Kevin Drum linked to this story about the evacuation of the Carteret Islands, a tiny atoll in the South Pacific. The sea levels have been rising, toppling trees and swallowing up the coastline. Salt water bubbles up from what were once the gardens where the islanders used to grow food. Every so often, king tides sweep across the islands; one recently cut one of them in two. Now, they’re leaving:

“This morning I stood on black volcanic sand, pressed up right against the jungle, and watched a small white boat powered by a single outboard engine run in against the shore. On board were five men from the Islands, the fathers of five families, who have come to finish building houses and gardens already begun in a cleared patch of jungle at Tinputz, on the east coast of Bougainville. When these homes are ready the five will return to the Carterets, to fetch their wives and children back. Life, they hope, will be better for them here. On the Carterets, king tides have washed away their crops and rising sea levels poisoned those that remain with salt. The people have been forced to move.

The men climbed silently from the boat and into the shallows. They splashed towards us, carrying almost nothing. From beside me, others who had come to meet them walked out quietly in welcome. The air was still, both sad and happy, which seemed to suit the moment. That single boat carrying these five men is the first wave in what is, as far as I can tell, the world’s first official evacuation of an entire people because of climate change. Some say they will be ready to bring their families here next month when the houses are completed. Others that it will be June, when the first crop of sweet potatoes will be ready to feed them.”

Dan Box, who wrote that, is blogging the evacuation, though he seems to have gone silent now that he’s on the (electricity- and internet-free) islands. The islanders have set up an NGO to help with the relocation; if I can find out how to contribute, I will update accordingly. Here’s a good video report on the Carterets; it gives you a sense of what life is like there, and of the beauty of the place:

While the Carterets are a small and remote island community, the inhabitants are moving to Bougainville, which is a lot bigger, and has problems unknown to the Carterets: mining operations and attendant social, economic, and environmental issues, which led to a civil war that only concluded a few years back. It will be a huge adjustment, but it beats starving to death and watching your home gradually swallowed by the ocean.


Preemptive note: in reading up on this, I noticed that articles on the Carterets seem to attract comments about how this is not due to global warming, but to the islands sinking. I have no idea whether the islands are sinking or not; offhand, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be. But that would not show that global warming did not also contribute to what’s happening: sea levels are rising, the main cause of recent sea level rise is climate change (pdf), and sea levels are rising particularly in the region where the Carterets are found:

“In a landmark series of reports released this year, the UN climate-science network reported that seas rose by a global average of about 0.12 inch (0.3 centimeter) annually from 1993 to 2003, compared to an average of about 0.08 inch (0.2 centimeter) annually between 1961 and 2003.

A 2006 study by Australian oceanographers found the rise was much higher — almost an inch (2.5 centimeters) every year — in parts of the western Pacific and Indian oceans.”

It would be odd if the Carterets were exempted from the general rise in sea levels. If they aren’t, then the question whether the islands are sinking or not would only tell us whether climate change is the sole cause of the islanders’ problems, or one of several.

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