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The rising sea
September 22, 2012 7:14 AM   Subscribe

Vanua Levu, population 130,000, is the second largest island of Fiji. It is also the home of the village of Vunidogoloa, one of the fist villages in the world forced to relocate due to climate change. The entire nation of Kiribati could be next. Recently, a Kiribati man was denied immigration status in New Zealand as a "climate change refugee".
posted by roomthreeseventeen (10 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Mr Banicau said the village used to sit at least three metres above sea level when he was a child. "Today the village is at the same level with the sea and when we sit in our houses, we just look straight out to sea which never used to happen.

I feel like I'm missing something. Rising sea levels are definitely going to be a long-term problem, but the global average rate is only about 4 inches in the last 50 years. Is this guy misremembering, or is the sea level actually rising 30 times in Fiji than everywhere else?
posted by teraflop at 7:40 AM on September 22, 2012


Not the first. Progress.
posted by dhartung at 7:41 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mr Banicau said the village used to sit at least three metres above sea level when he was a child.

"Today the village is at the same level with the sea and when we sit in our houses, we just look straight out to sea which never used to happen.

"Before, we used to look down at the sea and I guess what's happening today is all part of climate change," Mr Banicau said.
Climate change caused the ocean to rise ten feet in the past (say) fifty years? I'm no climate changeologist, but that doesn't seem plausible, does it?

Wikipedia tells me that the global average rise from 1950 to 2009 was something like 1.7 mm +/- 0.3 mm per year, which would be something like three or four inches over the course of fifty years.
posted by Flunkie at 7:42 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have two friends who did their Peace Corps service in Kiribati. One remained on there, living and teaching English for several years beyond his posting. They both had an amazing experiences - it's a fascinating place, culturally speaking. Just sent them both this article. What a sad thing.

Climate change caused the ocean to rise ten feet in the past (say) fifty years? I'm no climate changeologist, but that doesn't seem plausible, does it?

I can't say for sure if this is what's going on here, but when your land lies only a small bit out of the water, remember that an average rise of a few inches quickly translates to a much higher high tide level, a much higher spring tide level, and during storms, a higher storm surge, all of which combine to destroy or drown offshore protective barriers and erode the higher ground which is in reach of the ocean (which is basically all of Kiribati). Just extrapolating from small changes to the NJ barrier island coast already, it's not hard to see that a small change in the average can mean fast, big, visible changes in the effects for sandy landforms in the middle of an active ocean. The increased water battering also erodes protective plantings and natural and manmade seawalls which had formerly afforded some protection and mitigation from the ocean.

So it's not only that the sea level has become higher, but because of that, the ground level has essentially become lower. And changed shape and taken on more water. Not to mention the added volatility of warming ocean temperatures which has apparently intensified storms themselves. More on this from the Kiribati government:
There is a tendency in much of the world to view climate change as a slow and gradual process where the harmful effects will be able to prevented before they occur. What is happening in Kiribati is evidence to the contrary. Kiribati is "like the canary in the coal mine in terms of the dramatic impact of climate change on a whole civilization of people,” says Harvard University biological oceanographer James J. McCarthy. “They didn't cause the problem, but they are among the first to feel it."
Here is their National Adaptation Program of Action [PDF], which specifies
The atolls of Kiribati rise 3-4 metres above mean sea level and are an average of a few hundred metres wide. These atolls are the home of nearly 90,000 Kiribati people with their distinct culture. Inundation and erosion destroy key areas of land, and storm surges contaminate the fresh groundwater lens which is vital for survival.
Here's a geology report on coastal erosion.
posted by Miko at 8:06 AM on September 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


Climate Change Refugee?

Why should one person be given preferential status over another just because his home may face eventual destruction by the environment? How is that fair to other immigrants?
posted by 2manyusernames at 8:45 AM on September 22, 2012


Well it says there in the link "climate refugee" is problematic and not internationally recognized by refugee institutions, that's why it's in quotes. But it is an issue that has yet to be addressed. In a sense everyone is a climate change refugee since global warming is, well, global.

Sea level rise isn't equal everywhere, it can be magnified locally by land sinking, ocean currents, erosion. In Greenland they have the opposite problem, with the ice melting land is rising and so new islands are popping up. Maybe in Fiji the island would have disappeared naturally anyway without sea level rise (all islands do eventually whittle away), but sea level rise has sped the process up on a century time scale, so they can say hey this is an immediate thing and blame global warming for causing problems with people alive today.
posted by stbalbach at 10:39 AM on September 22, 2012


It is also the home of the village of Vunidogoloa, one of the fist villages in the world forced to relocate due to climate change.
I'm sure there are ancient Egyptians, Kushians, and others who established villages on the then-outskirts of the Sahara desert who would disagree with that statement.
posted by b1tr0t at 12:56 PM on September 22, 2012


Not to mention the Dust Bowl, b1tr0t. Though Okies were more localized-climate-fluctuation refugees. Or lack-of-climate-change refugees, as the rain refused to "follow the plough". Anyway. I'm not sure what point I'm making here other than that America had a man-made ecological disaster within the last hundred years— within living memory!— that cost us a state's worth of arable land, massive refugee movement and economic damage, and people still don't believe that human activity can change the climate. We're such idiots.
posted by hattifattener at 2:07 PM on September 22, 2012


The Refugee Convention extends protection to people with a well-founded fear of future persecution. That doesn't include people fleeing natural disasters or the effects of climate change--which isn't to say, of course, that in practice the definition might be expanded in the future.

One of my friends just got back from Tarawa. She described it as a complete dump, garbage everywhere, hulks of ships rusting away in the lagoon. I suppose if you figure it's not going to exist in 30 years there's no point in taking care of it. Very sad.

As for the science, this is just a guess, but the islands around here are either coral atolls, the result of volcanic activity, or some combination of both. Coral islands were exposed to the surface at some point in the past owing to lowering sea levels, I think, and are never very far from sea level.

Discussions about climate change definitely become more focused when rising ocean levels start to pose an existential threat. It's certainly something I think about much more since moving to the South Pacific.
posted by orrnyereg at 2:53 PM on September 22, 2012


And so it begins. First, one or two, then the trickle becomes a gush, then a flood. The rich will get out, the poor will drown by the thousands.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:46 PM on September 22, 2012


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