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The Ocean is Slowly Claiming Malasiga. They Say it's Global Warming.

by: Evan Osnos    21 August 2006

MALASIGA, Papua New Guinea -- First, their fathers noticed the palm trees that seemed to be inching toward the water's edge and the fire pit that vanished beneath the tides.

Later, researchers came, scribbled measurements and offered a grim diagnosis: The sea is coming.

There is not a power line or factory or air conditioner within a day's walk of this village of 400 people in the southwest Pacific, but these subsistence fishermen are no strangers to the power of industrialization and climate change.

"There used to be two rows of houses," said Mickey Tarabi, a wood carver in his 50s, nodding toward the crystal blue sea. "The first one has been moved, and the second one will be gone soon."

Far over the horizon from the most advanced nations, scientists are measuring the effects of global warming in the world's least-industrialized corners. As the World Bank puts it, 15 percent of the world's population lives in high-income countries but releases "more than 75% of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are altering the Earth's climate."

If anyone still had doubts, the Bush administration's Climate Change Science Program in May found "clear evidence of human influences on the climate system," echoing the world's leading science organizations on the causes of global warming:

That climate change raises sea levels by heating the oceans, causing them to expand, and by accelerating the melting of glaciers and ice sheets, which funnels fresh water into the seas.

By the middle of this century, smokestacks, tailpipes and other sources are on pace to raise the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by about 50 percent. In turn, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that sea levels will rise about 1 1/2 feet, or as much as 3 feet, by century's end.

That doesn't sound like much until you visit a place like this--or Sri Lanka or coastal Louisiana -- where communities are thriving on vulnerable shorelines. In Bangladesh, more than 10 million people live within 3 feet of sea level. Overall, the World Bank predicts that rising sea levels "could displace tens of millions of people living in low-lying areas" around the world.

Worries About the Next Century

"Sea-level rise isn't going to go away," said John Hunter, an oceanographer who studies sea levels at the University of Tasmania in Australia. "Our main worry is not what has happened in the past 30 or 40 years, but what will happen in the next century."

In a broad new study supported by the Australian government, Hunter and a team of researchers examined decades of measurements of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, concluding that natural fluctuations could not explain the rise. "The analysis clearly indicates that sea level in this region is rising," they wrote.

That is little surprise to Papua New Guinea, a rugged island nation about the size of California, east of Indonesia. The 5.7 million people in PNG, as it is known, have particular interest in their natural surroundings because 85 percent subsist on what they grow, fish or hunt.

Here, rising waters are swamping coastal villages and small islands. Salt water is inundating coastal farms, destroying vital crops and orchards. Among the hardest hit areas are the Carteret Islands, where citizens have tried and failed to hold back rising waters. In April, a minister who visited the area returned to report that islanders were surviving on only coconuts and fish after relief supplies ran out.

`You Eventually Get Drowned'

Professor Hugh Davies of the University of Papua New Guinea calculates that if the estimate holds true, a rise of 50 centimeters to 100 centimeters would be enough to affect all of PNG's coastal plains and swamplands.

"If you are on one of these islands," Hunter said, "you will be continually swamped by water-laden sand, and if you don't clear it up, you eventually get drowned."

PNG has a plan, of sorts. While the country might seem to have little role in reducing carbon emissions--it is better known for forests than factories--its leaders see a way to take part in global efforts to control greenhouse gases.

In international climate talks, PNG and eight other rain forest countries have proposed that nations that reduce deforestation should be eligible to earn and sell "carbon credits." A carbon credit, which represents a ton of carbon absorbed from the atmosphere or prevented from burning, can be traded in international markets under terms set by the Kyoto Protocol--meaning, in theory, a farmer could make more money from saving his forest than razing it. Current rules allow countries to earn credits for planting new trees but not for protecting existing ones.

"You want us to go down the path to sustainable forest management. Now give us the right incentive to do this," said Gunther Joku, a senior policy planner at PNG's Department of Environment and Conservation.

Whatever happens, it will probably be too late for Malasiga. The village sits on a small, flat peninsula jutting into the Solomon Sea. Drying turtle shells dangle in the wind, and children shinny up palm trees for coconuts.

Some villagers have fled for higher ground, but most have not. They seem to know that when the history of the village is finally written, nobody will say they weren't warned. Yet they struggle to recognize the problems before them.

"I grew up here," said Aaron Mokedu, who is preparing to move the single-room thatched-roof home he shares with his wife and two sons. "But now the water comes up too far. It's not like before."

Elders first noticed the rising water in 1982. It eroded the sand and bared the rocks beneath. Then it tugged down the palm trees beside the ocean's edge. Eventually it began lapping at the stilts that hold up their thin-walled homes. About five years ago, the highest tides swamped the village entirely for the first time anyone could recall.

Holding Back Rising Seas

A world away, other places are trying to hold back rising seas as well. A Dutch developer is selling "amphibious homes" built on pontoons. The German island of Sylt is reportedly coating its rocky shores with a polyurethane that it hopes will dampen erosion caused by waves and hurricanes.

Here in Malasiga, they have a slightly lower-tech strategy: reclaiming land on the leeward side of the peninsula, one handful of dirt at a time.

"When we sweep up, we put all the leaves and coconut shells and sand over here," Tarabi, the wood carver, said, studying the fragile brown sliver of land they had filled in behind their homes. He shrugged.

"In 1997, some graduate students came and told us this was going to happen," he said, "And now it has happened."