The Carteret Islands are located off the coast of Papua New Guinea. With a total population of around 2,500 people on the collection of coral atolls, most people outside of the community haven’t heard of it and it is barely visible on most maps. In the very near future it won’t be on any maps at all.
In what is being called the world’s first evacuation of an entire people as a result of climate change, an evacuation of the entire community, first from Iolasa Island on the Carteret Atoll, began in recent weeks. Five families relocated to Bougainville, 50 miles away, to begin preparing a place for the remaining people from the Cateret Islands to move.
The highest point on the Iolasa Island is reported to be 170cm above sea level- no match for a rising ocean. Australia’s National Tidal Facility estimates an annual Pacific sea level rise of 8.2mm per year over the past seven years.
Some scientists and experts believe volcanic activity and earthquakes in the area are in fact responsible for the sinking of the islands. Others point to the fluctuating nature of the natural life cycle of an atoll. Past removals of mangrove trees that kept the shoreline solid and acted as protection against the ocean have also contributed to the environmental destruction. In recent years residents have repeatedly lost gardens and homes to increasingly destructive spring tides that have also contaminated drinking water supplies.
Whether the situation on Carteret Islands is because of rising sea levels from climate change or a shifting of the Earth is uncertain. What is certain is that the people who live on the Carteret Islands won’t be living there much longer. The Papua New Guinea government has authorized and allocated funds for the evacuation and families are on Bougainville, preparing a place for the rest. It is estimated the Carteret Islands will be fully submerged and uninhabitable by 2015.
To learn more: Dan Box is living on the Carteret Islands and blogging about the situation and events as they happen for the Ecologist.