By Andrew Muse-Fisher
Senior Editor

With the United Nations Conference on Climate Change only a month away, countries the world over are preparing to discuss and hopefully find solutions to a variety of climate change issues. For some countries such as the island nations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the issues hit a lot closer to home. With sea levels rising worldwide as a result of global warming, island nations such as the Maldives and Tuvalu are calling for immediate action to mitigate the threat of rising seas, but their voice may not be enough; based on current warming and melting trends, the science behind rising sea level paints a grim picture for these low lying countries.

Rising sea level as a result of global warming is not a new phenomenon. Between 1901 and 2010, mean sea level rose by about 19 centimeters. Most if not all of this change is the result of melting land ice. Glaciers and ice sheets such as the ones that cover Greenland and Antarctica are melting at a drastic rate due to global warming and the greenhouse effect. This in turn is linked to the emissions of greenhouse gases since the beginning of the industrial revolution.[1] Though global warming presents a wide range of threats to the earth and its inhabitants, sea level rise threatens entire countries situated at low elevations, hinting at a future immigration crisis as island populations flee to less at risk nations. However, the true extent of this threat is hard to accurately predict. One study that examines sea level rise using paleoclimate data applies its findings to modern times to determine that sea level could rise by between five to nine meters if current emission trends keep up and cause the two major ice sheets to melt.[2] According to estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea level will rise by around 0.81 meters in the next century. For countries like Tuvalu and the Maldives, which have an average elevation of two meters and one meter, respectively, the next century will indeed see atolls and island shores progressively swallowed into the ocean.[3]

These findings point to a grave future for populations at low elevations, but keep in mind that they were found using current trends and projections. The most straightforward solution would be a global effort to reduce emissions to prevent the atmosphere from getting warm enough to melt a bulk of the world’s land ice. This may be straightforward, but it is by no means an easy solution. This would entail massive reductions in emissions, which in turn calls for lifestyle changes. However, to do so would have limitless positive externalities for countries of at all elevations, not just reef based countries. At the other extreme end of the spectrum, these island nations can prepare for the worst and arrange to resettle in other countries. However, this poses a high cost and is a process that could take decades depending on how quickly those that relocate are able to assimilate into an adopted culture. Both of these solutions present an enormous challenge, but the former creates the most good for more people, at least in the long term. However, due to the demanding nature of these solutions, it is more likely that a middle of the road solution will be implemented. Sea level will continue to rise, but by how much depends on the efforts of individuals and the global community alike. And as it rises the Maldives, Tuvalu and other island nations will have to work against the rising tides or find a new home. The best hope for these nations to raise their voice to compel world into action comes at the end of November when the UN General Assembly will demonstrate whether the global community is ready to take serious steps towards addressing climate change or if it will show its complacency to watch the oceans rise.

Photo by Nattu

1. Henson, Robert, and Robert Henson. “Oceans: A Problem on the Rise.”The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 2014. N. pag. Print.

2. Hansen, J., et al. “Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise And Superstorms: Evidence from Paleoclimate Data, Climate Modeling, and Modern Observations That 2 °C Global Warming Is Highly Dangerous.” Atmospheric Chemistry & Physics Discussions 15.15 (2015): 20059-20179. Environment Complete. Web.

3. Henson, Robert, and Robert Henson. “Oceans: A Problem on the Rise.”The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 2014. N. pag. Print.

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