My first week in Palau—in the west Pacific several hundred miles east of the Philippines—focused on the recovery of corals. My second week is focused on the effects of sea level rise. Sea level isn’t just rising here; it’s rising worldwide. Near my home on Long Island, east of New York City, beaches have lost yards of dunes this fall to high tides. And the beach nearest my home has dropped about 3 feet in the last 8 years as rising tides sweep sand away. This net erosion is a symptom of sea level rise. If sea level were falling, coasts would be extending, not eroding.
So, why come all the way here? Because a much larger proportion of the population lives much closer to sea level. Some islands have no land higher than a few feet above sea level. A few islands have already been evacuated. And Pacific islands are forming a coalition called Islands First, with the aim of bringing climate change to the United Nation’s Security Council as a matter of international security. Some of the lowest island countries face total inundation in the foreseeable future. Many of their people would rather die on their islands than live as refugees in a foreign place.
So there is more at stake here. And that’s why I came.
Much of Palau is higher than many island countries. But many Palauans live along the shore. And the tides, they all say, are in the last few years coming higher than ever before.
I’ve seen high tides, stoked-up by the full moon, rising into people’s yards in the low-lying neighborhoods of Palau’s capital, Koror.
I’ve also seen the tide come over the dock of a popular scuba-diving operator.
And I’ve seen taro patches (the starchy root that is Palau’s traditional staple food and is still important culturally, ceremonially, and for the poorer elder people here) flooded and rotted by the combination of high tides and torrential rains. Elders say the rains are also abnormal in recent years, and that there is no longer a dry season, and the tide tables no longer work well to predict the time or elevation of tides.
Ultimately most of this problem results from melting land-ice and the expansion of warmer waters worldwide. As climate change continues, the sea will continue rising. The world may shirk off the problems of thousands of Pacific islanders. But what happens when it becomes necessary to move hundreds of millions of people living along the coast of Bangladesh and south Asia? On the other hand, there could be good news: Wall Street in Manhattan might begin flooding soon, too.