Archive for the 'Pacific' Category

Disaster in Tonga

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Tongan flagThe sinking of a ferry last week in Tonga is a tragedy for the small country.

With only 121,000 inhabitants, Tonga is quite small. Ninety-five people died on the ferry, nearly all of them Tongans — nearly 1 in every 1,000 people in the country. In the US, this would be the equivalent of about 300,000 people.

The ferry was traveling from the capital to Ha’afeva in the Nomuka Group. These small islands are likely to be particularly devastated, as they seem to have a tiny population, perhaps even less than 1,000 people.

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

A New Island in Tonga?

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Tonga's flagThis week an undersea volcano began erupting in Tonga, six miles off the main island of Tongatapu, near the small volcanic islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai.

It has formed new land, but its status is unclear:

  • Some sources report a new island. That would mean that it was the world’s newest volcanic island.
  • Pictures and this account suggest that it may have started as two vents, one in the sea and the other on Hunga Ha’apai, and that any new land created was soon joined to this pre-existing island. This account says Hunga Ha’apai has grown by thousands of square feet.

National Geographic has video, as does Scientific American.

The real Robinson Crusoe

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Der Spiegel reports on Alexander Selkirk, who likely inspired the novel Robinson Crusoe.

Archeology is now offering insight into his life on Isla Robinson Crusoe, an isolated Pacific island administered by Chile. Selkirk spent four years and four months entirely alone here after being marooned in the early 18th century.

A double island for sale in New Zealand

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

A rather shifty-looking island on New Zealand is coming up for sale. A river island, it is nonetheless a double.

The 20 hectare (50 acre) island is in the Dart River in the southern end of the South Island, northwest of Queenstown — here.

The world’s newest island

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

A submarine eruption in Tongan waters has created the world’s newest volcanic island, southwest of the island of Late, at the lower left in this satellite view:

NASA image of Tongan eruption

The island, at Home Reef, appears substantial: as of August, when it was discovered by a Swedish yacht whose crew took these pictures, it had at least three small hills.

The odds are that the island will not last long. The Home Reef volcano produces islands regularly, and did so in 2004, 1984, and twice in the 1850s, according to NASA and the Smithsonian’s Volcanoes of the World.

Image courtesy of NASA.

The Mapia Islands and one lost airman

Saturday, November 11th, 2006

A Veterans’ Day query. A reader asks:

Any information on Mapie Island near the Solomons, New Guinea or this general area? My cousin was buried there during the 2nd World War in about 1944:

John H. Carroll, Jr.
Second Lieutenant, U.S.A A.F.
390th Bomber Squadron
42 nd Bomber Group
Died: 12-Nov-44

According to additional information he was listed as M.I.A.

I think this must be the Mapia Islands, north of the hook at the end of the Indonesian side of New Guinea.

The Approach to the Philippines in the series U.S. Army in World War II: The War in the Pacific says this:

The only other important offensive undertaken in the western New Guinea region was the seizure, in mid-November [1944], of the Asia and Mapia Island Groups, lying respectively 100 nautical miles northwest and 160 northeast of Sansapor. Loran and radar stations were established on these islands, which were were captured by elements of the 31st Infantry Division operating under the control the newly established of U.S. Eighth Army. (note, p. 450)

On this page it says that the 390th Bomber Squadron moved to Sansapor, New Guinea on 8/23/44. This page includes a couple of pictures of that unit’s planes.

This history says specifically that the unit was operating against the Mapia Islands on the date of this death, and this site says that on 11/12/44 “50+ B-25s blast Mapia and Asia Islands, New Guinea.”

So it would make sense if he died during that operation, given the date.

Lastly, page 12 of this document includes a picture of a burial ceremony on the Mapia Islands after the American landings.

Tetepare: still uninhabited?

Thursday, May 18th, 2006

Seacology, one of my favorite charities, reports that it is funding “a dormitory to house rangers” on Tetepare, an island in the Solomon Islands.

Now Tetepare’s claim to fame is that it is one of the largest uninhabited tropical islands — sometimes erroneously called the largest uninhabited island in the world.

If rangers are living there all the time, won’t it cease to be uninhabited?

(Note to Seacology: it will be difficult preserving “72 square miles of primary lowland rainforest” on Tetepare, as the island is only about 46 square miles in size.)

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.”)