Penina Nemata, a resident of Suva, works with a climate witness program set up by the World Wildlife Fund. The program encourages villagers to record changes in their environment, such as increased storm surges and bleached coral.
Courtesy Lara Hansen
Mangroves — spindly-looking trees which prop themselves up in shallow water with long, twisted roots — serve as barriers from high water levels and prevent sediment from damaging the coral reef.
Mangroves — spindly-looking trees which prop themselves up in shallow water with long, twisted roots — serve as barriers from high water levels and prevent sediment from damaging the coral reef. Courtesy Lara Hansen
Lara Hansen of the World Wildlife Fund says one way to protect coral reefs is to repair mangrove forests.
Village elders gather in Tikina Wai, a village on Viti Levu, for their daily kava ceremony. Kava is a tea made with cold water and the roots of a narcotic plant. The ceremony is the first stop for Nemata and other scientists seeking permission to study the coral reefs and mangrove forests.
Village elders gather in Tikina Wai, a village on Viti Levu, for their daily kava ceremony. Kava is a tea made with cold water and the roots of a narcotic plant. The ceremony is the first stop for Nemata and other scientists seeking permission to study the coral reefs and mangrove forests. Jessica Goldstein/NPR
Scientists head for a diving expedition where they will assess the state of coral around Viti Levu. Warm waters are threatening the survival of coral, a haven for fish and other organisms.
Scientists head for a diving expedition where they will assess the state of coral around Viti Levu. Warm waters are threatening the survival of coral, a haven for fish and other organisms. Jessica Goldstein/NPR
Fijian villagers in Viti Levu worry that rising, warming waters could flood their homes and kill the surrounding coral. The coral reef provides a home for much of the fish Fijian villagers consume.
Mapmakers often call the islands of the Pacific "Oceania." A drive along the southern coast of Fiji's biggest island, Viti Levu, proves why it's the right name. Tin-roofed, cinder-block homes sit alongside traditional thatched houses, and just beyond the fruit trees and animal pens in the backyards lies the Pacific Ocean.
Penina Nemata, a petite woman who has lived in Viti Levu for decades, says the ocean is doing some strange things.
"I have seen a lot of change in the formation of the land. I don't know why, but I think it's because of the frequency of the storms," she says.
Nemata is part of a climate witness program set up by the World Wildlife Fund to recruit people to watch for signs of climate change —odd weather, or freak tides, for example. On this day, Nemata is taking WWF scientists to the village of Tikina Wai to get permission to study the coral reefs and mangrove forests that grow along the shore. The reefs and forests provide fish as well as protection against higher seas, and the scientists want to know whether climate change is damaging them.
Kava First, Then Work
Before permission is granted, the scientists must first sit cross-legged with local elders for a kava ceremony in thatched, one-room building on stilts.
Kava is a muddy kind of tea made with cold water and the roots of a narcotic plant that is part of Fijian tradition — kava first, and then work.
Traditions cling tightly here. People still get salt from drying pools of seawater trapped in the mangroves, and make dyes from the trees.
Village elder Mary Wairita Mutani says the residents want to know why the climate is changing.
Mutani says the tides are higher than normal in her 70 years on the island, and the tides are coming through the mangroves into the village. And although villagers are planting new mangroves — a cheap way to diffuse the high tides and slow them down — the trees are disappearing faster than they're being planted.
Other changes are also obvious: trees bearing fruit at unusual times, for example. But some changes are harder to see because they happen in the water offshore.
The team of scientists heads out to dive among the reefs and mangroves along the island's Coral Coast.
Coral reefs are biological oases in the ocean, hothouses bursting with life. They can grow for thousands of years, but are fragile. Sediments running off of agricultural land block out needed light. Nutrients from fertilizers over-feed the algae in the water and cover the reefs in a sickening film. Now scientists are worried that warmer water will make things even worse for reefs.
Sam Wainimokomoko is a specialty instructor in charge of the diving boat. Monifa Fiu and her cousin, Teri Textan, run the dives. They come from the island of Rotuma, which has a population of just a few hundred, and there, Fijians tell us, women are in charge.
The World Wildlife Fund's Lara Hansen is the chief scientist on this surveying trip. A coral reef biologist, she spends a good part of her life in a wetsuit and a diving mask.
"We are interested in seeing the condition of the corals, especially looking at coral bleaching and mortality related to increasing water temperatures," Hansen explains. "But we are also looking at what the benefits of mangroves are for protecting those corals as they deal with the secondary stress of climate change."
Coral reefs are havens for fish that island nations depend on. They protect coastal villages from storm surges, including the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in 2004. Warm water kills the beneficial organisms that live inside and nourish the coral, and the dying coral turns white.
The divers count coral species and assess their health. It's slow work, covering a 160-foot transect in about a half- hour. Treading water beside the boat, Hansen explains why coral might be one of the smoke alarms for climate change.
"We know that if you increase the temperature by 1 degree Celsius, then you can start seeing bleaching in corals. And globally we have already increased the global temperature 0.7 or 0.8 degrees Celsius. Aand we know we are committed to probably another half-degree based on the CO2 we have already put up in the atmosphere," she says, "which means that corals and their bleaching will become an annual or permanent occurrence. The coral is, to some extent, starving to death."
The reefs off Tikina Wai show very little bleaching. Scientists know that some kinds of coral can withstand higher temperatures than others — valuable information to have as ocean waters warm.
Fiji's Threatened Mangroves
What marine biologists want to do is make coastlines more resilient to the effects of a warming ocean. Mangroves do just that. Mangroves are flooded forests that stand in the shallow water. They are propped up on long, spindly roots sunk into the seabed.
Jennie Hoffman, a marine biologist, stands chest deep in muddy water admiring the mangrove forest.
"Mangroves live at a particular zone, between ocean and land. Even though they are used to living in this situation, they can drown if water level gets too high. Or if the water is too salty, it can kill," Hoffman explains.
Scientists don't expect the sea level to rise more than a couple of feet during the next century, unless all of the ice on land melts. But even a 2-foot increase would mean higher storm surges.
The labyrinth of tree roots in a mangrove forest dissipates incoming waves and traps sediment flowing out toward the reefs, sediment that damages those reefs. They even produce a chemical that scientists such as Lara Hansen believe help keep harmful algae off the reefs.
Hansen says the mangrove and reef work is all the more urgent as climate change starts to take effect.
"It's not just a moving target; it's a moving target and we're blindfolded," Hansen says, "We don't exactly know how systems work, and we know they are changing. We're still trying to learn how things work, but species and systems are responding to the environmental changes that go along with climate change."
Hansen says conservationists tend to build fences around places they want to protect. But fences can't stop a changing climate, so scientists need a plan that would make fragile environments in FIji and around the world more resilient to a warmer world.
And that includes the people, too — people like Penina Nemata, who grew up on an island barely the size of a small Midwestern town.
"This is something that Americans can't really understand, can't fathom, what it's like to live so close to sea level," Panina says. "We don't have anywhere to go to, especially in small islands like mine. It's just miles of seas around and it's closing in. We are going to be homeless."
Produced by Jessica Goldstein