The Island Nation That Bought a Back-Up Property

Scientists raise questions about the doomsday scenario that made one Pacific leader spend millions on new land. 
Beawiharta/Reuters

Mikarite Temari, the mayor of Christmas Island, Kiribati’s largest atoll, rolled his eyes and shook his head as I read off my laptop in his office what his president, Anote Tong, had said during a visit to New York.

“According to the science and the projections,” Tong, a slim 62-year-old with a trimmed mustache, a gray crew-cut and a talent for metaphor, told Fareed Zakaria on CNN, “it is already too late for us.” For Kiribati and other nations made up of low-lying atolls, Tong added, “The impact of climate change is about total annihilation.” An interviewer in The New Yorker wrote, “Kiribati’s fate is settled; Tong gives it twenty years.”

“This is not true,” Temari said with visible dismay. “None of it.” Scientists who analyze atoll island dynamics agree that any notion of existential threat for atoll nations is unfounded. Indeed, several studies have shown that the six inches the central Pacific has risen since 1950 has had no measurable effect on any island. The scientists say that the tropical white-sand islands languidly draped around aquamarine lagoons are actually sitting on live coral reefs that will grow as the Pacific rises two to four feet by the end of the century, as the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change predicts.

“The reefs will maintain equilibrium with sea-level rise,” said Scott Smithers of James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. “Waves are what will allow them to keep their head above water.”

“During big storms, the waves wash over the beaches and deposit sand inland,” explained Paul Kench, head of the University of Auckland’s School of Environment, who like Smithers is a coastal geo-morphologist. “That’s how the islands rose above the reef thousands of years ago and that’s what they’ll keep on doing as long as their reefs produce sand.” Atoll sand is made of broken bits of coral and coralline algae and of the skeletons of mollusks and tiny creatures called foraminifera. Noting that ocean acidification and a warming ocean will be increasing their mortality, he added, “That’s not significant in geological time, because a reef can produce sand for centuries after it dies.”

But no one is saying that the expected growth spurt will be as pleasant for the people living on atolls as life has been for the last 3,000 years, which were marked by sea-level stability. Even if islands aren’t submerged, scientists agree that climate change will create major problems—at the very least the same ones that coastal residents will face everywhere. “The low-lying areas will go under water more frequently as the sea level rises,” said Colin Woodroffe of the University of Wollongong in Australia. “And the narrower parts of the islands will be washed over more often.” What makes the process hard to predict is that there are no topographic maps of most atolls because the higher parts are usually covered in vegetation—trees, bushes or grasses—so satellites can’t measure just how high they are above the water. On most islands, people, like vegetation, stick to the higher, less exposed parts.

Christmas Island, which at 150 square miles is five times the size of Manhattan, is the biggest atoll island in the world by land area. There, the sea-level rise will likely be benign, the scientists agree: The peninsula where London, the capital, is located (which is also where most people live) is 20 feet above sea level. In addition, Christmas, whose Kiribati spelling is Kiritimati but is pronounced Christmas, has enough fresh water for four times its population of 6,000, according to a European Union study. 

But 2,000 miles to the west in South Tarawa, Kiribati’s narrow, six-square-mile capital island crowded with 50,000 people, the picture is much darker. Over the past half-century, residents of the 15 other Gilbert Islands have flocked there in search of jobs and better schools for their children. The island, once a Japanese fortress and the site of a World War II battle, was already hardly pristine. Now, many live in flimsy beachside houses that are routinely awash in high tides. To minimize flooding, they built poorly designed seawalls that regularly collapse. Meanwhile, the government increased South Tarawa’s area by 19 percent over 30 years by building causeways between islets and creating new land over the reef with lagoon sand poured behind seawalls. The widespread erosion and flooding that resulted “is primarily due to [local] human activities,” which unless stopped will “increase erosion and susceptibility of the reef islands to anticipated sea-level rise,” one study concluded.

Though the study’s lead author is Naomi Biribo, a senior civil servant in Tarawa, Tong has ignored it and become a minor international celebrity by blaming the island’s coastal problems uniformly on climate change. “We are on the front lines of climate change,” he has often said, and Conservation International—Tong is a member of the group’s board—describes him as “a loving grandfather who is concerned that his country will no longer exist when his grandchildren grow up.” 

Tong’s stirring descriptions of his people’s plight have led to the creation in Australia of a committee to promote his candidacy for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Its organizer, Philip Glendinning of the Edmund Rice Centre, did not answer several e-mail requests for comment.) Scientists like Kench say that the people of Tarawa will face the same choices as other coastal denizens when the sea rises further. Either they allow the beach to move forward and they retreat inland to higher ground, or they build concrete seawalls and the beach is washed away—a particularly unpleasant choice for places like Waikiki, the touristy neighborhood of Honolulu that is dominated by high-rises.

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Christopher Pala is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. 

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