Study Finds Climate Change Will Threaten the World’s Islands Sooner Than We Thought

Waves will swallow low-lying atolls in ‘decades, not centuries.’

Laysan Island, via Flickr user USFWS - Pacific Region

Most Americans know about the Midway Atoll, nearly 1,300 miles to the northwest of Oahu, Hawaii, because of the decisive World War II battle that took place there. But today, the atoll’s three islands play host to about 60 year-round residents, mostly the staff of the area’s national wildlife refuge.

A new study finds that Midway—its wildlife refuge and its historic buildings—may not be around much longer. A team led by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Curt D. Storlazzi discovered that many of the world’s low-lying atoll islands will be uninhabitable sooner than anyone had thought. The reason? Climate change.

The researchers analyzed data from a number of atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, including Midway and Laysan Island. Scientists looked specifically at the effects of sea-level rise on the size of waves that reach these small atolls. Their findings: Storm waves will be so high that they will regularly threaten the islands’ infrastructure with serious floods.

As the scientists write in the Scientific Reports paper published last month, “It appears that many atoll islands will be flooded annually, salinizing the limited freshwater resources and thus likely forcing inhabitants to abandon their islands in decades, not centuries, as previously thought.”

The findings are worrisome, and not just for the atolls’ human inhabitants. (CBS News reports that about half a million people live on the affected islands.) These low-lying landmasses in the Pacific are also home to a number of endangered species, particularly seabird populations that habitually return to the same islands every year to breed.

emale Short-tailed Albatross on Midway Atoll, via flickr user USFWS - Pacific Region

(Via Fast Company)


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