Vanishing Worlds - Walande Island

Climate Change Threatens Pacific Islands

The small fragile islands of the Pacific are in the front line when it comes to climate change issues. Over the past year, MMUK has been actively working to promote research from this country which we hope will be of real benefit to the people of Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Last June, Adam Bobette, a research student from Selwyn College, Cambridge, was in Solomon Islands setting up a research project, working alongside church people in the villages, to collect data on the impacts of climate change, including sea levels and coastal erosion. MMUK contributed to his funding and his work was warmly welcomed by the Church of Melanesia. The methodology is very simple and it is hoped that with accurate record keeping over many years, an accurate picture will emerge which will provide conclusive evidence of what is happening to the islands of the western Pacific as a result of climate change. Adam will re-visit the Solomons later this year to check on the progress of this project.

Katie Drew has also been working with members of Southampton University’s engineering, geography and oceanography departments who are involved in climate change research in the western Pacific under the direction of Professors Robert Nicholls, David Sear and Dr Ivan Haigh. One of their research students, Marie Schlenker, will be travelling to the Solomons later this year, to pursue research into the changing pattern of coastal margins, going back over thirty years. She will also be visiting schools to talk about climate change research. David Sear has been collecting core samples from the bottom of lakes, which provide the history of weather patterns and volcanic activity over the last 2000 years. Robert Nicholls and Ivan Haigh has been examining rates of sea level rise over the 20th and early part of the 21st century, and changes in the frequency and magnitude of coastal flooding.

The research so far shows oscillations in climate over many years and a much more complex pattern of change than was previously thought. The El Niňo effect causes rising and falling of water temperature in the Pacific Ocean. When the temperature rises, cyclone activity increases in frequency and intensity. While sea levels are undoubtedly rising, most of the damage is caused by storm surge events.

All agree that sea levels and cyclones will become critical over the next few years. Our researchers are also keen to study what can be done to mitigate the effects of climate change. Mangrove swamps and coral reefs are a vital part of the islands’ defences and must be preserved. Unrestricted logging activity unfortunately damages these defences.

So far this year, there has been severe flooding on Guadalcanal, causing devastating damage to food gardens and Cyclone Oma has caused severe damage to the outer eastern islands. MMUK has recently contributed over £1,000 to the church’s disaster fund.

The artificial islands of Malaita and the atolls of the Reef Islands and Ontong Java are most threatened. Walande Village, which once had a population of over 1,000, has been abandoned.

 

The maximum height of most atolls is six feet above sea level and when there is a storm surge the whole island can be swamped. The underground aquifers which are the only source of drinking water, are compromised and become brackish. This has happened to Ontong Java which has a unique Polynesian culture going back over 1,000 years. The inhabitants are being evacuated and face a very uncertain future.

We are fortunate in this country where the effects of climate change will not be seriously felt for many years. But in the Pacific the effects of global warming are already destroying cultures and communities. MMUK will continue to do all it can to help the people of Melanesia with disaster relief funding, supporting vital research and raising awareness of these issues.

Canon John PinderMMUK Trustee