The Marshall Islands
Current Forecast: The Marshall Islands and a Changing Climate
From rising sea levels to heightened temperatures, the impact of climate change endangers the very existence of island nations across the Pacific Ocean.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a 0.9 meters (3 feet) increase in global sea levels by 2100.
But researchers suggest that number could reach up to 1.8 meters (6 feet).
At the current rate, a rising tide, among other variables that stem from a rapidly changing climate, poses a grave threat to the island nation.
• The islands, in brief: Home to more than 72,000 people, the Republic of the Marshall Islands comprises five isolated islands and 29 atolls. The islands average six feet in elevation. At their lowest points, the atolls sit just above sea level.
• Rising sea levels put the health of the islands’ residents and ecosystem in jeopardy: Since 1993, sea levels in the Marshall Islands have risen by 7 millimetres (0.3 inches) per year, double the global average. By 2030, the islands’ surrounding sea level will rise by 9 centimetres (3.5 inches), drastically increasing the frequency and the impact of storm surges and coastal flooding.
• Annual rainfall will intensify while, at the same time, warmer temperatures and drier periods will persist. During droughts, the islands’ wells become brackish or run dry, making water supplies undrinkable and foods that rely on the water inedible. During floods, saltwater and dirt creep into and contaminate freshwater reserves. Thousands of island residents have experienced water and food shortages as a result.
• Ocean acidification—or carbon pollution that increases the ocean’s acidity—will continue across the Marshall Islands, impacting the islands’ coastal fisheries, and threatening corals and other habitats for molluscs and crustaceans.
• The Republic has taken active measures to fortify itself against water-related disasters, protecting its resources and relocating its vulnerable populations. To date, more than 20,000 Marshallese climate refugees have emigrated to the U.S. due to these extreme weather conditions. For now, sandbags have helped keep the tide at bay, yet piecemeal barriers do little to withstand the worst storm surges. Short-term preventative measures and long-term sustainable solutions are integral to protecting the nation’s populations. But for the small island nation, such measures can come at a steep—and, at times, prohibitive cost.
• For the full country profile, visit the Marshall Islands’s page on the Pacific Climate Change Portal.
Ecological Vulnerability: A Water Crisis
Extensive floods and severe droughts have grown in frequency and ferocity over the past few decades—threatening the health, viability and future of the nation, its ecosystem, and its inhabitants.
In late 2012, prolonged dry weather across the Marshall Islands’ northern atolls led to severe droughts, drying out freshwater resources that left 11 thousand people facing food and water shortages. By March 2013, a King Tide—the Republic’s highest annual flood—rampaged through the islands, swamping the capital, Majuro, and forcing more than 1,000 residents from their homes. It was the third flood of the year and the worst experienced since 1984.
The islands rely on rainfall for more than 90 percent of their water supplies, yet recorded less than half of their usual rainfall from November 2015 through February 2016. Across the islands, tanks, freshwater lenses and reservoirs capture and clean runoff water to supply freshwater needs. But the islands’ low-elevation means these tools face contamination from saltwater intrusion during storms, spreading infectious water-borne diseases, polluting drinking water, killing crops, eroding soil and wiping out supplies needed during extreme—and pervasive—drought conditions.
Today, 20 percent of the islands’ population faces shortages of safe freshwater supplies.
Action Plan: Accomplishment through Joint Effort
The country’s Joint National Action Plan and the Office of Environmental Planning and Policy Coordination have actively sought mechanisms to reclaim and retain vulnerable coastal land; partner with the private sector and multinational relief organizations to build out disaster prevention mechanisms and water-sanitation processes; and innovate communication means that can quickly and effectively update and alert island residents.
The Marshall Islands is a vocal proponent of reducing global carbon emissions. In April 2014, the islands hosted the 13th Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action, convening leaders from developing nations to address joint actions to counter climate change’s existential threat. In February 2017, the Republic became the first country to ratify the 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to cut hydrofluorocarbon use.
The Marshall Islands is also a vocal proponent of reducing global carbon emissions. In April 2014, the islands hosted the 13th Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action, convening leaders from developing nations to address joint actions to counter climate change’s existential threat. In February 2017, the Republic became the first country to ratify the 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to cut hydrofluorocarbon use.
The Marshall Islands is one of the 43 members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum.