As Hussain Khallib’s boat chugs into a turquoise-colored water channel, he points at the shoreline of the approaching island and notes the thin stretch of vegetation between white sand beaches on either side. It’s never more than a few feet above the water.
“We spend a lot of time worrying about the idea of rising sea level here,” he explains. “Many fear they will go to bed one night on dry land, and wake up in the morning in water. But we know the truth is far less dramatic. We will lose our nation and our homes one grain of sand at a time.”
Khallib, 21, is one of the estimated 393,000 residents who live in Maldives, a nation of 1,200 small islands in the Indian Ocean southwest of India that is considered the world’s most at risk to rising sea levels. The United Nations has projected that Maldives, which covers a stretch of sea roughly the size of South Carolina, but with a total land mass equal to that state’s capital city, Columbia, could be effectively underwater by 2100.
If the projections are correct, it means the death of a nation.
Abdulla Shahid, former Maldives foreign minister
Most of the nation lies about 3 feet above sea level, with a high point of about 8 feet above the water. That makes the idea of rising sea levels no mere abstraction. Residents here say they don’t have the luxury, as GOP frontrunner Donald Trump put it, of not being “a believer” in global warming.
“Sea level rise is not merely scientific theory, and for us is not a matter of political debate,” said Abdulla Shahid, a member of the Maldives parliament and a former Foreign Affairs minister. “The threat of sea level rise, to us, is an existential issue. It is a very serious matter.”
There can be no dismissing the science, nor contending as GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz did in an interview with NPR that “The scientific evidence doesn’t support global warming.”
“If the projections are correct, it means the death of a nation,” Shahid said. “The Maldives could be completely inundated by 2085.”
Maldives is a water-based country. Kids here don’t dream of owning a car as they might in the United States. They dream of the boat they someday might have. Everything about life here is tied to the water – the food people eat, the work they do, what they do for recreation and relaxation.
They are very aware of the water’s presence. Which makes them especially fearful when they hear predictions that sea level might rise 3 feet. If that happens, 80 percent of Maldives’ land would be at risk – more during storms and high seas.
Already, sea level rises threaten the country’s fresh-water wells in a nation heavily dependent on desalination for drinking water. Access to drinking water is one of the first things Maldives residents talk about. Last year, a fire at a desalinization plant in the capital of Malé forced the nation’s leaders to fly drinking water in from India.
Which leaves this country distraught over the continuing debate in the United States over whether climate change and human impact on it are real. The theory behind global warming is so simple that NASA even summarizes it on a website for kids: “Most scientists say it's very likely that most of the warming since the mid-1900s is due to the burning of coal, oil and gas.”
In a paper aimed at a more sophisticated audience, the German Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact notes on its website, the production of “CO2 and other anthropogenic gases” helped drive temperatures up by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century. If the world keeps generating greenhouse gases at its current rate, the global temperature will rise another 2 to 11 degrees, the Potsdam Institute says.
And as the Earth warms, the sea rises – first, because warmer water expands and takes up more space, and, second, because the ice caps and inland glaciers melt, sending more water into the ocean.
But it isn’t as simple as pouring a glass of water into a bathtub and seeing the result. That’s because, despite what one might imagine, the oceans aren’t actually level across the globe. Their depths vary because the Earth isn’t perfectly spherical and because the polar ice caps are so massive that they have their own gravitational pull and draw water toward them. As ice melts, that gravitational pull decreases. The water at the equator gets even deeper.
“Sixty years of melting at the presently observed rate are enough to launch a process which is then unstoppable and goes on for thousands of years,” the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact says on its website. That would lead to a sea-level rise of about 10 feet.
Maldives would have completely vanished before that melting was completed. Maybe Florida, too.
“Florida is ground zero for sea level effects in the United States, and the debate here still seems to be whether this is happening – not what to do to prepare for it,” said Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Given our current rates of rise, we can expect some rather severe consequences, and I’m not sure we’re ready to deal with the consequences of what’s going on.”
Khallib, the boat captain, said for Maldivians, it’s not an abstract threat. They can see it. There is no place on these islands that ever really lets someone forget the sea is nearby.
The largest industries here are fishing and tourism. Khallib, a dive instructor, remembers that when he was young there was a submerged sandbar leading from his island to a small spit of land with a few small trees, just barely above the lapping waves.
On Fridays, he and his family, and others on his island, would do what Maldivians, who are mostly Muslim, do on Fridays, they’d go swimming, then to prayer. After prayers, families would walk the sand to the tiny place they called “picnic island” and spend the day until dark eating and playing and relaxing.
“Today, there’s almost nothing left of that island, maybe one family can picnic there at a time,” he said. “We look at that place and we fear we are looking at our future.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews