Indigenous Pacific Islanders in the Solomon Islands are watching their homes disappear into the ocean as climate change raises the sea level and the natural trade wind cycle physically pushes the water against their shores.
Here in North America, governments have yet to engage the problem on a serious scale as the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Indians in the Mississippi Delta watches their homes fall into the Gulf of Mexico. It will be too late to act when the expensive real estate of Manhattan Island or Miami is facing a similar fate.
Simon Albert of the University of Queensland told New Scientist, “All the projections show that in the second half of the century, the rest of the globe will reach the rate of sea level rise that the Solomon Islands is currently experiencing.”
The rate of sea level rise is measured in millimeters per year. It is accelerating, but at the current rate five of the islands in the Solomon chain have disappeared entirely since 1947, and six others have shrunk between 20 and 62 percent.
The sunken islands — Kakatina, Kale, Rapita, Rehana and Zollies — were wildlife habitat, but the only human use was by fishers. The six currently falling into the Pacific will hit humans a bit more directly. On the most populated, Nuambu, 11 families have lost their homes since 2011. Nuambu is still home to 25 indigenous families.
Albert and his four colleagues, writing in the International Business Times, detailed how they determined the current land disappearances are not part of a normal variation in sea level:
We studied the coastlines of 33 reef islands using aerial and satellite imagery from 1947–2015. This information was integrated with local traditional knowledge, radiocarbon dating of trees, sea level records, and wave models.
Because the Solomon Islands government—unlike the U.S. government—respects the customary land tenure they call “native title” and the U.S. calls “aboriginal title,” the indigenous people have been able to relocate whole villages to higher ground.
The capital of Choiseul Province, Taro, is expected to become the first provincial capital in the world to relocate because of sea level rise.
The original study on the islands disappearing was published in Environmental Research Letters. Some of the questions were addressed by the common sense but rare method of asking the indigenous people who live in the Solomons. Oral traditions helped separate natural cycles from climate change and told how long two villages relocated to the interior had been on the coast. The answer from the people who lived there was about 80 years.
The people losing their homes now are called Pacific Islanders, but if the settlers don’t pay attention and act on climate change, history will call these indigenous people the canaries in the coalmine.