SciFri Extra: The Marshall Islands Stare Down Rising Seas

Former Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine speaks on a vulnerable country’s plan to stay put in the face of climate change, and why other countries should pay attention.

a woman walks alongside a man in a military uniform through a white marble walkway. they are smiling and talking
Former President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Hilda Heine (center) in 2017 at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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This story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a country of 58,000 people spread across 29 coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean. And in a world where seas are both rising and acidifying, the Marshall Islands are exceptionally vulnerable: Those atolls rise a mere two meters above the original ocean height on average, and rely on the health and continued growth of their coral foundations to exist. A 2018 study projects that by 2050, the Marshall Islands could be mostly uninhabitable due to salt-contaminated groundwater and inundation of large swaths of their small land masses during both storm events and more regular high tides.

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But the people of the Marshall Islands—who are already facing increasingly high king tides and more frequent droughts—are planning to adapt, not leave. They’ve already built sea walls and water catchments, while in February 2019, then-Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine announced an ambitious, expensive additional plan to raise the islands higher above the ocean.

Science Friday producer Christie Taylor spoke to Heine in October, after her remarks to the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science in Honolulu, Hawaii. They discussed the islands’ adaptation plans, why leaving is the last option the Marshallese want to consider, and the role traditional knowledge has played in planning for the future. Plus, why major carbon emitters like the United States have a responsibility to help countries like the Marshall Islands adapt. See a video of Heine’s full remarks.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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