Throughout the world’s vast oceans, small island countries from the Bahamas, 48 miles off the east coast of Florida, to Samoa in the South Pacific, face an existential threat from sea level rise caused by the Climate Crisis. It’s causing severe droughts in the US Midwest, wildfires in California, major destructive hurricanes in several US coastal cities and extreme heat waves in Europe killing thousands.
But these 41 small island developing states (SIDS) including Grenada, Barbados and St. Lucia in the Caribbean and the Solomon Islands and Fiji in the Pacific, are facing no less than complete extinction from rising oceans within 40 to 80 years. They are the vulnerable small island countries in the world that are on the front line of the Climate Crisis.
According to the US government’s Fourth National Climate Change Assessment, released in November 2018 and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report of October 2018, the world’s oceans rose eight inches since the advent of the industrial revolution, the biggest increase occurring just since the 1990s. Climate scientists predict that the seas will continue to rise two to eight feet by 2100 and possibly much higher. They estimate that after 2100 the seas could continue to rise several more feet, each decade if we continue “business as usual” and there are no immediate and drastic reductions of greenhouse gases.
The world’s small atolls or low-lying, limestone-based islands have an average elevation of just two meters and in the Bahamas, only one meter. These small countries are the “canaries in the coal mine” of the Climate Crisis and resulting sea level rise. The wealthy, industrialized countries are, in fact, mainly responsible for the Climate Crisis as the major past and present contributors of greenhouse gases.
The economies of these small island countries, whether based on tourism, farming or fishing, will be crippled by the Climate Crisis and rising seas. As the surrounding sea begins to over wash and flood low-lying coastal zones of these islands, where most of their populations live, they will flee, first inland to higher ground and eventually be forced to emigrate en masse to other countries. Will they be welcomed into the wealthy, industrialized countries that are responsible for sea level rise or will the fleeing populations of millions be turned away and live precariously as “climate refugees?” Ghastly images of homeless “boat people” come into view.
In southeast Florida, cities are implementing costly public projects to raise roads, install drains and build pumping stations to attempt to adapt to the coming sea level rise and massive inland flooding. But the small island countries of the world are poorer and don’t have the financial and technical resources to develop and implement adaptation strategies to sea level rise or to oversee an organized wholesale population emigration to other countries.
The 41 small island countries have a combined population of only 50 million and collectively contribute less than 1 per cent of global greenhouse gases. As the least responsible for the Climate Crisis, they are the most at risk.
Sea level rise is caused by two phenomena. The first is increased temperature of the oceans that causes water to expand. Ocean warming is responsible for 30 per cent of sea level rise. The world’s oceans absorb 93 per cent of the heat that’s trapped in the atmosphere from the human caused greenhouse effect. If the oceans didn’t absorb this increased heat, the planet’s atmosphere would be a shocking 97 degrees hotter! The earth would be uninhabitable. God bless the oceans. Thus far, they have saved us from self-inflicted extinction. But the oceans are reaching their heat and carbon absorption limits. They will eventually become heat and carbon “sources” instead of heat and carbon “sinks.”
The journal, Science, reported that the oceans are warming 40 per cent faster than the UN Panel on Climate Change predicted five years ago. The hottest ocean temperature on record was in 2017. That record was quickly broken in 2018.
Rivers, as it is written, inevitably run into the sea. The other major contributor to sea level rise, 70 per cent, is from the melting of the continents’ great mountain glaciers and the giant Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Antarctica is melting six times faster than in the 1980s, losing 3 trillion tons of ice since 1992. The Antarctic ice sheet holds 61 per cent of the Earth’s fresh water and if melted entirely, it would cause sea levels to rise by a staggering 190 feet.
Ocean warming from the Climate Crisis is causing massive bleaching and death of living coral reefs that surround these small island countries. The other great threat to marine organisms, including living coral, is ocean acidification. The oceans absorb 25 per cent of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere from human activity. Plants, through photosynthesis, absorb another 25 per cent. Phytoplankton, the tiny plants in the upper, sunlit layers of the oceans, produce 50 to 85 per cent of the oxygen in the world through photosynthesis. We easily forget about the ocean’s plants that sustain all life.
As the oceans absorb carbon, they become more acidic and prevent many marine animals such as coral polyps from developing their exoskeletons. Ocean warming and acidification have caused the death of more than half of the corals in the world. Ninety per cent of SIDS are in the tropics and most are surrounded by large coral reef systems.
Coral reefs are a popular feature of many island countries’ tourism-based economies. They also provide habitat for fresh seafood to local populations and export. Coral reefs are the largest living structures in the world. They act as natural protective barriers that surround many islands by diffusing waves and powerful storm surges that would otherwise erode coastal zones. Coastal mangrove forests are another important natural barrier to rising oceans and storm surge, but are rapidly being destroyed by rising seas, coastal development and pollution.
Sea levels do not rise at a steady, linear, and predictable amount each year. Ocean waves surge with extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones that are increasing in intensity due to hotter atmospheric and ocean temperatures.
Rising sea levels will first flood an island nation’s coastal zone where most of the population lives, destroying crops, damaging infrastructure such as ports, roads, airports, hospitals, power generating plants and government facilities. Food and fresh water supplies, housing and job security will be at risk.
Brent L. Probinsky is a lawyer and environmental activist in Florida. [email protected]