Environmental Issues in the Marshall Islands

For many years, the Marshall Islands Government has been concerned with the issue of global climate change. A major study on the detection and possible impacts of climate change and sea level rise in the Marshall Islands was commissioned in the early 1990's. It was completed in 1992 by a team from the RMI EPA, led by a Harvard scientist working on contract with the government. The report has since been included in the bibliography of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The physical characteristics of the Marshall Islands would give any visitor the best indicator as to why the RMI Government is so concerned with sea level rise. Approximately 1225 islets in 29 atolls scattered over 3/4 million square miles, the average height above sea level is 7 feet or 2 meters. The highest land area is on Likiep Atoll, where the elevation reaches a maximum altitude of only six meters. Fragile coral reefs fringe the atolls, and serve as the only line of defense against the ocean surge. The clearance over the reef in the sections that are covered by water is usually no more than a couple of feet. In other places the reef is commonly only barely submerged.

The Marshall Islands lie in open ocean, and the islands are generally very close to sea level. The vulnerability to waves and storm surges is at the best of times precarious. Although the islands have by no means been completely free from weather extremes, they are more frequently referred to in folklore as "jolet jen Anij" (gifts from God). The sense that Marshall Islands was a God-given sanctuary away from the harshness of other areas is therefore part of the socio-cultural identity of the people. However, given the physics of wave formation and the increasing frequency and severity of storms, the Marshall Islands will likely be at even greater risk. The relative safety that the islands have historically provided is now in jeopardy. It is likely that evacuation would have to be effected long before inundation is total.

The Marshallese would become among the first of many environmental refugees. This would be a devastating disruption not only for the culture and the people of the island countries, but also for the countries that would need to accommodate the refugees. The impacts are not limited to the Marshalls and its immediate neighbors. The Marshall Islands are often referred to as a "front line state" with regard to the climate change issue. It is important to realize that once the potentially catastrophic effects begin to appear there, it is likely already too late to prevent further warming that will threaten virtually all of the world's coastal regions.

For these reasons, the RMI has participated actively in negotiations for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its protocols, and continues to do so.

Download State of Coral Reef Ecosystems in the US & Freely Associated States (PDF format)

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