Boy of Marshall Islands, Photo by Brook Meakins

Boy of Marshall Islands, Photo by Brook Meakins

Islands are iconic. Turquoise water and sugary sand beaches, lapping waves, and a baby blue skies. You think of an island and your mind pictures a Corona advertisement. You think of an all-inclusive resort in Cancun, bikinis in Rio de Janeiro, lifeguards at Bondi Beach in Sydney, hammocks and kayaks in the Caribbean, surfers in Los Angeles, or Mai Tais in Hawaii. You think of calendars and screensavers, honeymoon spreads in wedding magazines, or that place you slip off to in daydreams on particularly bad days at work in January. For most of us, islands are synonymous with rest and relaxation. An island means an escape from the reality of everyday life.

As our global carbon emissions soar, the earth warms, the oceans acidify, the coral reefs die along with the protective barrier they provide to island and coastal communities, sea ice melts, and the sea level rises. That elegant palm tree on the postcard has turned from emerald green to a sickly yellow, as once far-away salty waves now wash over its base. Other palms nearby have toppled into the sea, exposing the shoreline with knotty tangles of roots, breaking up the shoreline. What once was a staple food product of island life, coconuts are relied upon less and less for a food source, and islanders turn to hard-to-obtain, expensive, starchy imports like boxed cereals, crackers, and boxed, dried potatoes. The fish that sustained islanders for centuries are now laden with mercury and other toxins, and over-fished by wealthy nations like China, Japan, and the United States.  Storms on the island used to be infrequent, but now they come with increasing regularity, and with waves that have intensified in size. Flooding is common in the streets and villages, and many homes have problems growing gardens due to the salt-water intrusion. On low-lying islands, many of which are only raised about the sea level just a few feet, there is nowhere for the islanders to run to when the storms come.

There are roughly eight thousand inhabited small tropical islands in the world, and while most of us are familiar with what they look like thanks to popular calendars and screensavers, most of us can’t fathom what it is like to live on one of these islands. Technically, an atoll is a ring of coral that has grown completely around the shoreline of a volcanic island, and which has then continued to grow upward on top of itself as the island has subsequently subsided or eroded away. Simply put, an atoll is an island made of coral, whose shape extends like a ring or a crescent. The ground an atoll is made up of, then, is the hard, stony exoskeletons created by coral, as well as sand created by the erosion of coral. The coral “soil” makes it difficult to grow crops, so only foods such as coconut, taro root, and pandanus can thrive in these environments. The ringlike coral island and reef nearly or entirely encloses a beautiful, shallow lagoon; this is what we know and love from the pictures. As reef-building corals thrive only in warm waters, atolls are only found in the tropics and subtropics. The four countries that are the focus of my advocacy work are made up entirely of coral atoll islands – the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Maldives. These coral atoll nations are in a uniquely exposed and precarious situation, as their peoples literally have nowhere else to go if sea level rise continues, which, scientists warn, it will.