Rising sea levels worldwide are just one of many environmental consequences of climate change, and they’re becoming a significant pressure for low-lying communities. These locales are on the front lines of climate change, experiencing rising sea levels firsthand and making radical changes in their lives, like relocating to a new country, as a result.
Some people refer to those forced out of their homelands as climate refugees or environmental refugees, positioning them as victims of climate change. Relocation of this nature is not without serious ramifications and consequences, including increased population pressures in already crowded nations, marginalization of native people and complex political issues.
1. The Maldives
14 islands in this Indian Ocean country have already been abandoned due to erosion. Scientists predict the Maldives may be the first nation in the world lost to climate change, and the President, along with other personnel, are searching for a new home for the country’s 350,000 residents as they run out of high ground to flee to. These low-lying islands, like MalÚ (above) are likely to be swamped if sea levels get much higher.
Sri Lanka and India are both potential new homes for the residents of the Maldives, because they’re close by and they share a number of cultural similarities. Another possibility is Australia, with large amounts of ground and a potentially better climate.
11,000 people call this Polynesian archipelago “home,” ábut the sea is eating away at its borders, presenting a quandary for islanders who soon may find themselves without an island. The entire nation covers just ten square miles about four inches above sea level, making it tiny on a global scale, but no less important. And Tuvalu’s situation is raising some important questions when it comes to international law, namely: when your country no longer physically exists, what happens to you? Are you stateless? Is your nation virtual? How do you maintain your national identity?
Many Tuvaluans are relocating to New Zealand, thanks to its proximity.
In Alaska, most indigenous communities are on the coast, so residents can access fishing and hunting. That spells bad news when sea levels are rising and taking the coast with them. This small community has become the subject of international headlines as it becomes one of the first places in the U.S. erased by climate change. Most of the 350 residents are Yupik Alaska Natives with deep ties to the land, which makes relocation no simple matter, even if it was affordable — estimates put the cost at around $130 million.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains it’s not possible to conserve Newtok, which means the residents need to make a decision about where, and how, to relocate soon. Members of the community, however, are torn between ties to the land, financial considerations and concerns that any site they choose may come with problems of its own.
32 coral atolls and one raised limestone island sprawled across two million miles of the Central Pacific make up the nation of Kiribati. The average height above sea level is just six feet, with a shrinking freshwater supply to complicate matters even further. Residents experience a high poverty rate and the myriad problems that come with it, like shockingly high infant mortality, low education and limited economic power when it comes to relocating or advocating for other solutions. 100,000 residents struggle to survive on these shrinking islands, wondering how long their island home will continue to exist, and where they will go from here.
Migration with dignity to neighboring Australia may be the best option for many as Kiribati slips beneath the waves.
18% of the daily energy needs of the United States are supported by this key Louisiana port. It might not be home to a native population with a long-established history, but it does highlight the national security ramifications of climate change and vanishing ground, because the area around the port slowly disappears under rising seas, it’s less able to function. And that’s not good for keeping up a steady supply of oil products to ensure stable prices and supplies.
The government is adapting to the risks of increased flooding with a variety of approaches including raised roadways and berms in an attempt to keep Port Fourchon operational, but the site bears close watching as an example of a locale where climate change and daily business directly clash.
Russian researchers in the Arctic had an unpleasant surprise this year when the ice floe they were using as a research station started breaking up under them. Despite a long history of safely using ice floes for this very purpose, the Russian government had finally met its match with climate change, and entered a race against time to dispatch icebreakers to rescue the researchers and recover as much equipment as possible. The rapid melting rate of Arctic sea ice may make this kind of research station obsolete — and, of course, it’s those very same melting ice floes that are contributing to the rising sea levels around the globe.
Photo credit: Jim Trodel