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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.