King tides, king hits

seawall repair
Men working—seawall repairs at Temwaiku village in Tarawa

When sun, moon and earth are in alignment and in closest proximity to each other, the sea responds by producing the highest tides of the year, known as king tides. These tides can be 30 or 40 centimetres higher than a normal spring tide, and since that is the expected increase in global sea level by mid-century, today’s king tides show us what ordinary spring tides will be like in 2050.

For low-lying atolls like Tarawa, capital of Kiribati, that new baseline will be a problem. When I visited Tarawa in April 2015 to research a story on sea-level rise the islands were still repairing seawalls and re-armouring vulnerable areas of coastline after damage inflicted by a king tide in February. That event closed the maternity ward in one of Tarawa’s hospitals, not far from where a shipwreck was pushed ashore, piercing a seawall.

Photographs I took of the damage and repair work have just been published on National Geographic’s website, here.

The challenge for all low-lying atolls—indeed, for all coastlines—is that as the sea creeps higher, coastal defences such as seawalls and rock barricades will be more frequently and more severely tested, and in some cases the cost of protection will rise to untenable levels.

What then?

The rising seas of Kiribati

canoe and ship 1
Traditional and modern meet on the water in Tarawa lagoon

In April of this year I spent some time in Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, researching a story on Pacific Islands and sea-level rise for a National Geographic special issue on climate change. Much of the content of that issue, on sale in November, is now available online, including my Kiribati story.

When a story, long in the production works, finally sees the light of day (or the light of a computer screen) it brings a flood of memories of people met, places seen, food eaten (sand worms!) and all the many experiences that a writer gathers up, like a fishing boat trolling through rich seas.

Fishing is a fact of daily life in Kiribati, of course. I remember standing in the check-in queue at Nadi airport, in Fiji, en route to Tarawa, and striking up a conversation with a Kiribati man who was getting boxes of kava root weighed, to see how many he could include in his luggage allowance. (Finely ground kava root, mixed with water, is a mild intoxicant that looks like mud and tastes like cardboard, and is hugely popular among Kiribati men, who down vats of the stuff every night while listening to karaoke at kava bars.)

I asked the man if he was a fisherman. He looked at me quizzically as if not quite grasping the word.

“Do you catch fish?”

He grinned. “Every man can catch fish,” he said.

So they can, and do. Every day I watched men (and sometimes women and children) setting nets near the shores of Tarawa lagoon, then walking around splashing the water to scare fish into them. More serious fishers make overnight or multi-day trips to other atolls. I hired one group of fishers to take me to Abaiang Atoll, and recorded some of that experience in my story. On the way, we stopped beside a huge commercial tuna fishing vessel that was anchored in the lagoon to buy a few skipjack to use for bait. While we waited, an old man in a traditional outrigger canoe—known in Gilbertese as a wa—paddled past with the same idea. That’s him in the photograph above.

I enjoyed seeing his feather-light handmade craft next to the industrial steel of the Japanese vessel, both painted the same lagoon blue.

Traditional ways and modern ways rub shoulders uneasily in the islands. Perhaps they do everywhere. Climate change brings into sharp and painful focus the inescapable influence of the industrialised world on remote islands. Remote geographically, but not atmospherically, as we are now all aware.

At the Paris climate summit in December, island leaders will try once more to sheet home the responsibility of the powerful developed nations to assist small island states to cope with the effects that global warming is already having, and will continue to have as the seas rise.