NEW DELHI — A low-lying island in the Bay of Bengal that India and Bangladesh both claimed has now been conquered instead by the ocean, in what may be the first instance of climate change helping to resolve an international conflict.
What the Indians call New Moore Island and the Bangladeshis call South Talpatti is — or was — in a region with large potential oil and natural gas reserves. Satellite imagery shows that the uninhabited island is now submerged, said Sugata Hazra, the director of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University in Calcutta.
"We can see the island still at lowest tide level, and it has dispersed within the sea," said Professor Hazra. "It is below the high tide level."
He blames the loss of the island — and several others in recent years — to rising sea levels and surface temperatures. "Climate change is one of the major impacting factors," he said, adding that: "It may not be solely responsible."
The islands in the area are the unstable creations of the Bhramaputra river delta. New Moore first emerged on satellite images in 1974, and in 1981 India sent naval ships to plant a flag. The island has become central to a broader maritime dispute that's intensified as a 2011 United Nations deadline for Bangladesh to submit its maritime claims under the UN Oceans and Law of the Sea treaty approaches.
Any decision about ownership of the island "will have a land mass impact on both countries and on the maritime boundary baselines in which EEZs (exclusive economic zones) and continental shelves are calculated," said retired Maj. Gen. Muniruzzaman Khan, the director of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies.
India and Burma (Myanmar) submitted maritime boundary claims last year that would deny Bangladesh any continental shelf, as well as an independent outlet to the Indian Ocean, said Gen. Khan, adding that Bangladesh almost came to blows with Burma over it.
Experts have warned that climate change would exacerbate some conflicts over territory and natural resources. Scenarios have included expanding deserts on tribally disputed African lands, dwindling glacial runoff in rivers shared by India and Pakistan, and refugees from places such as the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean demanding a new homeland.
It's too early to know if the disappearance of the island could help ease the maritime dispute between India and Bangladesh, said Khan.
Hazra calls climate change the greatest threat to humankind after nuclear war, but he also sees New Moore Island as an example of a possible peace dividend.
"If somebody could (figure out how) it would stop all kinds of war, that will also help us reduce emissions," he added with a laugh.
(Arnoldy is a Christian Science Monitor staff writer.)