Tuvalu is one of the world's smallest and most isolated independent nations. During British colonial times the group was known as the Ellice Islands, and while the current name Tuvalu means "cluster of eight," there are actually nine islands in all. The explanation lies with the smallest island, Niulakita, which was only resettled by people from Niutao in 1949. Due to high airfares, this remote group of low coral atolls gets only a handful of tourists a year and most of those never travel beyond the one hotel in the crowded little government center on Funafuti, Tuvalu's capital. This makes the almost inaccessible outer islands one of the most idyllic and unspoiled corners of the Pacific, particularly Nukufetau and Nukulaelae. On these, time seems to stand still, yet rising sea levels due to changing weather patterns caused by greenhouse gas emissions may soon bring the world to them.
The six atolls and three islands that make up Tuvalu together total only 25 square km in land area, curving northwest-southeast in a chain 676 km long on the outer western edge of Polynesia. Funafuti, the administrative center, is more than 1,000 km north of Suva, Fiji. Funafuti, Nanumea, Nui, Nukufetau, and Nukulaelae are true atolls, with multiple islets less than four meters high and central lagoons, while Nanumaga, Niulakita, and Niutao are single table-reef islands, with small landlocked interior lakes. Vaitupu is also closer to the table-reef type, though its interior lake or lagoon is connected to the sea. In all, the nine islands are composed of 129 islets, of which Funafuti accounts for 34 and Nukufetau 37. Ships can enter the lagoons at Nukufetau and Funafuti; elsewhere they must stand offshore.
It's feared that within a century rising ocean levels will inundate these low-lying atolls and Tuvalu will cease to exist. Coastal erosion is already eating into shorelines, and seawater has seeped into the groundwater, killing coconut trees and flooding the taro pits. Sea walls may slow the erosion, but as ocean levels continue to rise, the entire population of Tuvalu may eventually have to evacuate, third-world victims of first-world affluence.
The climate is generally warm and pleasant. The mean annual temperature is 29°C and the average annual rainfall 3,000 millimeters (the southernmost atolls are somewhat wetter). Rain falls on more than half the days of the year, usually heavy downpours followed by sunny skies. The trade winds blow from the east much of the year. Strong west winds and somewhat more rain come November to April, the hurricane season. Tuvalu is near the zone of hurricane formation, and these storms can appear with little warning and cause considerable damage. Otherwise, few seasonal variations disturb the humid, tropical weather.
The gravest danger facing the atolls of Tuvalu is the greenhouse effect, a gradual warming of Earth's environment due to fossil fuel combustion and the widespread clearing of forests. By the year 2030 the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have doubled from preindustrial levels. As infrared radiation from the sun is absorbed by the gas, the trapped heat melts mountain glaciers and the polar ice caps. In addition, seawater expands as it warms up, so water levels could rise almost a meter by the year 2100, destroying shorelines created 5,000 years ago.
A 1982 study demonstrated that sea levels had already risen 12 centimeters in the previous century; in 1995 2,500 scientists from 70 countries involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change commissioned by the United Nations completed a two-year study with the warning that over the next century air temperatures may rise as much as 5° Celsius and sea levels could go up 95 centimeters by 2100. Not only will this reduce the growing area for food crops, but rising sea levels will mean salt water intrusion into groundwater supplies --a troubling prospect if accompanied by an increasing frequency of droughts which has been predicted. Coastal erosion will force governments to spend vast sums on road repairs and coastline stabilization.
Increasing temperatures may already be contributing to the dramatic jump in the number of hurricanes in the South Pacific. For example, Fiji experienced only 12 tropical hurricanes from 1941 to 1980 but 10 from 1981 to 1989. After a series of devastating hurricanes in Samoa, insurance companies announced in 1992 that they were withdrawing coverage from the country. In 1997 and 1998 the El Niño phenomenon brought with it another round of devastating hurricanes. The usual hurricane season is November to April but in June 1997 Hurricane Keli struck Tuvalu --the first hurricane ever recorded in the South Pacific in June. In December 2002, Tikopia and Anuta in the eastern Solomon Islands were lashed by the most powerful hurricane in the region's history.
Coral bleaching occurs when an organism's symbiotic algae are expelled in response to environmental stresses, such as when water temperatures rise as little as one degree Celsius above the local maximum for a week or longer. Bleaching is also caused by increased radiation due to ozone degradation, and widespread instances of bleaching and reefs being killed by rising sea temperatures have been confirmed in French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Fiji, and elsewhere. The earth's surface has warmed 1°C over the past century and by 2080 water temperatures may have increased 5°C, effectively bleaching and killing all of the region's reefs. Reef destruction will reduce coastal fish stocks and impact tourism.
As storm waves wash across the low-lying atolls, eating away the precious land, the entire population of Tuvalu may be forced to evacuate long before they're actually flooded. The construction of seawalls to keep out the rising seas would be prohibitively expensive and may even do more harm than good by interfering with natural water flows and sand movement.