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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Crueler sea encroaches on atoll

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

MAJURO ATOLL, Marshall Islands — People on this low-lying atoll are concerned and confused about global warming and the rise in sea levels, much more so than people in Our Honolulu. They should be. It affects atolls first.

I talked to half a dozen knowledgeable residents here to find out what might be in store for us in Hawai'i.

"Clearly, there is climate change afoot," said Giff Johnson, editor of the Marshall Islands Journal and son of a former University of Hawai'i history professor Walter Johnson.

"We see more intense storms, higher high tides. People remember where they used to picnic at Laura (20 miles across the lagoon) is now 40 feet from the shore.

"My house sits 12 feet from the lagoon. Now, when there's a storm, I have to nail a strip of plywood against the front door to keep the waves out.

"Ten years ago, a high tide washed sand onto the runway and closed the airport for a week. Last year, an amazingly high tide flooded Majuro between downtown and Gibson's (a department store). Water was a foot-deep in stores. The government had to mobilize bulldozers to scrape sand and debris off the road."

Donald Capelle, secretary of health for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, affirmed that these disasters are costly for the government.

Marie Maddison, secretary of foreign affairs, agreed it's a major issue "but it's difficult to get scientific data." A mapping project of aerial photos is under way to compare today's coastlines with those of World War II.

"There is no evidence on the outer islands that they are losing land," Maddison said. This suggests that the problem on Majuro Atoll may be as much from massive development as climate change. Dredging of beach sand and the building of causeways that interrupt tidal flow into the lagoon may change tidal currents and wave levels.

Johnson said he believes that causeways built over the reef to connect islets in the atoll are part of the problem on Taravao and Kiribati as well as Majuro. But it's difficult to get the government and businesses to address the issue.

At the same time, he insists that it's a mistake to ignore rising sea level and climate change. "Something is happening," he said. "If we don't deal with it now, an irreversible process will set in and the atolls will be done for."

At the College of the Marshall Islands, Ted Stepp, a former Maryknoll High School teacher, said his students often choose global warming as topic for their themes.

Silvia Pinca, coordinator of the marine science program, said: "I am stunned that people can still be skeptical about sea-level rise. We have proof from all over the world. I went home to Italy and found that Venice got flooded 53 times last year. Bangladesh is losing land."

Pinca is afraid that coastlines all over the world, prime residential and resort property, may eventually suffer the same fate.