Current Forecast: Tokelau and a Changing Climate

The island in brief: The island nation of Tokelau consists of three small coral atolls nestled
between Samoa and New Zealand, the latter of which it is a territory. Transportation to Tokelau occurs only by sea by way of Samoa. The three islands cover 10 square kilometres of land from three to five metres above sea level. The population is an estimated 1,500 people. The people of Tokelau rely on fishing and subsistence-based agriculture. Tokelau relies on economic assistance from New Zealand to supplement government funding for the majority of the island’s infrastructure developments.

Rising seas threaten human habitation and subsistence agriculture: The low-lying, flat landscape of Tokelau puts human habitation in an especially vulnerable position with regard to rising sea levels. Smaller islets have already disappeared, and now the larger islets are at risk. There is no higher ground where the people of Tokelau can move as the sea rises, and the soil is a mixture of coral and sand , which can only support limited crops such as breadfruit, coconut, pandanus, giant swamp taro, and banana. The larger islets are at risk from rising sea levels as the ocean encroaches and increases the salinity of the already-poor soil. Several species of plants have disappeared due to soil erosion.

Increasing temperatures threaten human health and water supply: Hotter global temperatures have increased the already hot climate of Tokelau to the point where human health is being impacted. Those with respiratory ailments, the young, and the elderly are especially at risk of increased health issues due to higher temperatures. The hotter climate also exacerbates drought periods, when fresh water, already a scarce supply, is increasingly hard to find. The lack of hydration compounds the potential health issues for the people of Tokelau.

Coral health impacts subsistence fishing: The coral population within the lagoons surrounding the islands of Tokelau has declined due to higher ocean temperatures and as well as coral bleaching and ocean acidification. This has affected the quantity and quality of the fish upon which the people of Tokelau rely for subsistence. In addition, extreme weather conditions have contributed to the disappearance of some species of lagoon fish.

The Response

The Government of Tokelau is reliant on New Zealand for financial assistance in order to undertake development initiatives. The few natural resources Tokelau contains have been difficult to exploit due to its isolation from economic markets. With the lack of a formal climate-change adaption strategy, Tokelau’s strategic adaptation objective is to ensure that it is fully included in the New Zealand climate-change adaptation and mitigation work programme. Tokelau relies on the Tokelau Disaster Risk Reduction Plan to mitigate the impact of climate change on the smaller atolls. Tokelau has placed strategic importance on renewable energy, and has installed solar power plants and coconut biofuel-powered generators to make the country the world’s first truly renewable nation.

Additional Resources

For the more information on mitigation and adaptation in Tokelau, as well as a full range for projects, visit the Pacific Climate Change Portal.