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Islands Die Before They Drown

An interview with journalist and academic Christina Gerhardt, who maps the shifting geographies of islands in her new book Sea Change.

A desert island with a flag of surrender.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The scattered Pacific islands of Kiribati are famously at the frontlines of climate change.

Two of the nation’s islands disappeared underwater as early as 1999, and in the years since Kiribati’s residents have had to grapple with the likelihood that more will meet the same fate by mid-century. Already, one in seven moves there are due to the encroaching seas.

In an attempt to provide options, in 2012, the president of Kiribati bought 6,000 acres of land on Fiji, as an alternate home for his people. But Fiji itself — larger, more mountainous, but still vulnerable — also faces the need to relocate its own communities. As the world heats up, islanders have had to reorient their lives around fraught decisions and constant change.

Kiribati is just one of the 49 islands (or collections of islands) that environmental journalist and academic Christina Gerhardt details in her book, Sea Change: An Atlas of Islands in a Rising Ocean, out this month from University of California Press. Working with cartographer Molly Roy, Gerhardt paints portraits of what is at stake as each island watches the seas creep gradually higher, from decimated coral reefs to inundated farms.

Sea level rise is not just about a slowly moving line on a map, said Gerhardt when we spoke about the book. It is a dynamic phenomenon that changes everything from coastal erosion to storm surge, high winds to flooding.

“A livable life isn't about whether or not one is underwater,” Gerhardt said.

There’s a huge range in the population and political power of the islands highlighted, spanning Singapore to Pine Island in the Antarctic Ocean. But Sea Change is woven together by what each island has in common: A relationship to sea level rise that is more urgent and more nuanced than those of us on the continents often appreciate.

What follows is the rest of our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

You describe your book as an atlas in the subtitle, but it also features narrative histories, geological details, infographics, timelines, poems, in addition to maps. Can you talk a bit about how you settled on this structure? How did you go about collecting all of these elements?

There's no shortage of scientific data outlining the latest numbers with regard to sea level rise. And while that data is absolutely vital, my approach was to weave the science in with these other components.

What I'm really bringing to the forefront in Sea Change is an atlas that depicts the histories and the cultures, and the languages, and the flora, and the fauna of islands. How people will connect with and appreciate islands and islanders is through their history and cultures. You have to provide something to engage with, and that’s where the work of the environmental humanities is really important.

Can you explain why mapping the impact of sea level rise on these islands was so challenging?

Every single island has a different cluster of issues. So for every island, I gave our cartographer, Molly Roy, different elements to focus on. For one island, it might be the fact that what’s imperiled by sea level rise is agriculture: If you have too much salt water in soil, the plants can’t take up the water they need to survive. For another, I had her focus on sea turtle nesting grounds, which can be inundated or destroyed by sea level rise.

Ultimately, sea level rise should not be thought of as a line, but rather as a zone of inundation. The Marshall Islands, for example, are on average six and a half feet above sea level, and three feet of sea level rise is expected by the end of the century. You may think “Oh, well, that’s not going to be an issue then.” But a livable life isn't about whether or not one is underwater. It's whether or not that home has been inundated enough that it's soggy and moldy and just not inhabitable anymore.

Was it easy to find up-to-date data for all of the islands?

No, this was a huge challenge when we started. The inequities that frontline communities suffer also play out in the resources that are allocated for mapping.

We started the map of the East and the West Coasts of North America, from Deal Island in the Chesapeake Bay to islands off the western coast of Alaska. We have no problem finding data for these islands.

And then we moved into the Pacific. The islands that we had the easiest time getting data for are ones that have U.S. military bases on them, like Guam or the Marshall Islands. But when we were talking about independent nations that don't have this kind of relationship to the U.S., we had a really hard time finding the data. To track down this data I would contact ministers of environment, and other government agencies, and they often didn't have it themselves.

In the introduction, you describe islands as “harbingers of the future” for continental communities, like my own state of New York, that will face significant climate impacts in the foreseeable future. Do you think that’s something that people living on continents understand, or is there a narrative disconnect?

First of all, I have some issues with the tendency to frame islands as harbingers of what awaits people who are continental land dwellers. I think the situation facing islands should, in and of itself with no other qualifications, be of concern. Full-stop.

That said, we also have to think about the audience and how to cast a wide net and share stories from one geographic region with people who are predominantly of another geographic region, which happens to be the hegemonic one. It was really important to also underscore that this is not a situation that remains relevant only to people who are living on islands. Almost half of the U.S. population, about 40 percent, live in coastal states and cities. That's about 130 million people in the US that are going to be impacted. And so I think this is something that we really need to grapple with.

How might policy-making on an international scale change if that connection were understood? Do you think it would?

The question of how to get movement on a global stage is a really important one. One of the successes coming out of the UN meeting last year was the push for the establishment of a loss and damage fund. It basically lays the blame of creating the climate crisis squarely at the feet of nations in the Global North, and asks them to compensate frontline nations in the Global South for the damages that have been created. The details have yet to be worked out, but it took 30 years to get to that point. Tina Stege, who was climate envoy for the Marshall Islands, was one of the tenacious leaders who really worked intensely to get this across the finish lines.

The UN gets criticized all the time because it’s so slow — which is true — and because even if there is an agreement that comes out of the UN, it’s not legally binding — also true. But I think the UN is a really important vehicle because it’s the one forum in which 198 nations get together and nations in the Global North do have to listen to these speeches from members of nations in the Global South. Before the latter weighs in, they typically describe the situation in their home countries. And so if you go to the UN, you have a really visceral sense of what’s going on around the world — last year was the floods in Pakistan, and then it was the drought in the Horn of Africa. That sharing between nations happens every year, but I don’t see coverage of these issues. The papers don’t really seem motivated.

Different islands have different strategies for addressing the impact of the sea level rise. In Sea Change, you talk about both two different kinds of islands and two different groupings of solutions. Would you mind articulating the differences, and highlighting a few solutions that you found particularly notable?

The first kind of island in Sea Change is low-lying islands or atolls — often just a couple of feet high, a couple yards across, a couple of miles long — which are the ones that are most at risk. And then there are the high islands, also known as volcanic islands, which often still have active volcanoes. Obviously, the atolls are the ones that are most at-risk, but I decided to include volcanic islands as well, which initially puzzled my cartographer and editor: “These aren’t going to be underwater,” they said. That’s right, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t at risk. On those islands, most people and infrastructure are clustered around the coastline, so they’re going to be at-risk from sea level rise.

In terms of solutions, I talk a lot about soft engineering, or nature-based solutions. This would include the preservation and restoration of coral and oyster reef, and of mangroves and wetlands. Coral reefs and oyster reefs buffer waves when they come toward the island, which is important because wave action is responsible for eroding the coastline. Mangroves also provide a buffer, as one of the only trees that can deal with that high salinity of soil. They also provide a really important marine habitat, where little tiny fish swim around their roots and big predator fish can’t get in. A lot of these things have been ripped from the coastlines to set up urban environments, like harbors or airports.

There’s also hard-engineering, like the great U they’re putting around the tip of Manhattan, or the sea walls in Venice. These are so expensive, and often by the time they’re in place sea level rise has increased to yet another level where they’re not enough to do the work they were originally intended to do.

My final question is maybe a hopeful one: How can those living on continents encourage solutions that protect islands, or at least avoid further endangering them?

When I was teaching at Princeton, my students were often so despondent because of all of the catastrophes and disasters unfolding. And I always said it's important to just pick your area and do what you can. You don’t need to solve every issue, everywhere. Just pick your thing. Some people love working in their communities; some people like working more at the international level; some people really like engaging with some of the sources of the catastrophe (meaning the fossil fuel industry and the politicians who are supportive of subsidies for fossil fuels); some people work on the shift to renewables, and consider becoming electricians. There’s no shortage of action points to pick.

I think the really important message for people who are in the Global North that I would love to see connected to Sea Change is that we are the source of the emissions. So even as we go about our busy lives, there are things we can do large and small to actually tip the scales and have a direct impact on people who are in frontline communities. And those inequities are not just global, they're also within our own nation. But action is better than inaction. And of course systemic change is more important than individual change, but I don't want to discount the latter.

So essentially: Do something, not nothing.


Lisa Martine Jenkins profile image

Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a climate journalist based in Brooklyn. She previously wrote for Protocol, and her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Associated Press, and Civil Eats, among others.


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