Pacific Island Cultures Brace for Climate Change The ecosystems of the Pacific are changing in mysterious ways. Those who live there have limited options for adapting to rising water levels and new cycles of drought and storm.

Pacific Island Cultures Brace for Climate Change

Pacific Island Cultures Brace for Climate Change

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Soils washing away from Queensland are damaging Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Theo Allofs/Corbis hide caption

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Theo Allofs/Corbis

The forests and dunes of Heron Island, a tiny speck of land on Australia's Barrier Reef, are home to thousands of migrant and resident birds, including the noddy tern. Jessica Goldstein/NPR hide caption

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Jessica Goldstein/NPR

Simon McGree is the chief climate scientist at the Fiji Meteorological Office. He says real estate records indicate noticeable land loss across Fiji, one of the more obvious effects of a warming climate. Jessica Goldstein/NPR hide caption

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Jessica Goldstein/NPR

The islands of Fiji — some 300 of them — are splayed across the western Pacific like marbles tossed across a child's playroom.

The international date line passes through the island of Taveuni. When you cross the date line from west to east on, say, Tuesday, it suddenly becomes Monday.

"You can put one foot on one side of the date line and one foot on the other," says Simon McGree, chief climate scientist at the Fiji meteorological office on Fiji's main island, Viti Levu.

But no matter where you are in Fiji, the world's largest ocean is nearby. When currents and weather patterns change in the Pacific, Fijians say they feel it. Although rising ocean waters — on average only a few centimeters during the past century — may not be obvious, the effects of climate change are seen in other ways.

"Something is going on, and you can tell by the exposed roots of coconut trees," McGree says. "If you look at the real estate records, you can see in some areas there has been quite a bit of land loss."

The sea-level record in Taveuni doesn't extend far back enough to know for sure how much the sea level has risen. But even a small rise means higher tides and storm surges. Rainfall levels are dropping in some places, and storms appear to be stronger. Other areas of the Pacific are experiencing unusual droughts.

The island's center is mountainous, surrounded by old volcanoes and steep, rocky slopes – not a great place for people to move to if the coastline is inundated.

Fiji's coastal capital, Suva, is casual but poor by Western standards. At the University of the South Pacific, professor of environmental studies Kanyad Keshani Koshi says living standards are already low, and if the ocean turns against Fijians, they will only worsen.

"There are a lot of secondary impacts of climate change which will make the quality of life in the island Pacific very, very bad, as opposed to, say, very large land masses where people have a lot more freedom to move around," Koshi says. "And these are countries which are already challenged to the limit with non-climatic problems."

Drought has been a cause for concern in Australia, some 2,000 miles to the west. Australia is experiencing the worst drought in 100 years. Scientists aren't certain that climate change is to blame, but that's the most popular theory.

Clive Wilkinson, coordinator for the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, lives in Townsville, Queensland. When it does rain in Queensland, soil washes into the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest barrier reef. That process is damaging the coral, and warmer waters are also killing parts of the reef.

But a warming Pacific has much broader effects as well, Wilkinson says. It could change the frequency of the Pacific pattern known as El Nino, a cycle of peculiar weather that affects ocean currents and rainfall across the planet.

"That cycle has been shrinking to about seven years and possibly even to four years. Each time the El Nino kicks in, we get drought in Indonesia, droughts in Australia, droughts in southern Africa," he says.

Scientists say the difficult thing to know about climate change in the Pacific is how a change in one place affects life elsewhere.

Heron Island, for example, is a speck of land on the Barrier Reef inhabited mostly by birds. Tens of thousands of shearwaters, also known as mutton birds, congregate for months there. The females build nests in the sandy soil, calling for a mate. The sound is said to have frightened 18th-century British sailors so much that they refused to go ashore.

"If you come to the island for the first time, you have several nights of torment," says Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a leading marine scientist with the University of Queensland. He works several months a year — long enough to become deaf to the constant wailing, he says.

Guldberg says as scientists see ocean currents change, fish and squid carried in those currents often move farther offshore — too far for the mutton birds to reach them.

"You can't fly that distance, and in those years, it seems that they abandon their offspring — which is really quite a horrible thing to see, when you see chicks literally in the hundreds and thousands starving because their parents can't provide the food anymore," Guldberg says.

Guldberg wants people to understand what ecologists know: What happens in Heron Island is connected to every other place, even thousands of miles away.

"If you think about it, the use of energy in a city like New York can affect where the food is for these parents that have to try to feed their young in a warming world," he says. "And in many ways, although climate change is a very daunting change that we've made for ourselves, it's actually teaching us a lot about the way that the world is so connected."

Along with the shearwaters and coral reefs and shorelines, it's likely that millions of people will feel the strain from rising waters, stronger storms and less freshwater.

That's why New Zealand is planning for a crisis, along with Australia — the wealthiest of the Pacific nations. The New Zealand government has appointed a "climate ambassador," Adrian Macy, a former ambassador to France.

"Climate change has brought massive threats potentially to the economics of these ... really vulnerable countries ... and you can respond to that in a way that you'd respond to a humanitarian crisis, which is effectively what it would be," Macy says.

That crisis could potentially create a mass migration of people out of the islands. And although the New Zealand government is making plans to handle climate refugees, Macy says it has no official policy yet. Nevertheless, such a mass migration could change the mosaic of Pacific culture for centuries.

Produced by Jessica Goldstein