Tuvalu children play around crates of coconut, banana and crab, important trade products for this tiny island.
Crédito: Jocelyn Carlin
Islands Could Fall Off the Map
Por Julio Godoy
Sylt in the North Sea, Tuvalu in Oceania, and St. Thomas in the Caribbean all face the same challenge: they may disappear as sea levels rise as a result of global warming.
BERLIN, Feb 12 (Tierramérica).- Sylt, the largest of Germany's Frisian islands, in the North Sea, lost at least 800,000 cubic meters of sand from its beaches in the last two months, because of heavy storms and flooding that have marked the northern hemisphere autumn and winter seasons.
On the other side of the planet, in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, Tuvalu, a tiny archipelago of nine atolls and reefs, with the highest point just five meters above sea level, is suffering a similar loss of land, and for the same reasons.
"Tuvalu is drowning!" is the alarm that the island's officials have been sounding for years.
Sylt, Tuvalu and dozens of other islands, like those of the Caribbean region, are the most vulnerable to the continued rise in the Earth's average temperatures, which according to the 4th assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), presented Feb. 2 in Paris, could reach a 4-degree Celsius increase by 2100.
Global warming, produced by emissions of gases that cause the greenhouse effect in the Earth's atmosphere, is making sea levels rise as polar ice melts, as well as intensifying storms and hurricanes, with stronger winds and heavier rains, taking a heavy toll on humans and the natural environment.
According to the IPCC assessment, in this century the sea level could rise 28 to 43 centimeters as a result of climate change. For the people living on Sylt, Tuvalu and similar islands, this could literally mean their disappearance from the world map.
"The loss of sand and the destruction of beaches on Sylt are very serious," Jürgen Jensen, commissioned by the German government to study and protect the coast, told Tierramérica.
"The main problem is that during the autumn and the current winter, the storms have been almost constant, with strong winds and waves. If the floods attack the island's cliffs, the consequences will be very difficult to repair," he said.
The 800,000 cubic meters of sand washed out to sea in recent weeks were part of a beach recovery carried out on Sylt last year. Similar rehabilitation efforts have taken place regularly for years.
Jensen warns that the disappearance of Sylt, which covers 90 square km and whose highest point is 52 meters above sea level, would constitute a serious threat to the continental coastline.
"Sylt is a natural breaker. If it disappears, the waves will directly hit the continent."
On Tuvalu, just 27 square km, the rising sea threatens the very existence of the local population.
"We are frightened and worried. And we don't have any other land to move to... if we are forced from our islands.... But there is still time to act," Tuvalu's Ambassador Enele Sopoaga said in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Sopoaga noted that "many small island developing states (SIDS), like Tuvalu, are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and to rising sea levels."
The SIDS are 51 countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Oceania and the Indian Ocean, which together produce less than one percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.
In the Caribbean, several islands like St. Thomas (Virgin Islands) are considered in danger of disappearing in rising tides. Furthermore, the increase in temperature and acidity of sea water, also caused by greenhouse gases, is destroying coral reefs, and with it, the basis itself of the regions marine biodiversity.
But the thing that worries the Caribbean meteorologists most is the increased frequency and power of hurricanes, predicted by the IPCC.
"The temperature of the oceans is the most important factor in the formation of a hurricane. If it increases, the hurricane season will be stronger and last longer," Roy Watlington, oceanographer at the University of Virgin Islands, told Tierramérica in a telephone interview.
This would destroy the islands' coastlines, and with it tourism -- "our main source of income," says Watlington -- and the colonial architecture in the Caribbean ports and coastal cities.
A study from the project "Climate Change Adaptation in the Caribbean", conducted in 2003 by the UN, calculated that the economic losses for 11 islands in the region from more hurricanes would be nearly a billion dollars, in tourism and other productive sectors.
In addition to floods and destruction of coral, the UN predicts that global warming will cause salinization of freshwater sources, more erosion and an increase in disease throughout the Caribbean.
* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent.