Rising seas threaten Marshall Islands

Posted: May 30, 2011

Barely 25 years into its life as an independent country, the Republic of the Marshall Islands already is contemplating its demise.

Made up of 29 atolls in the northern Pacific Ocean, including the famous Bikini Atoll, the nation faces an uncertain future if rising seas caused by melting polar ice caps swallow it up, as some climatologists worry could occur over the next century.

Majuro, its largest atoll, already has lost an estimated 20 percent of its landmass since 2000.

Where will the Republic's 67,000 citizens go if they have to evacuate the land, most of which is less than six feet above sea level?

Does a nation exist if it's submerged?

There are no easy answers, said the organizers of a symposium last week that called migration and resettlement "thorny issues for island nations whose future is threatened by rising seas" and that looked to immigration laws and international compacts for guidance.

The three-day conference was billed as the first academic meeting to study "how a population disperses if a nation physically ceases to exist." It was cosponsored by the Columbia University School of Law's Center for Climate Change Law and the government of the Marshall Islands, which "has no intention of becoming, like the Aztecs or the Mayans, a lost civilization," center director Michael Gerrard said. "It's a vibrant civilization today, and it wants to remain that way."

Threats to the republic's statehood and boundaries, however, are real and serious, the country's foreign minister, John Silk, told attendees.

Best known for Bikini Atoll, the still-radioactive site of U.S. atomic bomb tests after World War II, the tiny nation sits west of the international date line, about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.

A seafaring civilization that got its modern name from British naval Capt. William Marshall, who sailed there in 1788, the land was variously ruled by Spain, Germany, Japan, and the United Nations (under U.S. administration for 40 years) until attaining sovereignty in 1986.

Though it is independent, its defense is ensured by the United States under a Compact of Free Association that permits America to maintain a large naval base on Kwajalein Atoll, and allows Marshallese to freely emigrate to the United States. In recent years, almost 8,000 have moved to Arkansas to work at chicken-processing plants and other jobs.

A wholesale relocation of Marshallese to the United States would be possible if it became necessary.

Residents of other low-lying island nations, including the Maldives, Grenada, Fiji, Nauru, and Palau, which sent representatives to the conference, face different circumstances if inundating seas wipe them out.

For the others, the method by which nations accommodate refugees offers some guidance on how to relocate dispersed islanders, said participant Brad Blitz, a professor of political geography at Kingston University in London. But refugee status is not a permanent fix, he said. It is meant to be a temporary solution until the danger that caused the emigration has passed.

Lawyer Robin Bronen, director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project, said that Newtok, a village of 350 in western Alaska that has been sinking into the melting permafrost, provided a lesson in how migration triggered by climate change can be handled amicably.

After arranging to swap Newtok's one square mile for an equivalent amount of federal Fish and Wildlife Service land about nine miles south, the community voted to move there en masse. The Alaska National Guard has been assisting with the relocation, which began last year.

The residents of Newtok "understood they were threatened," Bronen said. "They believed there was no technological fix that was going to keep them safe."

Anticipating a U.N. Security Council meeting in July on the security aspects of climate change, Marshallese President Jurelang Zedkaia has asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a special representative, who would assist the council in examining the current and projected effects on the vulnerable islands.


Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.

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