First, their fathers noticed the palm trees that seemed to be inching toward
the water's edge and the fire pit that vanished beneath the tides.
Later, researchers came, scribbled measurements and offered a grim diagnosis:
The sea is coming.
There is not a power line or factory or air conditioner within a day's walk of
this village of 400 people in the southwest Pacific, but these subsistence
fishermen are no strangers to the power of industrialization and climate change.
"There used to be two rows of houses," said Mickey Tarabi, a wood carver in his
50s, nodding toward the crystal blue sea. "The first one has been moved, and the
second one will be gone soon."
Far over the horizon from the most advanced nations, scientists are measuring
the effects of global warming in the world's least-industrialized corners. As
the World Bank puts it, 15 percent of the world's population lives in
high-income countries but releases "more than 75% of the carbon dioxide and
other greenhouse gases that are altering the Earth's climate."
If anyone still had doubts, the Bush administration's Climate Change Science
Program in May found "clear evidence of human influences on the climate system,"
echoing the world's leading science organizations on the causes of global
That climate change raises sea levels by heating the oceans, causing them to
expand, and by accelerating the melting of glaciers and ice sheets, which
funnels fresh water into the seas.
By the middle of this century, smokestacks, tailpipes and other sources are on
pace to raise the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by about 50
percent. In turn, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that
sea levels will rise about 1 1/2 feet, or as much as 3 feet, by century's end.
That doesn't sound like much until you visit a place like this--or Sri Lanka or
coastal Louisiana -- where communities are thriving on vulnerable shorelines. In
Bangladesh, more than 10 million people live within 3 feet of sea level.
Overall, the World Bank predicts that rising sea levels "could displace tens of
millions of people living in low-lying areas" around the world.
Worries about the next century
"Sea-level rise isn't going to go away," said John Hunter, an oceanographer who
studies sea levels at the University of Tasmania in Australia. "Our main worry
is not what has happened in the past 30 or 40 years, but what will happen in the
In a broad new study supported by the Australian government, Hunter and a team
of researchers examined decades of measurements of the Pacific and Indian
Oceans, concluding that natural fluctuations could not explain the rise. "The
analysis clearly indicates that sea level in this region is rising," they wrote.
That is little surprise to Papua New Guinea, a rugged island nation about the
size of California, east of Indonesia. The 5.7 million people in PNG, as it is
known, have particular interest in their natural surroundings because 85 percent
subsist on what they grow, fish or hunt.
Here, rising waters are swamping coastal villages and small islands. Salt water
is inundating coastal farms, destroying vital crops and orchards. Among the
hardest hit areas are the Carteret Islands, where citizens have tried and failed
to hold back rising waters. In April, a minister who visited the area returned
to report that islanders were surviving on only coconuts and fish after relief
supplies ran out.
`You eventually get drowned'
Professor Hugh Davies of the University of Papua New Guinea calculates that if
the estimate holds true, a rise of 50 centimeters to 100 centimeters would be
enough to affect all of PNG's coastal plains and swamplands.
"If you are on one of these islands," Hunter said, "you will be continually
swamped by water-laden sand, and if you don't clear it up, you eventually get
PNG has a plan, of sorts. While the country might seem to have little role in
reducing carbon emissions--it is better known for forests than factories--its
leaders see a way to take part in global efforts to control greenhouse gases.
In international climate talks, PNG and eight other rain forest countries have
proposed that nations that reduce deforestation should be eligible to earn and
sell "carbon credits." A carbon credit, which represents a ton of carbon
absorbed from the atmosphere or prevented from burning, can be traded in
international markets under terms set by the Kyoto Protocol--meaning, in theory,
a farmer could make more money from saving his forest than razing it. Current
rules allow countries to earn credits for planting new trees but not for
protecting existing ones.
"You want us to go down the path to sustainable forest management. Now give us
the right incentive to do this," said Gunther Joku, a senior policy planner at
PNG's Department of Environment and Conservation.
Whatever happens, it will probably be too late for Malasiga. The village sits on
a small, flat peninsula jutting into the Solomon Sea. Drying turtle shells
dangle in the wind, and children shinny up palm trees for coconuts.
Some villagers have fled for higher ground, but most have not. They seem to know
that when the history of the village is finally written, nobody will say they
weren't warned. Yet they struggle to recognize the problems before them.
"I grew up here," said Aaron Mokedu, who is preparing to move the single-room
thatched-roof home he shares with his wife and two sons. "But now the water
comes up too far. It's not like before."
Elders first noticed the rising water in 1982. It eroded the sand and bared the
rocks beneath. Then it tugged down the palm trees beside the ocean's edge.
Eventually it began lapping at the stilts that hold up their thin-walled homes.
About five years ago, the highest tides swamped the village entirely for the
first time anyone could recall.
Holding back rising seas
A world away, other places are trying to hold back rising seas as well. A Dutch
developer is selling "amphibious homes" built on pontoons. The German island of
Sylt is reportedly coating its rocky shores with a polyurethane that it hopes
will dampen erosion caused by waves and hurricanes.
Here in Malasiga, they have a slightly lower-tech strategy: reclaiming land on
the leeward side of the peninsula, one handful of dirt at a time.
"When we sweep up, we put all the leaves and coconut shells and sand over here,"
Tarabi, the wood carver, said, studying the fragile brown sliver of land they
had filled in behind their homes. He shrugged.
"In 1997, some graduate students came and told us this was going to happen," he
said, "And now it has happened."