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February 2007

Guest Column
Climate Change and Islands: Are Scientists Serving Society?


Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman.

One of the biggest dangers of global warming is sea level rise. As glaciers and ice sheets melt, they add to theamount of water in the ocean. In addition, as the ocean absorbs heat from rising global temperatures, it swells as a result of thermal expansion, the tendency of matter to increase in volume when heated.

Between 1870 and 2004, sea levels rose by about 20 centimeters (8 inches), with accelerated rates during the final 50 years of that period. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment released earlier this month predicts seas to rise 18-58 cm (7-23 in) by 2100; other recent research suggests a greater rise, up to 88 cm (35 in).

In late December 2006, rising seas did something unprecedented when they entirely washed away an inhabited island. The island, Lohachara, was situated in India’s Sundarbans, a mangrove delta where the Ganges River empties into the Bay of Bengal. It was home to 10,000 people who evacuated before the sea swallowed up their home.

And on the other sides of the world, in Alaska and the South Pacific, islanders have already moved farther inland or are preparing to abandon their islands altogether in the face of rising seas and erosion.

Ilan Kelman, an ASP postdoc in SERE’s Center for Capacity Building, researches vulnerability, risk, and disasters, with a special emphasis on islands and coastal areas. As a guest columnist for this issue of Staff Notes Monthly, he shares his thoughts about the role of atmospheric scientists within the context of islands and climate change.

More on Ilan’s work.

Islands are romantic, mysterious, dazzling, tranquil, and exquisite. Or so the myths tell us. For me, reality often matches myth. The isolation and marginalization of islands betrays a beauty and allure which has led me to focus much of my research on island sustainability, particularly related to reducing vulnerability to atmospheric extremes.

Despite the inherent vulnerabilities of small and isolated populations, islands also inspire through the solutions that they provide to the rest of the world. Islands yield tight kinship networks and a strong sense of community, which help their inhabitants tackle challenges rapidly and cohesively. Rather than traditional economies of scale, diseconomies of scale—that is, economic disadvantages to increasing the scale of production—and economies of smaller scales are advantageous for island livelihoods. Traditional island knowledge, which is vanishing amidst global cultural homogeneity, still provides adept skills for adjusting to sudden events and long-term trends.


UCAR photographer Carlye Calvin shot this photo of a small island off the coast of Antigua during a 2005 field project.

Climate change, though, could pose difficulties beyond islanders’ abilities to cope. Economic and population centers of many islands and island groups are being impacted through extreme weather events plus longer-term creeping environmental changes. Sea-level rise is not the only scenario that could cause island destruction. Other possibilities include devastating cyclones (comparable to Cyclone Bebe, which inundated Tuvalu in 1972, and Cyclone Heta, which flattened Niue’s infrastructure in 2004), changes in ocean currents, depleted fisheries, and ocean acidification. The potential for island abandonment is being forced onto the international scientific, development, and sustainability agendas.

The movements have already started. In July 2004, the international media reported the world’s first climate change refugees from the island village of Shishmaref, Alaska, who moved inland due to sea-level rise and thawing permafrost. Then, in December 2005, the international media again reported the world’s first climate change refugees, but this time from the Lateu settlement in Vanuatu, an island chain in the South Pacific. These islanders also moved inland due to sea-level rise plus more frequent flooding. The proliferation of “firsts” suggests that we must give more scientific input into these discussions, policies, and actions.

Recent precedents exist for island evacuations, mainly from volcanic eruptions, and the cases have been extensively studied. In most examples, long-term relocation was unsuccessful because the islanders chose to return, even when the volcano continued menacing. That could be considered a positive long-term result because the island society remained intact and responded to the challenge even though the islanders were living in a possible danger zone. After all, everywhere on Earth could be considered a possible danger zone, with the potential for flash floods in Boulder, earthquakes in Boston, and hurricanes in New York or Washington, D.C. If people wish to remain in the face of such threats, fully understanding the consequences, should they be forced to leave their homes and identities?

How should atmospheric scientists contribute to a situation in which islanders wish to stay on their climate change–affected island until they must run or die? Should we actively promote debate on possible impacts, given our and their knowledge of weather and climate? Or should we stay with physical science and let others—social scientists, development agencies, politicians, and more—lead the way? What would the social impact be, on islanders and on scientists, from formally investigating, publicizing, and being operationally involved in island abandonment decisions?

Physical scientists potentially have an immense amount to contribute to these ethical and policy debates, from ensuring that correct scientific information is available and used to explaining what is not known and why that is not known. They can also provide a scientifically rational perspective alongside other equally important views, and translate technical terms into easily understood language.

Naturally, care is essential when we become involved. For example, terming the issue “abandonment” or “permanent evacuation” has more emotive connotations than “relocation” and “permanent departure.” Language is powerful, with our choice of words translated from and translated to as important as the medium and manner of communication—especially considering that some languages are inherently more emotive than others and that some languages might not be able to express the full range of connotations from the various phrases.

As scientists, we must always consider the interpretation and application of our work. We should also consider our responsibility to society in order to ensure that our science is applied properly. •Ilan Kelman

On the Web

More on Ilan’s work.

In this issue...

New data center to be based in Cheyenne

Climate Change and Islands: Are Scientists Serving Society?

Snow closures: A look behind the scenes

Random Profile: Justin Watt

Images by NCAR scientists on display

Delphi Question: Cafeterias trans-fat-free?

Just One Look

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