Photograph by Josh Haner, New York Times/Redux
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An overhead view of Ejit in the Marshall Islands, center, where rising sea levels are already an inescapable part of daily life.

Photograph by Josh Haner, New York Times/Redux

Rising seas give island nation a stark choice: relocate or elevate

Climate change means the low-lying Marshall Islands must consider drastic measures, including building new artificial islands.

The navigational prowess of Marshall Islanders is legendary. For thousands of years, Marshallese have embraced their watery environment, building a culture on more than 1,200 islands scattered across 750,000 square miles of ocean.

But powerful tropical cyclones, damaged reefs and fisheries, worsening droughts, and sea-level rise threaten the coral reef atolls of this large ocean state, forcing the Marshallese to navigate a new reality.

In a moment of reckoning, Marshall Islanders face a stark choice: relocate or elevate. One idea being considered is the construction of a new island or raising an existing one.

With 600 billion tons of melting ice flowing into oceans that are absorbing heat twice as fast as 18 years ago, the Marshallese will need to move fast.

A report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October highlighted different projected outcomes from a temperature rise of 1.5°C versus 2°C.

In the report, small-island developing states are identified as being at disproportionately higher risk of adverse consequences of global warming. Among them, four atoll nations: Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Maldives, and the Marshall Islands, are at greatest risk.

According to IPCC statistics, global temperatures could exceed a 3°C above pre-industrial temperature increase by 2100 with global-mean sea level rise projected between one and four feet or higher. Absent extraordinary measures, climate change could render the Marshall Islands uninhabitable.

In July, speaking at a climate change conference on Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands, University of Hawaii climate scientist Chip Fletcher discussed possible adaptation measures.

When Fletcher presented a map depicting Majuro flooded under three feet of water, there was an audible gasp in the room. For climate activists in the Pacific, “1.5 to stay alive,” has been the mantra of survival.

“We’re going to miss 1.5°C,” Fletcher told his audience, but added, “there’s something we can do about it.”

Citing examples of land reclamation in the Maldives, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere, Fletcher says dredging a shallow area of Majuro lagoon may be one option for building an island high enough to be secure.

“Dredging and reclaiming land, there’s nothing new about that. There’s not some magic technology. It’s just really expensive,” Fletcher says. “The other element is that it’s environmentally damaging.” And while the environmental costs would be high, Fletcher says, “I would rather destroy some reef than see an entire culture go extinct.” (Learn more about rising seas.)

The urgency has always been there

Mark Stege, a climate consultant and Maloelap atoll councilman who has been working on climate adaptation projects since 2010, notes people have been engineering the Marshall Islands for decades, going back to dredging by the U.S. military to fill in the mejje, or reef flats between islands.

He stresses the importance of community-based resource management and environmental monitoring. Only reluctantly does he concede dredging in Majuro lagoon is on a very short list of viable options.

“I firmly believe that island building is going to have to happen,” Stege says. “I’ve tried to say it in a nicer way, but it’s tough to say that publicly.” Before that can happen, he says extensive survey work must be conducted to determine suitable sites for possible elevation work.

No matter what is decided, Stege argues it’s imperative for Marshallese to be at the center of the work—not on the sidelines of a foreign-led effort.

The sense of urgency is nothing new. “I think that the urgency has always been there with other important issues—health issues related to the nuclear weapons testing legacy, building educational capacity, unemployment, and climate change.”

“If we’re going to raise islands,” he says, “we should also raise the well-being of the people living on those islands.”

Mitigation and adaptation

Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine told National Geographic that her country’s focus has been on climate change mitigation but says there is a need for a greater emphasis on adaptation, including the consideration of building higher ground.

First, public consultation must take place. Local governments, iroij or chiefs, clan heads, and other traditional leaders all need to be part of the conversation, she says.

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People rebuild a sea w​all on Ejit to try to hold back rising water.

“For considerations, people would need to think whether we should just let our islands go and everybody move out or having a certain place designated and built upon,” Heine says.

Currently Heine’s administration is conducting preliminary discussions and preparing to formulate a National Adaptation Plan.

Building an island high enough to provide safe refuge would be very expensive, and the president says working with partner nations like the U.S., Taiwan and Japan will be critical. But she adds, “only if the Marshallese people are completely on board with such an idea, then we can… seek assistance from outside.”

The United States, which conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958, has negotiated a Compact of Free Association that allows some 28,000 Marshallese to live and work in the U.S. The U.S. also operates a multi-billion dollar missile testing installation at Kwajalein atoll, which is highly vulnerable to climate change impacts.

“I think it’s very clear that if you’re a Marshallese, you would want to make sure that the culture and the place and the identity doesn’t disappear,” Heine says. Complete outbound migration and the abandonment of the islands, she says, would have profoundly detrimental impacts on the preservation of Marshallese culture and territorial and political sovereignty.

For centuries, Marshall Islanders have been tied to their ancestral lands through families and clans. Forced relocation from one island to another resulting from nuclear testing led to urbanization and a disruption of the traditional land tenure system.

If climate change demands the Marshallese elevate land and consolidate the resident population of 55,000 people, ancestral land ties will be further disrupted.

“We don’t just select to live on certain islands,” Heine says. “Everybody lives in their island because that’s where they belong to. Moving from one island to another is not a straight move. It’s not just so simple.”

Ben Graham, chief secretary and advisor to the president, notes that in a country where the government owns less than one percent of the land, people’s identities are tied to specific land parcels. (See what the world would look like if all the ice melted.)

A ticking clock

Graham points to adaptation efforts already underway—strengthening water and food security, climate-proofing infrastructure, fortifying shorelines, and other coastal protections. He calls building a new island the “ultimate last defense.”

Any resources that would be diverted to build an island, Graham says, will be done “to keep our heads above water.”

Coastal flooding has increased in the Marshall Islands and is expected to worsen. With limited time, consultations, studies, and adaptation measures need to accelerate before occasional nuisance flooding becomes disruptive to island life.

In the basketball-loving Marshall Islands, Graham uses an apt analogy: “It sort of puts a shot clock on our existence,” he says. “It’s not a 30-second shot clock, but a 30-year shot clock.”