Fighting climate change the Micronesian Way

Patrick D. Nunn

Professor of Geography

University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia)

23rd March 2018

Patrick photo one for articlePeople have been living on islands in Micronesia for as much as 3500 years.  We know that the first people arrived at Ritidian on Guam from the Philippines this long ago, and that their descendants have been in these islands ever since.  But to listen to some discussions about future climate change and how vulnerable some islands in this region apparently are, you might justifiably wonder how people have survived for more than three millenia in this part of the world.

This summarises the point that sometimes ‘western’ science is not as well-informed as you might expect.  In the last few decades, science has correctly identified a challenge for livelihoods everywhere in the world from climate change.  Temperatures are rising, sea level is rising, the intensity and frequency of typhoons and droughts are changing, all of which pose complex challenges to the way people live, whether they be in Micronesia or Mexico, Pohnpei or Pakistan.  Scientists use global models of the Earth’s climate to understand what is happening, how the complex climate system responds to particular ‘forcings’ and, in doing so, arrive at particular ‘projections’ of what may happen in particular places at certain times in the future.


For island countries, rising sea level is naturally a key concern.  In Micronesia, where sea level is currently rising at 2-3 times the global average, scientists are thinking about how 21st-century sea-level rise might reconfigure coastal geographies, especially in low-lying coastal areas.  Science has taken on the additional burden of advising countries like FSM and its neighbors how they should best prepare for and respond to such climate-driven changes.  Global solutions suggest we might either ‘protect’ our shorelines, perhaps by building hard structures like seawalls; or we might ‘accommodate’ the effects of sea-level rise by rethinking the ways in which we use the coast; or we might ‘retreat’ from the shoreline, moving our activities and infrastructure to more secure locations. 

These three options are often touted as new ways in which communities in countries like FSM should think about responding to sea-level rise, both now and in the future.  Commonly such suggestions overlook the fact that people have lived in Micronesia for more than three millenia, during which time they have overcome climate changes, including swings of sea level up and down.  How did this happen?

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New Study: Sea Level Rise is accelerating


Mantoloking, New Jersey - Hurricane Sandy's landfall 2012 affected the coastlines over a broad swath of mid-Atlantic and North-eastern states

Sea Level Rise to reach almost one meter in 2100

The rate of global sea level rise has been accelerating in recent decades, rather than increasing steadily, according to a new study based on 25 years of NASA and European satellite data.

This acceleration, driven mainly by increased melting in Greenland and Antarctica, has the potential to double the total sea level rise projected by 2100 when compared to projections that assume a constant rate of sea level rise, according to lead author Steve Nerem. Nerem is a professor of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, a fellow at Colorado's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), and a member of NASA's Sea Level Change team.

If the rate of ocean rise continues to change at this pace, sea level will rise 26 inches (65 centimeters) by 2100 -- enough to cause significant problems for coastal cities, according to the new assessment by Nerem and colleagues from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; CU Boulder; the University of South Florida in Tampa; and Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

"This is almost certainly a conservative estimate," Nerem said. "Our extrapolation assumes that sea level continues to change in the future as it has over the last 25 years. Given the large changes we are seeing in the ice sheets today, that's not likely."

Rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere increase the temperature of air and water, which causes sea level to rise in two ways. First, warmer water expands, and this "thermal expansion" of the ocean has contributed about half of the 2.8 inches (7 centimeters) of global mean sea level rise we've seen over the last 25 years, Nerem said. Second, melting land ice flows into the ocean, also increasing sea level across the globe.

sea level rise

These increases were measured using satellite altimeter measurements since 1992, including the U.S./European TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason-1, Jason-2, and Jason-3 satellite missions. But detecting acceleration is challenging, even in such a long record. Episodes like volcanic eruptions can create variability: the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 decreased global mean sea level just before the Topex/Poseidon satellite launch, for example. In addition, global sea level can fluctuate due to climate patterns such as El Niños and La Niñas (the opposing phases of the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO) which influence ocean temperature and global precipitation patterns.

So Nerem and his team used climate models to account for the volcanic effects and other datasets to determine the ENSO effects, ultimately uncovering the underlying sea-level rate and acceleration over the last quarter century. They also used data from the GRACE satellite gravity mission to determine that the acceleration is largely being driven by melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica.

The team also used tide gauge data to assess potential errors in the altimeter estimate. "The tide gauge measurements are essential for determining the uncertainty in the GMSL (global mean sea level) acceleration estimate," said co-author Gary Mitchum, USF College of Marine Science. "They provide the only assessments of the satellite instruments from the ground." Others have used tide gauge data to measure GMSL acceleration, but scientists have struggled to pull out other important details from tide-gauge data, such as changes in the last couple of decades due to more active ice sheet melt.

global sea level

The faster rate of sea levels rise will likely overwhelm adaptation efforts in many coastal cities by the end of this century. The higher base state of oceans means storm surge-driven coastal floods will deliver more severe damage.

One might think of sea level rise as a slow-motion steady event. The reality is sea level rise can be uneven over time and space. Sudden surges can occur as climate change-driven glacial melt water pulses into our oceans from ice sheets in Greenland and other locations. More severe climate change-enhanced storms like Hurricane Harvey then drive more damaging storm surges further inland due to the higher ocean base state. The increase in flooding and damage can be exponential, not linear.

Although this research is impactful, the authors consider their findings to be just a first step. The 25-year record is just long enough to provide an initial detection of acceleration -- the results will become more robust as the Jason-3 and subsequent altimetry satellites lengthen the time series.

If the calculations are correct, it would mean that sea levels could rise by almost one metre by 2100, which would be devastating for island countries around the globe.

However, previous studies have indicated that sea levels could rise by two metres as a result of melting ice caps by 2100.

A two metre jump could see a host of major cities be partially submerged, including parts of London, Amsterdam New York, Miami, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Tokyo.

Among the places expected to be most hard-hit by sea level rise in the coming century are the islands of the tropical Pacific Ocean, ranging from sparsely developed archipelagos in Micronesia to heavily populated coastal areas on the Hawaiian Islands, such as Honolulu. People there worry that these islands will drown with sea level rise, but their freshwater capacity will be challenged much sooner because of salt water intrusion.

The Micronesians and Polynesians are place-based cultures. The bones of their ancestors are buried in these places. The land is considered a family member. This means moving is not a realistic option for many. Moving would mean leaving behind one’s culture, one’s family, and the very basis of one’s identity. However, rising sea levels, and changes in freshwater resources pose existential threats.

Pacific island communities did not bring this upon themselves. Their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions are negligible, yet they are among the earliest communities to experience the worst consequences. The major industrial nations responsible for global warming have a debt to the Pacific islands to assist with the adaptation that is necessary to survive this challenge. There is no time to spare. There are many steps that can be taken to bolster food resources, improve rainwater catchment, increase the elevation of the land, and envision new community designs that are resilient to storms, drought, and flooding.

Bernd Riebe

Katie Weeman
Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science
Patrick Lynch
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
Alan Buis
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Chip Fletcher
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Geology and Geophysics at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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Karen Ehmes on the Coral and Ice Exchange

arcticSEP 30, 2017

Imagine three teenage students from the tropical islands of Micronesia walking on the ice of the Arctic. I’m telling you, as a student who went through the experience, it was indeed the best, most powerful, and the most life-changing experience of my life. But, I’ll start off by saying this: the experience is very hard to explain. To understand it best is to experience it oneself.
Students On Ice is a program that accepts students from countries all over the world to take them on an expedition through the Canadian Arctic and off to Greenland. The program teaches students about climate change, Inuit culture and history, and many other scientific studies, arts, and humanities that any teenager may want to learn about.
As a Micronesian in the program, I noticed some similarities between the Inuit people and the Micronesian people. These similarities include the history of the people, some parts of the cultures, and facing the effects of climate change. I learned about the Inuit culture and history. The Inuits were once living their own lives before they were introduced to the Europeans. They lived in nice, warm igloos, they hunted and gathered food, and they even respected each and every other person in the tribe. Similar to the Inuits, past Micronesians lived in nice, breezy huts, farmed and fished for their food, and respected every single person on their island. These two groups of people share similar lifestyles. They’re only slightly different because of their environment and the climate they’re used to. Inuits were also removed from their original lands and were also introduced to modern government and businesses. Similar to Micronesians, specifically and the Marshallese, were removed completely from some of their islands to satisfy the U.S. needs.
Inuits also depended on the food around them and they’ve made it their cultural food. Their type of food includes seal, walrus, narwhal, caribou, and many other animals. Before eating these animals, they skin them and use their skin to make clothing. On the other hand, Micronesians have breadfruit, banana, taro, yam, and many other recipes that are made for cultural activities. They also use plant fibers of their surroundings to make traditional clothing. These two groups of people may live in extremely different climates and yet have very similar lifestyles.
I also learned about climate change. I learned about how the ice melts to affect sea level rise. I learned about how the earth is heated to cause the melting of the ice, and how the melting of ice in turn makes the earth heat up even more. I saw with my own eyes the melting ice that causes our home islands to erode away. Being in a small boat in front of a glacier and witnessing icebergs calve from it and fall into the ocean was both really amazing and also heartbreaking. I was glad I got to see it with my own eyes and also very heartbroken when the thought of my own home came to my mind. The ice falling into water in front of me is what increases the sea level back home. Likewise, my Inuit friends were devastated to watch the ice in their home melt. The melting of their home is the sinking of my home. Climate change is very real and has to be dealt with.
I learned so much on this trip and I recommend every student in Micronesia to apply and learn from this—the more, the better. Lastly, I would like to thank the help of my parents, friends, Xavier High family, and most especially Island Research & Education Initiative (iREi) from Pohnpei for funding my expedition. All thanks to you, I learned so much and I’m willing to make this world healthy and alive.

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Grave and avoidable injustice: Islands to perish from Climate Change Impacts says FSM Vice President at COP23 meetings in Bonn

That island nations are at the forefront of impacts of climate change and therefore are the proverbial “canary in the coalmine” was the message of the Government of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) at the negotiations in the Global Conference on Climate Change (COP23), held in Bonn from November 6-17, 2017.
As islands are already facing devastating impacts and continually seeking ways to adapt to climate change, leaders like the FSM Vice President, the Honorable Yosiwo P. George, continue to call on leaders of the developed countries to take responsibility and leadership in their own countries to curb their destructive emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases.
The Honorable Vice President George spoke on behalf of the Government and his delegation to the Climate Change Conference consisting of members of the executive branch, legislative branch, and non-governmental organizations and partners at the international and national level. In his call for leadership, he outlined the following specific actions to facilitate global action:
1. Strengthen your resolve to keep global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
2. Redouble your efforts to use every means possible to support climate protection
3. Make a sincere promise to protect the countries and communities that are most vulnerable
4. Support and encourage parties for an effective Talanoa facilitative dialogue
5. Support the Adaptation Fund to serve the Paris Agreement
6. Support the Loss and Damage to become a permanent agenda of the subsidiary bodies.

“There is some progress at the global level to gain commitment from developed countries to curb emissions and the FSM assists to take lead in negotiating some of these arrangements like the Kigali amendment which will lead to a reduction of 0.5 degree in global temperature by the end of the century” said the Honorable Vice President George. The FSM Government remains diligent in its efforts to push for island issues with Fiji as the COP President, along with other island nations within their island nation coalition called the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).
As the talks wrapped up at COP23, the FSM President, His Excellency Peter M. Christian, took forward the global efforts on the Kigali Amendment within the global framework under the talks on Ozone Depleting Substances, held in Montreal Canada the week after.
Furthermore, the FSM and AOSIS continue to commit to their role of keeping the issues of climate change at the forefront and holding countries to their commitments under the Paris Agreement. “Any slip by developing country parties from delivering on their commitments could result in devastating impacts to our islands and we must not let that happen,” said Secretary Andrew Yatilman of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Emergency Management. The FSM takes what it can from the global talks but Vice President George emphasized FSM’s view of the gravity of the situation for islands, “To allow even one canary to perish – to sink below the rising seas or to be swept away by a violent storm – is a grave and avoidable injustice.”

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Dylan Tellei on the Coral and Ice Exchange

Leaving home, alone, for the first time was definitely the first of the many new things I experienced that caught me off guard and had a lasting impact throughout the trip. That sense of being alone wasn’t necessarily bad though, it gave me a sense of freedom, a sense of individualism going into the trip. Soon after, however, I found that I wasn’t entirely alone. I found myself in the company of Chloe, a Micronesian from Chuuk, together we traveled to Canada, I had found someone similar to me and had begun to feel more comfortable going into the expedition. For the next few days we roamed the city of Ottawa, getting a chance to try local food, or “country” food as they call it. We walked around the city market watching street-performers and musicians, visited museums of history and nature and a gallery of Canadian and Inuit art, and cycled around the city to the waterfalls at the end of the canal.
Once our tour of Ottawa had concluded we embarked on our expedition starting with a flight to Resolute Bay, one of the northernmost communities in Canada. Before I go into this next section please keep in mind that Palauans were NOT meant for cold climate at all. I’ll be honest once the doors of the plane opened and the slightest touch of the Arctic winds touched me I was ready to go back to Palau. Being from a place that is normally 30-40°C to 0° was a total shock! That intense cold was so foreign to me. As I got off the plane I saw my breath for the first time in that 0° cold and kept breathing just to see it over and over again until I couldn’t see it anymore. Finally when it was time to board the zodiacs, which are small rubber boats that use inflated pockets to stay afloat, I saw it for the first time, ice. This was the first time I had ever seen ice just floating in a body of water, excluding the ice I get in my iced tea or water, this was a joke I had told countless times throughout the expedition.
Throughout my time aboard the Ocean Endeavor I was able to experience so much. Each day we were given a presentation about something new and exciting, along with that we participated in workshops that tested both our hands on skills and overall knowledge. Each workshop was designed to accommodate everyone’s personal style of learning from artful crafting workshops to scientific data analysis workshops. Off of the Ocean Endeavor we were given the opportunity to go on hikes to arctic glaciers and rock formations and mountains, go standup paddle boarding and kayaking around various fjords, and even do some fishing and foraging around certain areas.
All in all the expedition was great educationally but what really had a lasting impact on me was the hospitality and warmth of the staff, students, and people I met along the journey. Throughout the entire expedition I was met with nothing but open arms and warm smiles. Each and everyday everyone would meet and be glad and we would all enjoy the day conversing and joking, each of us enjoying each other’s company. The atmosphere surrounding our group reminded me of my home and my family, and soon enough that’s what we became, a small little family nearly 200 strong all connected by the experiences and stories we all shared. My hope is that ALL future expeditions will develop a bond similar to ours and that each and every student and staff may stay connected as alumni and family.

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GCF signs agreement with Micronesia Conservation Trust to bolster Pacific resilience


MCT Press Release
Bonn, 12 November 2017 – The strengthening of a partnership with the Green Climate Fund will help the residents of low lying islands take greater control of their destinies, the Executive Director of the Micronesia Conservation Trust (MCT), William Kostka, said today.
The signing ceremony followed the dedication of the Tony Debrum Meeting Room at the Bula Zone of the UNFCCC World Conference Center Bonn. Those in attendance to witness the signing included FSM Vice President Yosiwo George, Foreign Affairs Secretary Lorin Robert, R&D Secretary Marion Henry, Environment Secretary Andrew Yatilman, Palau Minister of Environment Umiich Sengebau, RMI Minister in Assistance David Paul, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Silk and numerous dignitaries from the Pacific and from around the rest of the world.
“Enhanced access to climate finance will help us take action to reduce the destruction of extreme weather events, and to improve our long-term planning to deal with a warming planet,” said Mr Kostka during the signing of an Accreditation Master Agreement (AMA). “MCT looks forward to working with our governments and our local communities across Micronesia to jointly develop and submit proposals to the Green Climate Fund” stated Doreen Debrum, MCT’s Board Chairwoman and oldest daughter of the late Tony Debrum. MCT became the smallest organization in the world (with only 10 staff) to gain accreditation to the Green Climate Fund. In 2015, MCT achieved this same feat with the Adaptation Fund.
MCT is one of GCF’s direct access Accredited Entities forging low-emission and climate resilient paths in Small Island Developing States. AMAs open the way for GCF to consider climate change projects which Accredited Entities, such as MCT, bring forward for funding approval.
Pa Ousman Jarju, director of GCF’s Country Programming Division said “GCF is particularly keen to support societies that are highly vulnerable, such as the Pacific islands where MCT is focusing its conservation work.”

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Chloe Arnold on Coral and Ice Exchange

When I was introduced to the Coral & Ice Exchange program developed by Island Research & Education Initiative (iREi) and Students On Ice (SOI), I was drawn in by its goal which was to educate youth about climate change. As an islander, I first learned about climate change through my school, where it taught me that climate change would impact the people living on small islands like mine. So when the opportunity presented itself -- a trip to the north to learn about climate change -- I had to take it. And believe me, the Arctic expedition was an eye opener.
Before the expedition, I thought the impacts of climate change were only affecting my islands. I only knew climate change in the perspective of an islander. When I went on my expedition to the north, I began to see climate change from different perspectives. I learned that this is a shared issue. In the North, people suffer tragic loss every year because of global warming. The melting ice in the North is causing huge environmental, cultural, and social changes. Sea level rise threatens low lying islands in the Pacific. All over the world, natural disasters occur. I thought I could not do anything to help and that I could only sit by and watch these problems happen. The expedition told me otherwise. The trip taught me that no matter how young I was, I could still join hands to help prevent climate change. The Arctic expedition offered much more.
The expedition offered a chance to see what an island girl like me could only see in pictures. On every daily excursion on land, I was amazed by the beautiful landscape, the ice caps, glaciers, sea ice and the living organisms. The islands I visited were filled with so much history about the Inuit and past whalers and explorers. I got to learn about the history of the Inuit on one of their historical sites. I could only imagine what they had gone through during the winter and how much hardship they had to endure. The trip to the north introduced me to the fascinating Inuit culture. A culture that was so similar to mine. Who knew places so distant could share so much in common? For me, learning about their culture was one of the best highlights of the trip.
The Arctic expedition was indeed an experience of a lifetime. For a while, I could not believe that I was actually in the north. Because of this expedition, I now know what I want to become in life. This was so much more than a trip to the North Pole. I was taught to get out of my comfort zone and experience new extraordinary things. I learned and experience so much in less than three weeks. I met so many wonderful people from all across the globe. We created friendships that are sure to last and help us in the future. By the end of the trip, we all had one ambition which was to protect the planet.

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