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Disappearing islands

By Mark Hayes - posted Friday, 16 February 2007

In the tsunami of Australian coverage following the release of the latest scientific report on global warming, the Pacific has all but completely been overlooked.

The scientifically dense Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (PDF 2.2MB) - actually a summary of the best available science on global warming for policy makers - is the first of a series of three reports due for release during 2007. 

The next IPCC Report, due for release in early April, 2007, will focus on regional impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, and it's here that more attention will be paid to the Pacific.


But it's in the Pacific that many of the effects of global warming have been experienced for many years. Sea level rise threatens the very existence of countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu.

"We should have acted a long time ago, and I think that any action that takes place now is dealing with the damage, not stopping the disaster," Kiribati President, Anote Tong, said in Tokyo just before the IPCC Report was released.

"It's just like any disaster, like a tsunami in Aceh, but it takes longer to happen. And because it takes longer, it doesn't seem to attract the same degree of attention."

Pacific Islanders are gravely worried for their and their children's futures, and for the future of their homes. They already experience, and endure, the effects of global warming daily.

Successive Tuvaluan governments, since at least 1997, have warned about the effects of global warming on their low lying, remote, and scattered island country, and successive Tuvaluan prime ministers have described global warming as “creeping terrorism” being done to them by the polluting, developed world.

For Pacific atoll countries, like Kiribati, and Tuvalu to the south, the major looming effect of global warming is sea level rise. But this isn't the only effect of global warming.


On the boomerang shaped 12km-long capital atoll of the nine-atoll country of Tuvalu, Funafuti, the highest point of land is about 3.7m above mean high tide. My Tuvaluan friends laughed loudly when, as I stood on the nondescript surveyor's concrete circle tucked away on a side road near the hospital on central Funafuti, I declared, "I've climbed Mt Funafuti!"

Late on Tuesday afternoon, February 28, 2006, Funafuti recorded its highest ever high tide, at just over 3.48m. As the tide peaked, I was wading, knee deep, along a flooded road just south of Funafuti Airport, to talk to worried locals who'd never seen extreme high tide seepage at that part of the atoll. Only luck, and benign weather during the February, 2006, extreme high tide week, prevented their houses from being flooded.

The difference between the top of “Mt Funafuti” and 3.48 metres is less than the distance between my knees and the soles of my sandals.

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This is a longer version of an article originally published in New Matilda on February 7, 2007.
Dr Mark Hayes has travelled to Tuvalu and Funafuti Atoll three times, to work with Radio Tuvalu's journalists and report on the effects of global warming. He remains in close contact with his many Tuvaluan friends, and is researching the doing of journalism in and on the country.  

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About the Author

Dr Mark Hayes is a lecturer in the journalism program at the University of Queensland where he specialises in Pacific media and journalism contexts and practices. He still wishes he was back in Suva teaching journalism at the University of the South Pacific.

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