University of Hawaii researchers using geological data have found that low-lying atolls such as the Marshall Islands could be permanently lost as early as 2080 if measures aren’t taken to adapt to climate change.

A new study published in the journal Earth’s Future lays out those findings, from Coastal Geologist Haunani Kane and Associate Dean Chip Fletcher of UH’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. It aims to reduce confusion and gaps in knowledge as to how sea-level rise will impact such low-lying areas in the decades to come.

Kane and Fletcher’s research incorporates some 5,000 years of geological history across the Marshall Islands, according to a UH press release.

A child plays near an under-construction seawall in Majuro, a city in the Marshall Islands, in 2016. Jessica Terrell / Civil Beat

The islands’ inhabitants can at least help slow the erosion, inundation and loss of freshwater sources, however, by preserving and restoring the surrounding reef ecosystems, Kane and Fletcher found.

Still, the islands’ future as a habitable place remains at risk as sea level rise accelerates.

“Some scientists argue that because of their geologic history … reef islands could be resilient to human-caused sea-level rise, but most such studies consider islands and their people to be separate entities,” Kane said in a statement. She’s based at UH Hilo and was lead author of the study.

“We found that as really being disconnected from the way that we live on islands,” she added. “This study eliminates some of the confusion and the gaps in knowledge related to how sea-level rise will impact low-lying islands because it considers the impacts upon and resilience of both the place and the people.”

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