Ursula Carlson: Disappearing islands lead to dislocating people
Lately I’ve been trawling the web, reading newspaper articles published around the world, curious about the problems presented to inhabitants who live on or are affected by “disappearing islands” due to, specifically, rising sea levels, which in turn are the result of a warming Earth’s climate.
Shismaref, Alaska, an Inupiat village (population 562) on Sarichef Island, lies five miles off the coast of the Seward Peninsula and 130 miles north of Nome. The sea ice and permafrost here have been noticeably thawing since the 1990s. Early on the changes the locals had to make were seemingly “minor”: They could no longer go fishing via snowmobiles, but due to dangerous slushy ice had to resort to boats. Now conditions are worse. Fishermen find dead polar bears floating in the water. Hungry or starving, the bears lumber into the village and eat what they can find: food set out for dogs, garbage, and the garbage bags themselves.
And yet that’s the least of Shishmaref’s troubles. The village sits only 22 feet above sea level and the ice that once served as a barrier against winter storms now freezes much later in the year, leaving the village vulnerable to storm surges. One October storm in 1997 eroded a 125-foot-wide strip from the town’s northern edge. Another one in October 2001 threatened the village with 12-foot waves. These days, it’s not unusual to lose 20 feet of coastline in one hour if a storm hits. The residents have requested relocation to the mainland, but that would cost the U.S. government $180 million, and as far as I can tell, things are at a standstill.
All island states, tropical nations and least developed countries have been experiencing increasingly intense storms and rising sea levels. One small island nation, Kiribati, located in the central tropical Pacific Ocean, consists of 32 atolls and one raised coral island. Although it is a small country, its islands are scattered over a large section of the Pacific, thus having a maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ) approximately the size of India. This gives it a lot of fishing and seabed mining rights, as well as shipping lanes. It also has the distinction of being the first country in the world where its entire land territory will eventually disappear due to sea level rise.
To my knowledge, the present United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas does not make provision for what to do about all those rights when an island nation becomes extinct.
A year ago, the Canberra Times in Australia reported that the United Nations refugee agency is making plans, based on what it believes to be conservative estimates, that global warming will force between 200 million and 250 million people (with an average of around 6 million a year) from their homes by 2050, about half displaced by sudden disasters and half environmental refugees pushed out by gradual changes like rising sea levels.
Our own cities along the coasts are vulnerable to rising sea levels, but as one climate scientist observed privately about the mayor of Miami: “It’s as if he’s on the Titanic rearranging the deck chairs.”
• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.