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Warming Ocean = Bigger Storms

It’s been amazingly windy across this stretch of the South Pacific during the past two weeks, from Tahiti out to the Cook Islands, the winds blowing out of the east and southeast, scudding clouds and rain overhead all day long. On the small motu of Tahaa yesterday I had lunch with veteran ship’s captain Tony Mirkovic; we have sailed together many times and both share a great affection for the South Pacific as well as his native Croatia.

I ask him to name the various winds he grew up with on the Adriatic … because in Croatian there are as many words for wind as Eskimos have for snow: Tramontana, Bura, Lavant, Jugo, Ostro, Pulenat, Lebic, Maestral and more. There each wind comes from a different direction, sometimes arriving simultaneously, overlapping. Tony says these South Pacific winds are most like the tramontana he grew up with, strong, unceasing.

“Remember, we were here one year ago in early September and had weather similar to this. That was the first time I had seen these kind of high pressure systems here at this time of year. It’s the same now.” I ask if he thinks warmer ocean surface temperatures are influencing the changing conditions, encouraging stronger storms at different times of the year … something I’ve seen impacting coastlines around the world during the past decade.

“Absolutely,” is the captain’s response. “There is no question that the world’s changing climate is starting to have an impact on the weather out here.”

It used to be that the “rainy season” in this part of the world was November to April; now you find long spells of sunny weather during those months … and a lot more rain during what used to be the “dry season.” In support of the changes affecting the one million square miles of South Pacific, the World Wide Fund for Nature reported recently that predictions about climate change’s impact on this region have been largely underestimated. And that by underestimating, have put at risk millions of people who live on low-lying coasts across the Pacific.

Experts say that the tiny Pacific Island nations, which collectively account for a mere 0.0012 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, are the most vulnerable and would be the first to feel the full brunt of global warming. Among those most at risk are some of the world’s lowest-lying islands, like Kiribati, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, parts of Papua New Guinea, and many in the the Cook islands and French Polynesia. Because the Pacific Islands are small and un-influential and their concerns easily ignored, their governments have only recently gotten engaged in international climate change negotiations, through the Alliance of Small Islands States or AOSIS.

The other day we sat in a building surf off Raratonga, unable to land due to big winds creating big seas. The weather forecast predicted the same for the next several days, so we gave on a second landing in the Cook’s, as well as a planned visit to the Austral island of Tubuai. While we all pay lip service to the coming rising seas, it’s only out here that the real impact is already being felt.

In most Pacific islands, the people, agricultural land, tourist resorts and infrastructure (including roads and airports) are concentrated in the coastal zones, and are thus especially vulnerable to any rise in sea level. Determining how severe this problem is, or might be, is complicated by natural shifts in sea level associated with the recurring ice ages. For example, over the past 16,000 years, the sea level rose some 450 feet in the Southwest Pacific reaching its present state about 6,000 years ago. This would indicate an average rise of about one inch a year during the 10,000 years it took for sea level to reach its present level following the last glacial epoch.

The potential socio-economic impacts of climate change on the smaller Pacific island countries are estimated in a series of vulnerability studies. Depending on the worst-case scenario (three feet of sea level rise by the end of this century), the studies suggest that sea level rise will have negative impacts on tourism, freshwater availability and quality, aquaculture, agriculture, human settlements, financial services and human health. Similarly, storm surges are likely to have a harmful impact on low-lying islands.

Low lying coastal areas of all islands are especially vulnerable to rising seas, as well as to changes in rainfall, storm frequency and intensity. Inundation, flooding, erosion and intrusion of seawater are among the likely impacts. These catastrophes would result in economic and social costs beyond the capacity of most Pacific island countries and threaten the very existence of small atoll countries. Shifts in rainfall regimes and any increase in tropical cyclone intensity and frequency greatly amplify the impact of sea level rise. A rise of average sea level by three feet, when superimposed on storm surges, could easily submerge low-lying islands.

Which immediately makes me think of one of my favorite island groups – the Tuamotus – where we are headed in a couple days. The 77 atolls in the chain rise at most six feet above sea level, suggesting that by the end of this century they will be uninhabitable. I promise to ask my friend Ugo, who has lived on Rangiroa the past ten years, what he thinks about rising seas, if he does at all, and what he tells his sons about their future in the islands.

Surviving Aitutaki

AITUTAKI, Cook Islands – I’ve been to Aitutaki before, a few times … though I have to admit that sometimes these South Pacific islands have a tendency to run together. Attu, Tahaa, Raiatea, Raratonga, all covered with lush green mountains, simple cement docks serving as welcome mats, a fringe of coconut palms paralleling a solitary ring road circling, sometimes it’s hard for my feebling memory to keep them all straight. Aitutaki I remember best from gray days, its welcome veranda – metal posts, faux palm roof – filled with young boys and girls dancing, practicing. I remember it too for its “starring” role in the “Survivor” series, which came here a few years back, camped out for six-plus months, the best thing to ever happen to the place economically.

I’ve seen “Survivor” impact on other islands. A crew of one hundred moves onto the island, often building its own living quarters, docks and marinas. They bring a fleet of small pickup trucks, speedboats and bulldozers. Much of which get left behind. They employ dozens, treating them well and paying them U.S.-television rates (about thirty times what the local fishermen were making spending ten hours a day in their mahi-mahi boats, harpoon in hand), spoiling them for those inevitable days post-“Survivor.”

Under a shore side tent a New Zealand woman – the Cook’s lean distinctly Kiwi, not French – remembers the “Survivor” crew’s coming … and going. “It left a lot of people more or less distraught. When they were here filming, there was big action everyday. Boats racing back and forth, people coming and going, money being spent. And then … one day … they were gone. They left boats and trucks and houses behind. But no more action, no more money.”

The first Polynesians settled here in 800, led by a voyager named Ru, who named it Utataki Enua O Ru Ki Te Moana (“the leading of the cargo people by Ru over the ocean” or “where Ru turned his back on the sea”); the first westerner to stop was Captain William Bligh, 1789, just seventeen days before his infamous mutiny – he would return three years later, searching for the men who had cast him adrift.

It’s a wild and rough day in the South Pacific, three to four meter swells under a deceivingly blue and unadulterated sky. It’s easy when the ocean here is living up to its name to be lulled into believing the entire Pacific region is ruled by calm. Days like this are reminders that wildness is far more common. Watching the wild, sun-drenched seas from a brand new cement porch built by and for the local fishing co-op, constructed super strong against the potential of tsunami and other storm waves, I wonder what Captain James Cook would have made of “Survivor.”

I marvel often about how many times my route around the world has crossed Cook’s path; that dude was truly a wanderer. On so many islands I’ve stopped at I’ve been greeted by welcome signs – made of bamboo, surrounded with half clam shells – detailing the historic arrival of Cook and gang.

Cook’s first assignment, in 1768, from the Royal Society in London, was to sail the Pacific Ocean tracing the transit of Venus across the sun – a task more scientific than economic. After rounding Cape Horn he made it to Tahiti for the first time on April 13, 1769, where the observations were to be made. Unfortunately the astronomer he carried with him was not up to the task and the mission was a failure. Over the next few years Cook criss-crossed the Pacific several times all the while keeping his southern eye open for a place we both have an affection for, then known as Terra Incognito Australis. Antarctica. While Cook never fully found Antarctica – spying large icebergs he confused with the continent – he got closer than anyone before.

His complete mapping of the Pacific left little for future expeditions; he died ignominiously in Hawaii, due to either cultural arrogance or confused i.d., dependent on which story you prefer/believe. Maybe Cook would have liked “Survivor”; certainly he would have much preferred being judged by some kind of tribal council than a bunch of Hawaiian tough guys swinging heavy war-sticks.