The Next Atlantis: Places Soon Underwater

Sustainability
Places soon underwater because of climate change

The island of Atlantis is a fitting fable for the predicament many places face as ocean levels rise globally as a result of global warming. However, the tale has more parallels than a body of vulnerable land merely disappearing beneath the waves. 

The legend of Atlantis: a prediction of the future?

Atlantis was a fictional island recounted by the philosopher Plato as an allegory on the hubris of nations. This powerful parable spoke of a utopian civilization of moral, spiritual people who succumbed to greed and pettiness. After their antagonistic attack on the people of Athens, the civilization fell out of favor with the Gods who submerged them forever under the sea. 

Are we in store for an Atlantis-style catastrophe? What lesson of hubris should we have learned from the legend? 

Egos and greed have certainly played a role in the exhaustion and exploitation of natural resources as well as the refusal to expedite climate-positive actions. 
Likewise, we risk the loss of cultures threatened by forced relocation as their land is immersed. 

The facts about the climate catastrophe

As glaciers and ice sheets rapidly melt, the water levels rise. The tides creep in closer, threatening islands and coastal cities across the world.

The world is now nearly as warm as 125,000 years ago, during the last interglacial period when sea levels crested 13-20 feet (4-6 meters) higher. Current levels have been hiking steadily over the last few decades in parallel with soaring emissions. 

New elevation modeling technology has estimated that over the course of the next century sea levels will continue to swell, upwards of two to seven feet (0.6 meters to 2.1 meters). It’s a conservative estimate and a troubling number. 

The same technology has confirmed that “a great deal more people are on vulnerable land than we thought,” said Benjamin Strauss, CEO of the non-profit organization Climate Central, a science organization based in New Jersey. In 80 years, high tides may have swallowed up land on which 200 million people presently reside. 

Vulnerability is largely geographical with every four out of five people impacted living in East or South East Asia. A study published in Nature found that “more than 70% of the total number of people worldwide currently living on implicated land are in eight Asian countries: China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Japan.” 

Furthermore, vulnerability is linked to socioeconomic status. 

Let’s take a closer look at places competing for the title of the next Atlantis. 

The coast eroding from vulnerable land

First in line?

The island Republic of Kiribati is about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. Residents are the first in the world to begin the new year and every subsequent new day. It’s considered one of the least developed countries in the world, owing to a scarcity of natural resources. 

As the waters surrounding the nation rise 1.2 centimeters a year, four times faster than the global average, natives of Kiribati are fleeing the tidal surges swallowing their three-meter high islands. 

Already two uninhabited Kiribati islets, Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, disappeared underwater back in 2009. The country expects to be the first to lose all its land to climate change.

In face of this devastating prediction, in 2008, Kiribati officials begged Australia and New Zealand to accept their citizens as refugees. A few years later in 2014, President Tong oversaw the acquisition of a 20 km2 (7.7 sq mi) stretch of land of a Fiji island, located 2000 km away, to relocate the climate refugees once the inevitable occurs. 

Facing the trauma of relocation 

The volcanic archipelago Tuvalu is the fourth-smallest country in the world. Its highest point is a mere 4.6 meters above sea level. 

The sea has been increasingly creeping onto Tuvalu land. It’s eroding shorelines, flooding roads, and harming native crops of coconut, banana, taro, and breadfruit. This leaves Tuvaluans in danger of not only losing their island but also their subsistence.

If the sea levels rise to the predicted  20–40 centimeters in the next century, the island will be uninhabitable.

While the future of Tuvalu appears bleak, defeat is difficult to accept; the government has thus far made no efforts to secure land for relocation elsewhere. 

Where there is no alternative

Often, rising sea levels feel like a far-flung threat affecting places unknown. Yet thousands of miles away from Kiribati and Tuvalu, more than 30 Alaskan villages are likewise threatened by climate change. Of those, 12 are being forced to explore relocation options as a result of melting ice and land erosion.

In Shishmaref, the shores are receeding 3.3 meters annually. Dramatic rises in temperatures have melted the permafrost on which the town is built. This has undermined homes, the water system, and infrastructure, including the sea ice which normally protects the town from storm surges.

The townspeople are largely Iñupiaq Alaskan natives that have lived here for 400 years. They rely on the ice to hunt, fish, and harvest drinking water. They voted to relocate before the inhospitable conditions force them to but the cost of relocation is astounding; an estimated $180 million is needed, roughly $320,000 per resident. While some state funds have been allocated, the federal government continues to overlook the necessity of providing residents with an alternative. 

A generation away from uninhabitability 

On the opposite side of the United States, residents of Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia are cowering behind a wall they hope will keep the land from being inundated.

Less than 500 people inhabit the marshland and most are descendants of the first settler on the island who arrived in 1778. They rely on their world-renowned crabs and oysters as a source of income, but the waters now endanger their homes and waterman tradition.

The island has been steadily sinking due to rising sea levels. The glacial rebound that has already captured two-thirds of the land since the late 19th century has not improved the circumstances. But it’s not only the shores which are retreating–– the water is seeping up from under the ground. A study in 2015 found that islanders could only count on a further 25–50 years of habitability.

To confront the problem, a jetty was erected around the harbor. But it is unlikely that it will protect the community from the onslaught of environmental devastation. 

An issue of human rights

Australia is no stranger to the tribulations of climate change, from desperately hot summers leading to uncontrollable bushfires to the bleaching of corals in the Great Barrier Reef. A group of low-lying islands off the northern coast of Australia also lays in peril, at the mercy of rising sea levels. 

The Torres Strait Islands are being chipped away at by storm surges and high tides. Likewise, the warming ocean waters and rising acidity is reacting with the minerals on the shore and amplifying erosion. Property damage has soared and even the dead are being unearthed from their graves as cemeteries wash away.  

The islands are the ancestral homelands for the indigenous community. They’ve lived on the Islands for around 2,500 years. Yet their pleas to the Australian Government to protect them from the effects of climate change have been ignored. 

The fears of climate change affecting the life and culture of the islands led the Torres Strait Islanders to submit a claim that climate change is impacting their human rights to the United Nations. The lack of effort led a group of concerned citizens to lodge a complaint against the government with the UN Human Rights Committee in May 2019, which is currently in the process of being investigated. 

Vulnerable land threatened by violent ocean waves

Cities at risk

However, it’s not merely islands that are vulnerable land. Cities too could be swallowed by the tide. They may not be the next island of Atlantis but swelling ocean levels will likewise affect Shanghai, Hong Kong, Osaka, Alexandria, and Miami, among others. 

So what’s going to happen? A common projection being thrown around is that there could be 150–200 million climate change refugees by 2050. The people who will become climate refugees are not protected by international laws. This means that no one will be legally obligated to grant them asylum. 

While some countries are battling the problem with coastal defenses on vulnerable land, it’s akin to putting a band-aid on a cut–– it’s a protective measure that doesn’t heal the problem at large. 

What can I do? 

It’s not a simple, one-step solution. However, we can continue to pressure governments and corporations to take drastic action to protect our climate.

Individual actions could have a deep impact when unified. 

For one, we can ensure that our consumer choices reflect the urgency of this global crisis. 

It can’t hurt to share knowledge and resources within our own communities as well as amplifying the voices of those most affected. 

By Natalia Kvitkova — Jan 21, 2021
The information contained in this article is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or nutritional advice.

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