Andreas Späth

No more tropical island paradise

2016-04-18 07:32

Andreas Wilson-Späth

I’ve recently written about sea level rise and the bad news that keeps emerging from research done in both the northern and southern polar regions where the planet’s ice caps appear to be melting at an increasing pace.

If, like me, you live in a coastal city, you might well have been a little perturbed by the prospect of the sea encroaching on your home more rapidly than previously predicted, but as any noticeable consequences are still relatively far off in the future, you, like me, are probably not all that worried about the situation.

Things are very different for those people who inhabit small, low-lying islands in many parts of the world’s oceans. For them, the impacts of climate change are already very real right now as the land on which they live is not only being inundated, but also drying up – an actual case of “water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”.

A couple of years ago, the plight of these people was brought to international attention by the outstanding documentary film The Island President, which tells the story of Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives. In 2009, he famously held an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight the threat of rising sea level to his country. He has since been deposed by a de facto coup d’état, charged with crimes under anti-terrorist legislation and imprisoned.

An article published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change last week shows that rising sea level isn’t the only crisis faced by small island nations by emphasising the fragile state of their freshwater resources. Access to safe drinking water and sanitation is already relatively restricted on many of the islands as a result of the limited geographical extent of most of their catchment areas and growing human populations.

The models developed by the authors of the paper forecast “increasing aridity” on more than 73% of the 80 island groups that they investigated, affecting a total of around 16 million people by the middle of this century. Previous estimates were substantially lower at around 50%.

Some islands may, in fact, receive more rainfall as the climate changes in years to come, but the rate of evaporation is predicted to increase disproportionately as the atmosphere heats up. As a result, freshwater is going to become increasingly scarce on many islands.

According to the paper’s lead author Kris Karnauskas, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, “islands are already dealing with sea level rise, but this shows that any rainwater they have is also vulnerable. The atmosphere is getting thirstier, and would like more of that freshwater back”.

These warnings should give thought to those of us who think they are relatively safely ensconced on higher ground. Our activities – burning fossil fuels and spilling other greenhouse gasses into the air – are going to be responsible for simultaneously desiccating and flooding countries in the far-away reaches of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, destroying tropical island paradises and lives in the process.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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