South Pacific Islands Slip Beneath the Waves

When Hollywood schlockbuster The Day After Tomorrow hit video stores this week, the inhabitants of the tiny Polynesian paradise of Tuvalu must have raised a world-weary eyebrow.

As First World viewers lapped up the sci-fi fantasy of New York succumbing to the sudden wrath of global warming, Tuvaluans stood knee-deep in water beneath swaying coconut palms on their sinking island home and wondered when the world was going to respond to their cries for help.

Over recent decades, the remote Pacific nation--a series of nine low-lying coral atolls--has been beset by frequent floods, cyclones, and rising sea levels. Tuvalu's 10,500 inhabitants have already begun the dreaded process of evacuating to New Zealand, which has agreed to accept 75 Tuvaluans per year as environmental refugees.

Due to the effects of global warming--largely caused by the greenhouse-gas emissions from industrialized countries--Tuvalu has been given 50 years before it sinks beneath the waves. Although the melting of glaciers and icecaps is partly responsible for the rise in sea level, it is also due to the warming of the seawater, which expands when heated.

And it isn't alone. Other low-lying island nations are at the frontline of climate change. Kiribati, the Cook Islands, Palau, Vanuatu, Tonga, French Polynesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Tokelau, and the Republic of Maldives are all gearing up for a Noah's Flood. For intrepid travellers, these are the countries to visit before they slip off the map for good.

Maldives--an exclusive honeymoon destination in the Indian Ocean--is so concerned about rising sea levels that it has built a 10-square-kilometre artificial island called Hulhumale 20 minutes' boat ride from the capital, Male, with the intention of relocating 150,000 of its 339,000 people there. Hulhumale sits atop an underwater reef and is two metres above sea level, twice the nation's average height and just beyond the reach of the United Nations' predicted one-metre rise in sea levels over the next century.

Over in Hawaii, things aren't all cool breezes over the mountaintops either. For the past 20 years, the six-hectare Whale-Skate Island in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands has been "sinking". Earlier this year the Hawaiians gazed out into the Pacific and realized this home to nesting seabirds, seals, turtles, and exotic vegetation had vanished altogether.

The situation is even more surreal on Kiribati, where the 3,000-year-old Micronesian culture still revolves around a traditional, subsistence lifestyle. In the past 25 years, sea levels have been ascending by an extraordinary 3.3 millimetres per year. Ancient coastal gravestones and concrete houses have been swept into the ocean, and two uninhabited islands have been completely swallowed. The locals joke about clambering to the top of the coconut palms to escape the encroaching sea.

Meanwhile, back on Tuvalu--a former British colony known as the Ellice Islands--many of the deeply Christian inhabitants are resisting evacuation, citing God's promise never to flood the earth again. Indeed, things looked momentarily up for Tuvalu in 1998 when a bunch of U.S. dot-com whizzes bought the country's Internet domain address (.tv) to sell to television executives. The sale generated enough money for Tuvalu to join the United Nations and start lobbying America and Australia to sign the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change.

But neither President George W. Bush nor Prime Minister John Howard proved sympathetic to Tuvalu's plight, and while the isolated nation once endured three severe storms per decade, it now gets pummelled by an average of eight. Last year it experienced the highest tides in living memory. At 3.2 metres, the water covered most of the country (its highest point is 4.6 metres). The telecommunications system died, seawater bubbled up through the ground and children began using their front steps as diving platforms.

For impoverished island countries with economies that are based on tourism and agriculture, global warming is proving to be the death knell. Rising sea temperatures are killing coral reefs, with 1998's El Niño effect causing mass coral bleaching in Fiji, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, and Palau. As much as 15 percent of Fiji's reefs are now reported to be dead. Mosquito-borne diseases are also thriving in the humid conditions and tourists are starting to get cold feet. To top it off, rising tides are spilling inland, leaving salty residues that are contaminating fresh water and killing crops.

As the industrialized world debates the finer points of climate change, many small island nations are preparing to undergo the world's greatest disappearing act. Unless worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions are drastically reduced, the next generation of travellers might just be viewing these countries like the remnants of a real-life Atlantis: through a glass-bottom boat or with the aid of scuba gear.


What's there? Twenty-six square kilometres of paradise with aquamarine lagoons and a laidback lifestyle that is inextricably bound to the ocean.

Highest point above sea level: 4.6 metres.

Why it's screwed: high tides, frequent storms, rising sea levels, crop destruction, and coastal erosion.

The plan: to sue the United States and Australia in the International Court of Justice for their contributions to global warming, as well as oil and fuel companies such as BP, Chevron, and Exxon/Mobil.

Getting there: Air Fiji (


What's there? Three hundred square kilometres of tropical Robinson Crusoe islands ringed by warm white sand, crystal-clear water, and coral reefs.

Highest point: 2.4 metres.

Why it's screwed: coral bleaching, rising sea levels, and erosion.

The plan: relocating the population to the artificial island of Hulhumale, a modern-day Noah's ark.

Getting there: Singapore Airlines (, Malaysian Airlines (, Qatar Airways (, and more.


What's there? Idyllic lagoons, no cars, and few tourists spread over 12 square kilometres.

Highest point: five metres

Why it's screwed: battered by severe storms, it could be uninhabitable by the end of the century. If you are quick, you could visit the Polynesian island in the gap between it gaining independence from New Zealand and it sinking.

The plan: Tokelauans hope New Zealand will bail them out, but New Zealand wants to rid itself of the colony and make it an independent state.

Getting there: a 37-hour boat trip from Samoa.


What's there? Friendly Micronesians, few tourists, and scuba diving on wrecks. The country's 30 atolls and 1,152 islets include the former U.S. nuclear test sites of Bikini and Enewetak.

Highest point: 10 metres.

Why it's screwed: having bounced back from atomic fallout, it now suffers frequent storms, erosion, rising sea levels, and dying reefs.

The plan: Evacuation. In the meantime, locals are building a seawall made from garbage imported from the U.S. to help fend off erosion.

Getting there: Continental Micronesia ( and Air Marshall Islands (


What's there? Eight tropical islands harbouring some of the most spectacular underwater landscapes in the world.

Highest point: 242 metres.

Why it's screwed: soaring sea temperatures have bleached 80 percent of its coral.

The plan: Palau's president hopes "the international community will come to its senses" and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Getting there: Continental Airlines, Far Eastern Air Transport (

THE LOWDOWN ON GLOBAL WARMING Since industrialization, the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and other human activities have resulted in an increase in greenhouse-gas emissions. These gases, which include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, form a heat-trapping blanket around the earth. The heating of the earth leads to melting glaciers, the thermal expansion of the ocean, resultant rising sea levels, droughts, floods, and violent storms. Since industrialization, the world's temperature has increased by an average of 0.6 º C, but the atmosphere in the southwest Pacific has warmed by about 1 °C since 1920, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Scientists and environmentalists say that any increase above 1 º C is dangerous for life on Earth.