Washed Away

A ring of coral

Floating on seas of hubris –

Lost beneath the waves

The Atufu atoll, group of 42 coral islets within Tokelau in the south Pacific Ocean, 500 kilometres north of Samoa (Photo Credit: NASA Johnson Space Center).

This is a haiku, inspired by recent research which has found that most atolls will be uninhabitable by the middle of the 21st century because of sea-level rise and flooding caused by climate change.

An atoll is a ring-shaped reef, island, or chain of islands formed of coral. Climate change is causing sea levels to rise, with the highest rates in the tropics, where thousands of low-lying atolls are located. Most studies on the resilience of these atolls to sea-level rise have projected that they will experience minimal impacts from flooding until at least the end of the 21st century.

However, these previous studies have not taken into account the additional hazard of wave-driven overwash (storm waters and waves that wash up and over the low-lying island), specifically the impact that this has on freshwater availability. This new research shows that based on current greenhouse gas emission rates, annual wave-driven overwash of most atoll islands will occur by the middle of the 21st century. These annual flooding events will result in the atolls becoming uninhabitable because of the inability of their freshwater aquifers (underground stores of freshwater) to recover, meaning that freshwater availability will be scarce. This study highlights the immediacy of the risk that climate change poses to these atolls and their populations.

An audio version of this poem can be heard here.

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