Warming takes its toll on atolls Islands: As glaciers melt and water levels rise, these delicate slivers of land in places such as the Marshall Islands are under threat of disappearing.


MAJURO, Republic of the Marshall Islands -- There is precious little to this island nation, a family of dots sprinkled onto the Pacific halfway between Hawaii and Australia.

No misty volcanic mountains, no rugged seaside cliffs or deep tropical jungles. Only a handful of delicate coral atolls, like jade necklaces, are flung across 2 million square miles of blue ocean.

The atolls' slender islands are capped by coconut palms and surrounded by reefs. You can walk across any of them in just a few minutes. Add up all the country's dry land, and it comes to barely 70 square miles - a shade more than the District of Columbia. And its mean elevation above the surf is barely 6 feet.

That makes the Marshall Islands - along with such other low-lying island nations as Kiribati and Tuvalu in the Pacific, and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean - among the most likely to be erased if forecasts of a 1-foot to 3-foot rise in sea levels over the next century prove accurate.

Scientists are still debating whether and how emissions of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse" gases that trap heat in the atmosphere might be to blame. But there's no doubt that global temperatures are rising and that sea levels - driven by melting glaciers and ice caps, and expanding seawater volume - have climbed 4 to 10 inches in the past century.

Five years ago, Amata Kabua, the Marshall Islands' president at the time, pleaded with the world's industrial nations to curb carbon dioxide emissions. His cousin and successor, Imata Kabua, reiterated his people's fears before the United Nations -- General Assembly in June.

"A possible rise of a few feet in sea level becomes a question of life or death for our country," he said. He urged "those whose activities have direct and indirect impact on the environment" to acknowledge their "culpability" and to lead the search for solutions.

Two more feet of seawater would probably float the office of Jorelik Tibon, general manager of the Marshall Islands Environmental Protection Agency. His desk is about 20 feet from the water on the lagoon side of the boomerang-shaped capital island of Majuro. The ocean is across the road, perhaps 150 yards away.

While he has no data to prove it, Tibon and others here suspect that their islands are already under assault from rising seas.

Coastal erosion is gnawing away at vulnerable stretches of beach, even as landowners throw up sea walls against it. And freak waves - new to the islanders' experience - have struck without warning since 1979 and thundered across the islands, carrying off people and houses. While freak waves and storm surges are not necessarily a result of rising sea levels, low-lying places are expected to become more vulnerable to such waves as sea levels rise.

Tibon was an officer on a government supply ship in late 1979 when a series of enormous waves struck Majuro. The islands - now independent - were then a U.N. trust territory administered by the United States.

"It was a relatively calm day," Tibon recalls. The sun was shining, TTC the tide was out and a policeman was directing traffic on Majuro's main road in Rita, a community on the east end of Majuro named in the 1940s by U.S. servicemen smitten by movie pinup Rita Hayworth.

Without warning, a 20-foot wave rose out of the northeast, crossed the reefs and crashed through residential and business districts.

"It went from the sea side and across to the lagoon side," Tibon says. It washed away 144 of the houses in its path, some of their occupants and the policeman. Though news accounts did not report any deaths, Tibon recalls that the policeman and several other people were killed. Hundreds were left homeless.

"When the high tide came the next day, the same thing happened," Tibon says. President Jimmy Carter declared the island a disaster area.

Six days later, another series of waves, this time up to 25 feet high, swept Majuro's east end again, destroying the hospital, communications center, gardens, shops, boats and more houses. The United States offered $20 million in aid and helped feed 8,000 of Majuro's 12,000 people.

"We later found out it was [caused by] some tropical storm," Tibon says. The storm itself never arrived, just its waves.

Three smaller rogue waves have struck in the years since, with less damage. "Sometimes now we've seen waves coming from the south or southwest that come to the main road between here and Laura" at the west end of Majuro, he says. Some of the Marshalls' more remote outer islands have also seen big waves. Last year, Tibon said, a wave destroyed several homes on Kili, an island 200 miles southwest of Majuro.

Tibon cannot prove that the waters around his country's islands are rising. "Unfortunately, we have not established a data base where we can easily compare," he says. "We have very limited resources to go out and measure." But he is worried, and suspects the problems may indeed be due to rising seas.

When the easterly trade winds weaken, and westerly winds send waves from the lagoon crashing onto the shore in Rita, beach erosion threatens the main road and gnaws at the concrete defenses erected by waterside property owners.

He cannot be sure whether such erosion is the result of higher water, of changes in waves and currents due to sea wall construction, or dredging.

"If you make a sea wall here," Tibon says, "it could easily affect your next-door neighbor."

But there has been no such work on Aur atoll, 90 miles north of Majuro. And people there have noticed that the school they built 10 years ago is now 30 feet closer to the water's edge. "So the sand is being moved somewhere else."

Regulations and a permit system control sea wall construction, but "we're not very effective in enforcement," Tibon says. His agency lacks the expertise it often needs to make its case. And "it's hard to enforce regulations on some private owner who is trying to protect his land."

Most land in the Marshalls and other Pacific nations is held by a few traditional leaders and their families, who also hold political power. Government action against such people is often blunted.

Rising sea levels also threaten freshwater supplies on many of the smallest islands. Two years ago, water drawn from the "lens" of rainwater that collects beneath the widest part of Majuro turned brackish. True, it was a dry period, and demand for well water was high, Tibon says. And when the rains returned, the lens wells grew sweet again.

But it was a warning to Majuro's fast-growing urban population, now numbering about 25,000. The government is expanding the capacity of the public water system, which collects and stores rainwater that falls on the runway at Majuro Airport.

Many islanders dislike the public water, however. Those who can afford to are adding gutters and cisterns to their homes. They hope to catch more of the freshwater that falls on their roofs.

Meanwhile, the saltwater creeps toward their doors.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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