The Incredible Shrinking Nation–Climate Change May Sink Tuvalu

“The Incredible Shrinking Man” was a 1957 American science fiction movie. Unfortunately, some shrinking going on today is fact rather than fiction. This time what is shrinking is not a human being but an entire country in which some 11,000 human beings live. Yes, due to climate change, rising seas may cause the small South Pacific nation of Tuvalu to disappear entirely.

Haven’t heard of Tuvalu? That’s not surprising. It is the fourth smallest country in the world and getting smaller as the days pass. In terms of land, Tuvalu is tiny with only 26 square kilometers comprising the entire nation. Due to its remote location mid-way between Hawaii and Australia, it is one of the least visited countries in the world. Having only one airport and not accepting any credit cards doesn’t help tourism either. But should Tuvalu sink beneath the ocean, it will become even less visited.

Before considering Tuvalu’s shrinking and sinking problem, let’s learn a bit more about this possibly soon to be extinct country. Tuvalu is a volcanic archipelago stretching for 420 miles on the outer western edge of Polynesian. The island chain, located west of the International Date Line just below the equator, consists of three reef islands and six atolls. The country is one of only four atoll nations in the world.

All of the Tuvaluan land is low-lying and narrow; most of the islands are barely three meters above sea level with the highest elevation only about 15 feet. No natural rivers or streams exist in Tuvalu. Residents are entirely reliant on collected rainwater for drinking water and agricultural purposes. Tuvaluans would happily sing “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” under these circumstances.

But while Tuvalu lacks fresh water, salt water is everywhere–literally. Not only is the country surrounded on all sides by the sea, but saltwater has begun intruding into its soil, impeding agricultural production and contaminating underground water supplies. And saltwater is intruding more and more as the seas rise. In 2018, sea levels at the nation’s only port, Funafuti, were rising twice as fast as global averages. As a result, two of the country’s islands are on the verge of being swallowed by the rising sea and coastal erosion. Scientists predict Tuvalu could be uninhabitable in the next 50 to 100 years.

Because the land is so low-lying, any rise in the sea level means that parts of some Tuvaluan islands will be washed away and other parts will become uninhabitable. Even now parts of the runway at the country’s only airport are sometimes under water during storms. Maybe Tuvalu needs to be investing in some sea planes the way things are going.

Sea levels in the country have been rising 0.2 inches per year eroding shorelines, contaminating water supplies, and harming essential subsistence food crops like coconuts, taro, and pulaka. If you haven’t heard of Tuvalu, you likely haven’t heard of pulaka a/k/a swamp taro, a staple in that country, either. [NOTE: Pulaka might taste good, but the name doesn’t sound very enticing.] The salt intruding into the soil has made the ground almost useless for planting as it destroys staple crops and decreasing crop yield. Accordingly, Tuvalu is almost entirely dependent on imports for food.

Scientists have identified the following impacts of climate change in Tuvalu: more intense and frequent storm surges; decreasing rainfall/more frequent droughts; inundation of low-lying coast areas; coral bleaching; acidification of sea water; and ciguatera poisoning. No! Not ciguatera poisoning! Which is…what? Ciguatera poisoning affects reef fish who ingest micro-algae expelled by bleached coral. And when did this poisoning begin to climb? It coincided with when the weather started to go crazy due to climate change.

With all these negative things occurring in Tuvalu due to climate change, the recent Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland was eagerly anticipated by that country. It wanted to show the rest of the world what was happening to it and spur fellow countries to take action against further manmade actions negatively affecting the environment. Tuvaluan Foreign Minister filmed a picture is worth a thousand words message for the climate conference; he stood in a suit and tie knee-deep in sea water where there was once solid Tuvaluan ground to illustrate the immediate and dire threat to his nation. (Check out this video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EkSrtlapZQ.) Kofe’s “wet suit” is a real eye-opener.

Sadly, Minister Kofe and citizens of Tuvalu cannot afford to sit back and wait for others to take action. They are already considering what future action may be required if climate change cannot be controlled. Their last resort is to evacuate the islands these people have called home for untold generations and years. Such action would be a real life example of the new phrase “climate mobility,” meaning a movement of people forced out of their homes or livelihood because of the effects of global warming.

Minister Kofe’s video debunks any thought that Tuvaluans are being Chicken Littles claiming the sky is falling. While the sky isn’t falling, for them the sea is rising and Tuvalu is sinking. Doesn’t it give you a sinking feeling to know what man has done to the planet we call home? Let’s hope the real life drama of the incredible sinking nation has a happy ending.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Did you follow the events at the Climate Change Conference in Scotland? Should the loss to the sea of a small and insignificant country be of concern to Americans? Why or why not? How would you feel about traveling to a remote place with only one airport and no use of credit cards? Is that a dream or a nightmare?

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