Archive for the 'Islands in danger' Category

The Rights of Ghost Islands

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Ocean by Rappensuncle (Flickr)Professor James Lee asked an interesting question earlier this year: will islands that cease to exist due to rising sea levels still have sovereignty based on their former existence?

He wrote:

Some remote islands — particularly such Pacific islands as Tuvalu, Kiribati, Tonga, the Maldives and many others — may be partially or entirely submerged beneath rising ocean waters. Do they lose their sovereignty if their territory disappears? After all, governments in exile have maintained sovereign rights in the past over land they didn’t control (think of France and Poland in World War II). Nor are these new questions far away in the future. The first democratically elected president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, is already planning to use tourism revenue to buy land abroad — perhaps in India, Sri Lanka or Australia — to house his citizens.

Absolute sovereignty, territorial waters, and marine exclusive economic zones are all ultimately based on land in current international law. Will a strip of the northern Indian Ocean remain Maldivian even if the islands begin to vanish? Will the Maldivians and others fund their displaced lives with the mineral rights to the waters that swallow their homes?

(Note that Tonga is not in danger of fully disappearing, as it has several substantial, raised islands. Here are a few more islands that might be.)

The resources in play are expanding: as The Economist wrote about in May, the maritime claims are being extended to continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from land. Huge areas of ocean are being claimed, with rights to oil, metal, and seabed methane hydrates, often based on the locations of islands. While some issues are being worked out amicably, the move could intensify various island disputes, such as those around the multiple claims to the South China Sea.

(Image courtesy Rappensuncle — Creative Commons use via Flickr)

Eight Disappearing Islands?

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

Maldives from spaceThe website Treehugger recently suggested eight places — low-lying islands, more specifically — that will “soon” be uninhabitable due to climate change.

They are:

  • the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean
  • Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Carteret Islands (off PNG), and Majuro Atoll (Marshall Islands) in the Pacific
  • Lamu and Pate, Kenyan coastal islands
  • Bhola, in southern Bangladesh
  • Key West, off southern Florida

“Soon” is a relative term here–many of these places would still be inhabitable for decades, under current sea-level rise forecasts.

The Pacific islands involve relatively small numbers of people; they could actually be moved, though this would involve irreparable cultural destruction. Bangladesh illustrates another level of impact: millions of people live on these low-lying islands, and tens of millions in vulnerable coastal areas.

This is of course a tiny part of the problem; hundreds of thousands of islands are in danger of disappearing or greatly shrinking in the face of sea-level rise.

(Thanks to Stu Gagnon for the tip.)

Image: Maldives from space, courtesy NASA

More on disappearing Indian islands

Wednesday, April 11th, 2007

The New York Times adds to reports of the disappearance of islands in the Sundarbans of Bengal, “among the world’s largest collection of river delta islands.”

Inhabited islands are eroding away, as the Ganges Delta shifts, possibly abetted by sea level rise.

Goodbye Herschel Island?

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

The Yukon’s largest island is washing away, the CBC reports.

Uninhabited Herschel Island is eroding due to rising sea levels brought on by global warming, the island’s historic sites manager says.

Disappearing Indian islands

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

An inhabited island in the Sundarban region of India have disappeared, and their submergence is being blamed by some on global warming-induced sea level rise.

The Independent (UK) reports the disappearance of Lohachara as the first sinking of an inhabited island caused by climate change, and suggests that 12 islands with a population 70,000 are in danger.

While the danger of rising seas appears real, islands disappear (and appear) in this deltaic region on the Bay of Bengal all the time, and it might be hard to pin this particular instance on the small sea level rise that has occurred so far.  Indeed, Lohachara might be a char — the Bangladeshi name for the notoriously shifting and often temporary river deposits that land pressure forces desperate people in the region to live on.

Japan hopes to grow island

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

To firm up the definition of Okinotorishima as an island — and thereby insure rights to a large economic zone in the Pacific — Japan is planning to seed corals on the reef in hopes that the island might grow. The island is now almost wholly covered at high tide.

Overall, the Japanese case is weak, though the government argues otherwise. According the the UPI article,

Last year Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalist Governor of [Tokyo], was photographed kissing its dwindling earth. The problem is Article 121 of Part VIII of the UN Convention: “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.” Even Mr Ishihara would balk at living on Okino-Torishima, although there is talk of setting up an electricity plant to establish “economic life”.

(Perhaps the Japanese have heard this Malay saying: “Where good seed falls into the sea, one day an island may appear.”)

Greenland melts

Saturday, February 18th, 2006

Scientists report that

Greenland’s glaciers are melting into the sea twice as fast as previously believed, the result of a warming trend that renders obsolete predictions of how quickly Earth’s oceans will rise over the next century.

This appears to increase the danger that low-lying coastal and coral islands around the world will be destroyed over the course of this century.

“All the Disappearing Islands”

Thursday, February 9th, 2006

Mother Jones reports on the possible fate of low-lying islands in the face of sea-level rise:

Today, roughly 1 million people live on coral islands worldwide, and many more millions live on low-lying real estate vulnerable to the rising waves. At risk are not just people, but unique human cultures, born and bred in watery isolation. Faced with inundation, some of these people are beginning to envision the wholesale abandonment of their nations.

Island or rock? Sometimes it matters

Sunday, February 5th, 2006

When it comes to Okinotorishima, “Tokyo claims the parts above sea are islands, Beijing prefers to think of them as mere rocks.” Whose definition prevails could determine whether Japan has exclusive rights over thousands of square miles of the Pacific Ocean.