Where did the Marshall Islands just go?

 

The Marshall Islands are a leading advocate of international action on climate change. If you ever needed an illustration for why, this is it.

This week an unusually high tide, sometimes called a king tide, swept through the island nation’s capital city, Majuro. Even something as modest as a swelling tide can have an outsize effect in the Marshalls, which comprises low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean — the highest elevation in the entire island chain is just 10 meters.

“Around 1,000 people were displaced as a result of the king tide, and a number of family homes were completely wiped out by the encroaching seas,” Marshall Islands Minister for Foreign Affairs Phillip Muller told FP by email. Muller said it was the worst king tide to hit the Marshalls in decades. “On Tuesday, the cabinet declared a state of emergency, and government agencies are now in high gear to help the communities in Majuro to deal with the situation. But the cleanup has only just begun, and many of the Marshallese affected will never fully recover.”

The tide washed through a landfill, picking up trash and sewage, and a cemetery, jostling gravesites. It also damaged buildings and homes. “We are hopeful that those houses that are far away enough from the shoreline that they may be able to be repaired in such a way that a similar tide within the next five to 10 years can be staved off,” Marshall Islands Climate Change Minister Tony de Brum said, but he stressed that the king tide will have lingering effects. “When the king tides come, the salt inundates, it doesn’t go away … The salt remains in the soil and in the groundwater.”

The Marshall Islands are periodically inundated by high tides like this. The country last suffered severe tidal flooding in June 2013, when tides washed over storm walls and flooded the Majuro airport and the home of the president. “The president tells me that he has since added another foot to the height of his protective sea wall,” Muller says. “Such is the new reality of climate change in the Pacific.”

The tide this week “is a combination of a little bit of everything,” Steven Gill, a senior scientist at NOAA National Ocean Service’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, told FP. The highest tides, like this one, are associated with the alignment of the sun and moon during perigee — the point at which the moon’s orbit passes closest to Earth.

That’s also being exacerbated by changes in sea level. “What we’re noticing is that it really depends on what’s going on with the sea levels,” Gill said. He noted that “it can’t be said it is entirely a matter of global warming,” citing variations in sea level around the Pacific and seasonal variation, but said that “over the long term, there’s an increasing sea level trend in that area.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that, on average, sea levels could rise between 28 and 98 centimeters over the next century, which would put much of the Marshall Islands underwater. “While we are doing what we can,” Muller says, “even the most conservative estimates of sea-level rise, including from the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment, suggest that RMI (the Republic of the Marshall Islands) will literally be wiped off the map some time before the end of the century, given the appalling lack of effort by big emitters to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.”

© 2014, Foreign Policy

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • After plane horror, Europe must stand up to Putin

    Vladimir Putin has become a global menace.

  • Blue-state disgrace

    Immigration is a complex problem. So is the long-term question of how the United States should handle the influx of tens of thousands of children from Central America. Beyond the legal mandates, we owe them basic human decency. On the other hand, to say that they should all simply stay here for good begs big questions about encouraging more children to make this journey, and the rights of all the people abroad who are waiting their turn in line. Unless you believe in open borders, it’s all thorny. What seems right for an individual child can seem wrong systemwide.

  • Moon landing 45 years ago brought us together

    It was, after all, only a boot-crunching dust. You wouldn’t think the sight would affect so many or change so much.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category