Country that could vanish from the map as sea levels rise


The runway of the capital city’s airport jostles for space among the homes crammed around it, which themselves make way for two of the largest buildings – the nation’s parliament and the Princess Margaret Hospital – both with water views.

In fact, everyone has ocean views in Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu. The entire country is built on three impossibly thin and meandering reef islands that barely manage to poke their heads above the waves of the vast expanse of the Pacific on one side and the Te Namo lagoon to the other.

Often the distance from one coast of Tuvalu to the other is just a few metres with the waves of the ocean always in earshot.

But it’s those waves that pose the biggest threat to Tuvalu’s existence.

A report released last week has only further added to the worst fears of the people living Tuvalu that their country is living on borrowed time.

That more and more of their precious land will be gobbled up by the sea.

There are even concerns the entire nation, which at its highest point is just 4.5 metres above sea level, could eventually vanish.

And it’s not just Tuvalu. Much of the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands and many others in the western Pacific barely rise above the water.

“It sounds harsh, but it’s really hard to imagine some of these low lying places still existing,” climate scientist Shayne McGregor of Monash University told

Last week’s United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report made for sobering reading.

It stated Australia had already warmed 1.4C and globally temperatures could be 1.8 hotter by 2040 and 3.5C by the end of the century.

United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres said the internationally agreed aim of keeping the overall temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels was now “perilously close” to being broken.

He said the report, which has been released ahead of a crucial climate conference in Glasgow, UK, in November, was “code red for humanity”.

Another key warning from the report was on sea level rises which have already gone up by around 20cm between 1901 and 2018.

A further 15-25cm of sea level rise is expected between now and 2050.

Beyond that date, how much the ice melts and the oceans creep up by will depend on future emissions, the IPCC report stated.

If we manage to belch fewer emissions, future sea rises might be around 38cm higher than the 1995-2014 average by 2100. But if we keep on belching with abandon, that rise could be around 77cm.

That’s not good news for Tuvalu’s 11,000 residents who live on just 26km square of habitable land some 12,000 kilometres north of Fiji.

An analysis by the United Nations found as many as 350,000 people living in low-lying atolls in the South Pacific could eventually need rehousing overseas if sea levels render their current homes uninhabitable.

Already Tuvalu’s once fertile soils are becoming more barren as they absorb sea salt allowing little to grow. Underground water storages have also been inundated by ocean water meaning locals are reliant on rainwater.

Addressing the Pacific Island Forum meeting on 06 August, Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea Natano said missing the 1.5C target would be “disastrous for the Pacific”.

“There is no doubt that sea level rise continues to threaten the very core of our existence, of our statehood, our sovereignty, our people and our identity.”

Prof McGregor told that the western tropical Pacific had already seen sea levels rise more than elsewhere due to strong episodes of the El Nino Southern Oscillation, better known as El Ninos and La Ninas.

But that was simply sloshing more of what sea water there was in the world towards the Pacific, meaning there was consequently less water somewhere else.

Indeed, sea levels around the world are neither static nor do they rise or fall exactly in uniform. The oceans are turbulent rather than still. Something as everyday as the tides can vary enormously even around the Australian continent.

Also the effect of a higher sea levels will not be the same in every location. Some places will have cliffs or man-made coastal defences protecting the land.

What’s not in doubt, however, is that the Pacific’s low lying islands and atolls – with no natural or man-made protections – would be under permanent threat from higher sea levels.

“The highest point above sea level in Tuvalu may be 4.6 metres but the general height from sea level is something like 1.2 metres which is very low and they don’t have a lot of defences,” said Prof McGregor.

“With an additional 77 centimetres of sea level rise as well as the variability of these El Nino and La Nina events you could imagine that most of Tuvalu will be underwater some years.”

A report in 2016 found five reef islands in the Solomon Islands, situated north east of Queensland and close to Papua New Guinea, had vanished and a further six had eroded.

By some accounts the seas have risen by 15cms around the Solomons in the past 20 years.

The Marshall Islands, a country of 60,000 people living on 29 low lying coral reefs in the western Pacific, has been called the most endangered nation on earth due to the risk of climate change.

Remarkably, however, the Marshall Islands have actually been growing in size by 13 percent as waves deposit sediment from the reefs onto shore filling in channels and extending beaches.

But this natural process may not be enough to counteract an ever rising sea.

And certainly that one respite is not happening in Tuvalu.

Nonetheless, in the capital of Funafuti, the everyday buzz of life continues. Ships are unloaded, supermarkets are filled with fresh produce – now mostly from overseas, fish are caught and church bells ring.

But the Pacific is an ever constant presence for Tuvaluans. If the world does nothing, and the ocean rises further, it could slowly take the city, and all of Tuvalu, away.