Tuesday, 13 April 2010 11:05 AM

Sea Level Rise Will Claim Island States

As according to SeaWeb's latest update: April 6, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 7

Several island states will likely physically disappear during the coming century, a phenomenon that "has not previously been seen in modern history," notes a recent paper in the journal Ocean and Coastal Management. The paper's authors, Lilian Yamamoto of Kanagawa University and Miguel Esteban of Kyoto University, note that, although "many nations have come and gone," such changes have been to political realignment rather than physical elimination. That fate, they say, awaits countries built on low-lying atolls-such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean-as a result of sea-level rise.

Satellite observations suggest that average sea level is increasing by 3 millimeters a year. Models predict that, by the end of the 21st century, the Maldives, for example, may experience a sea level rise of 20 inches (50 centimeters). Increased sea levels could flood these atolls, rising saltwater tables could destroy deep-rooted food crops, while a combination of increasing temperatures and ocean acidification could kill the coral reefs that form these islands.

The principal concerns raised by that prospect are the environmental consequences and the immense social upheaval, including the sociological and psychological devastation of literally losing one's country. But Yamamoto and Esteban also address a legal issue. If a country disappears physically, does its sovereignty necessarily disappear with it? If so, at what point does that occur: once there is no functioning government, when it can no longer sustain a population, or not until it has completely disappeared beneath the waves? Would it be possible for, say, Tuvalu to maintain a government-in-exile?
The question, the authors argue, is not strictly academic. They write that it is not inconceivable that, at some point in the future, such atolls could reemerge if nations take mitigating measures-specifically, if global greenhouse gases are significantly reduced to a point where average global temperatures decline and sea levels begin to fall. Should that happen, they conclude, then the descendants of those who were forced to abandon their countries could reclaim the land that was once their ancestors'.

Source: Yamamato, L., and M. Esteban. 2010. Vanishing island states and sovereignty. Ocean and Coastal Management 53: 1-9.

Contact: Lilian Yamamato, Kanagawa University, Japan. E-mail: liuka1980@hotmail.com

For Further Information: The future of islands is the subject of a conference, Islands 2010: First International Conference on Island Sustainability, to be held in Croatia, April 19-21. Details can be found at http://www.wessex.ac.uk/10-conferences/islands-2010.html.