its South Pacific neighbors, many of which are considered among the most corrupt nations on earth. But a democratic Tuvalu has managed its resources well: growing the national trust fund to around $30 million; licensing its Internet country code (.tv) for $12.5 million (thereby funding the country's first streetlights, the first paved road, and U.N. membership); selling commercial fishing licenses within its waters; and producing postage stamps for the international philatelic trade. Other schemes, though lucrative, were canceled—including the sale of Tuvaluan passports (after evidence that terrorists were purchasing them) and a phone-sex service tied to the nation's "688" area code that once earned 10 percent of the federal budget (after Tuvalu's churches objected).

But perhaps the country's biggest revenue earner lies in the future. Currently, the government is seeking partners among other island nations for a lawsuit against the United States and Australia to be brought before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, suing for damages from global warm- ing. The reparations from such "ecological debt" could be huge, including the potential to cancel the monies owed on developmental loans to the big polluters. At the very least, such lawsuits will give the World Court the means to punish the rich nations for practices that essentially amount to killing their neighbors' pigs.

There is skepticism over this lawsuit. Some see it as a cynical ploy for more foreign money. These tend to be the same people who privately mutter that garbage-strewn Tuvalu would benefit from a seawater flushing, and who appear to begrudge the Tuva-luans their clever capitalizing on the few opportunities available to them. "We hope to speak for the low-lying atolls and coastal areas of the world," says Prime Minister Sopoanga, although he admits that the suit is facing an uphill battle due to other litigants' fears that the powerful donor nations they'd be suing would seek reprisals. Still, the lawsuit is considered a threat, and Australian legal experts, at least, have advised their government to take it seriously.

Along with Tuvalu, many other island and coastal cultures have just grievances. Kiribati, Tuvalu's neighbor, has already lost two islands to the rising waters. The seas around the Carteret atolls off Papua New Guinea have cut one island in half and left 1,500 people dependent on food aid. In the Marshall Islands, World War II gravesites are washing away. Trinidad reports losing land at the rate of two to four yards per year. In the Indian Ocean, a third of the Maldives' 200 inhabited atolls are disappearing. And in Alaska, some Eskimo are being forced to move, as the tundra melts and their villages slip into the sea. Unlike other refugees displaced by wars or famines, these people on the edge of the ocean face the prospect of never again having homelands to return to.

Some help has been promised, but it pales in comparison to Western practices. In 2001, rich nations pledged $0.4 billion a year to help developing countries adapt to climate change, while spending $80 billion annually on energy subsidies, mostly for fossil fuels. In the Pacific, the frustration is apparent: "Tuvalu's voice in the debate is small, rarely heard, and heeded not at all," wrote former Prime Minister Faimalaga Luka.

Eventually, the cost will be high for all nations. The momentum of global warming is such that—regardless of any curbs on emissions—sea levels are predicted to rise for at least the next 500 years, rendering a completely new map of the world, as river valleys become seas, and continents fragment into islands, and 13 of the world's 20 most populous cities submerge. During my time in Tuvalu, I find myself wondering what Darwin would have thought of it all. In the course of his long travels through the Pacific, he gleaned much about evolution and its shadow partner, extinction: "We have every reason to believe that species and groups of species gradually disappear, one after another, first from one spot, then from another, and finally from the world." Would he think the same lay in store for human cultures, and perhaps human existence, today?

Within the coming decades, the atolls of Tuvalu and elsewhere will almost certainly revert to sandbars and then nothing. Although the people themselves will not go extinct, without their home islands to anchor them, their beliefs and identity probably will, scattered person by person across the rising waters, to places where they will learn to wear real shoes and eat frozen pork— until, like Atlantis, the name of Tuvalu fades into myth.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.