Marshall Islands atoll under threat from coastal erosion
The Marshall Islands Atoll of Ailinglaplap is eroding away and could be uninhabitable in 20 years, according to a senior climate change advisor.
The senior climate change advisor in the Marshall Islands says most of the shoreline on the atoll of Ailinglaplap is eroding away and it may only be habitable for another 20 years, unless the international community steps in to help.
Steve Why told Jamie Tahana the atoll's latest climate change vulnerability survey shows that coastal erosion has accelerated due to strong trade-winds being caused by the La Nina weather pattern.
He says he was surprised to see how severe erosion on Ailinglaplap has got.
STEVE WHY: We're losing coastal roads. We've got schools that are threatened. They're quite close to shorelines. These are very narrow atolls. You can throw a rock from the ocean to the lagoon side. So when you talk about beaches moving inland and shoreline erosion, you've got only about 100 yards separating the ocean side from the lagoon side. So these islands are under threat and they're starting to disappear.
JAMIE TAHANA: How much has this accelerated with these trade-winds?
SW: It's hard to give a clear picture of it. But in terms of elevation, the sea levels seem to be about three to six inches higher over the last six months. And we believe that's because we're in a La Nina period in the Pacific right now. When we go into an El Nino we'll get a stronger drought - which is the other problem we have in the Marshall Islands right now - but we'll also get lower sea levels. One of the problems is we've got long-term incremental inching up of global sea levels, and then we have these short, quite complicated cycles. So any shoreline that's now been facing into the trade-winds for the last six months has been experiencing additional onslought of waves and high tide.
JT: But there is this incremental increase in the sea level. Will the island disappear?
SW: In the big picture, sea level is expected to go up by a metre in the next century. And we've already got good data which shows we're on that way. That's we're really scared about. But in the shorter term, the height of the sea determines the quality of the land, and we depend upon fresh water on the land. So before that, in the next 20 to 30 years, we expect the habitability of these atolls to disappear. In other words, there'll be no more fresh water sources available, so there'll be no food growing in the trees, there'll be no breadfruit trees, 'cause it needs the fresh water. The coconuts are already dying back. And what we're seeing now with this national drought and disaster that's been declared over the last month, is we're seeing the beginning of that whole change. We've got 17 atolls out of our 32 that are suffering from drought right now. And so this has been building up over the last decade. So you add in the sea level rise phenomenon and it's pretty bad. But we can do something about this. We don't have to just sit there and let it happen. We can build shoreline. We already know that 40% of our land on Majuro Atoll has been reclaimed since the Second World War. So we can do that on into the future. We just need the assistance of the international community.
JT: And do you think the international community is planning to provide this assistance?
SW: If you look at the bigger picture, no, the support is just not there. The climate negotiations have gone nowhere. Every warming scenario for the globe right now puts Marshall Islands underwater, so, essentially, we're either doomed or we're going to have to do something about it pretty quick. The Marshall Islanders themselves are not sitting around and waiting for this to happen, but we can raise the awareness of the international community to get their support.
JT: Do you expect things to change in the future, as things get more dire?
SW: The Marshall Islands is supposedly the canary in the coal-mine. Well, the canary is singing away right now and we're about to croak. So hopefully the rest of the coal mine is listening, the world's listening. These disasters allow us to discuss these things and to get some attention. But it completely befuddles me why we'd have to wait until this place is wiped out before we do anything about it. We're only talking about hundreds of millions of dollars which can allow this island to be built.
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