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Global Warming: Rising Seas

"The tourist operators are the backbone of our country. We make it hard on them, we make it hard on ourselves."

coral, damaged & bleaching
Photo caption
Bleaching signals damage to coral.

I found it easy to imagine myself melting. We were sitting upstairs in the open-air Staircase Restaurant and Bar in the town of Avarua on the island of Rarotonga on a February evening. Occasionally a breeze would come in off the ocean and temper the stifling heat a bit. But the heat always won out in the end. "Global warming?" asked the man sweating across the table from me. "I can tell you about global warming." His name was Donald Flinn; he was vice president of operations for Klondike Star Mineral Corporation in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. "In winter it always used to go below minus 40. Now it rarely does. The glaciers are melting. There's the loss of the permafrost." At first I thought it just one of life's fine ironies that, having come to the Cook Islands to look for signs of climate change, I had been seated at the table of a man from the Yukon. But then it struck me as portentous, a sign that what happens in one part of the world is tied to, often affected by, what happens in another—no matter how distant. A Floridian and a Canadian perspiring over taro root in the South Pacific. We are all, clearly, in this together.

The Korero Maori Dance Team took the stage and immediately raised the temperature with numbers that ranged from the feverish to the sensuous. The last dance, titled "Bola," took its name from the intense cyclone that struck New Zealand's North Island in 1988.

After the performance, I asked leader Danny Mataroa if they had named any dances after last year's cyclones. In the space of a month, the Cook Islands saw five.

"No, we don't want to do that," he said laughing. "Then maybe more will come hoping to get a dance named after them."

Rarotonga is the largest of the 15 tiny land masses known as the Cook Islands, a self-governing nation in free association with New Zealand. It's a classic South Pacific eyeful: green-carpeted peaks looking out over turquoise lagoons haloed by once vibrant coral reefs.

Coral bleaching has been extensive, the result of stress caused by several factors: pollution (sewage and sediment run into the lagoons), natural predators (such as the crown- of-thorns starfish), cyclones (which damage the ocean side of the reefs), and rising sea temperatures. These warmer temperatures also cause water to expand, which inevitably leads to rising sea levels. This, coupled with additional runoff from the melting ice caps, is a volatile one-two punch for coastal areas.

Some uninhabited islands in the nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati have already vanished. Even people on islands safe from submersion may find it difficult to live on them. In some places, salt water has intruded into groundwater supplies and residents have fled to higher ground. A new term—environmental refugee—has been coined for the millions of people expected to have to relocate in the coming decades.

Around the southern group of the Cook Islands, where Rarotonga finds itself, climate changes have been subtle for the most part: slightly higher average temperatures, altered growing seasons. "Breadfruit used to be very seasonal," said Pasha Carruthers, climate change technical officer for the Cook Islands' National Environment Service. But now, she noted, the season is less distinct, with "less overall productivity."

This is the result of changing weather patterns. February is in the rainy season and I had yet to see a drop. Carruthers expects Rarotonga will eventually experience "more intense rainfall with long dry periods in between." She added, in the deadpan of the doubly cursed, "Flooding—followed by drought."

And there are cyclones, though Carruthers and many of the people I spoke to attributed the most recent to 2005 being an El Niño year. Connected to the cyclones are storm surges, which are greater now that damaged reefs are faltering in their traditional role as buffers.

The seas around the islands, Carruthers said, are rising at a rate of about a centimeter (just under two-fifths of an inch) a decade, and that is expected to increase. She held up a sheet of paper and said: "No island is straight up and down. When you have a centimeter," now she turned the paper almost parallel to her desk, "it goes that much farther inland."

Ian Karika, conservation area manager, turned off the road and parked near the sea. He had told me that people with waterfront property often planted Barringtonia trees and coconut palms to anchor the soil and protect it against cyclones; now he showed me something man-made: a row of concrete slabs, like large, ventilated gravestones, that poked up out of the water about 30 feet from the beach.

These coastal protection devices (COPEDs) were designed by Don Dorrell, a New Zealander now living on Rarotonga, to stave off erosion. And it was clear from the curve of beach facing them, noticeably wider than the swaths on either side, that they were effective if not particularly attractive. Or practical. The Rarotongan Beach Resort had its set removed because guests pretty much had to climb over them to go for a swim. Karika was sympathetic.

"I feel a sense of responsibility to the resorts," he said. "The tourist operators are the backbone of our country. They bring the dollars in. We make it hard on them, we make it hard on ourselves."

Saturday evening I took the 50-minute Air Rarotonga flight to Aitutaki, a near atoll also in the southern group of the Cook Islands. Within the first two hours I knew I had found something special, one of those charmed places where strangers stop to give you a lift and tourists bond over their collective good fortune. But the heat was intense, and there was still no rain.

I snorkeled in the celebrated lagoon, seeing for myself the sad colorless coral, and one morning drank from a coconut while riding with Bobby Bishop, the island's senior environment officer, in the back of a pickup. The driver pulled onto a lawn and parked next to a new water tank set to the side of a one-story house.

The simple cistern stood like a landmark for it represented, I knew, part of the island's response to climate change: providing residents with the means to keep reserves of uncontaminated drinking water. A water tank in every yard could be Bishop's variation on Herbert Hoover's "a chicken in every pot." With aid from Canada, he has been able to supply about two-thirds of Aitutaki's 400 houses with water tanks.

"It's hard to get our people to understand climate change," Bishop said. "There's an awareness program on it in the schools."

In the evening I attended a dance performance in a steamy Prince Edward Hall set on a rare piece of high ground above Arutanga, the atoll's chief town. Afterward, walking to my guesthouse under a moon reflecting on the ocean, I felt a few cooling drops.

"It's raining!" I shouted with joy to two elders standing by the community center. "It's good," one of the men called back. "Good night. See you again." My own exclamation wasn't just out of selfish pleasure; it is easy on Aitutaki to get caught up in its fate.

Photography by Roger Grace/Greenpeace

This article was first published in September 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.