IN 2009, I RECEIVED A GRANT FROM THE INVESTIGATIVE FUND AT THE NATION INSTITUTE to travel to a string of remote coral atolls in the western Pacific known as the Outer Islands of Yap. The islands are part of the Federated States of Micronesia, a young nation created out of territory once administered by the United States. The larger islands have hotels and restaurants, but visiting the outer islands is like stepping back in time. Women don’t wear tops, men wear loincloths, and the diet consists mainly of fish, coconut and taro.
The Outer Islands of Yap are coral atolls, which means, similar to in southern Louisiana, no land is more than 10-20 feet above sea-level. Also, similar to southern Louisiana, the islands are at risk of being subsumed by the ocean. Just before I was there, in December 2008, a series of extreme high tides known as king tides hit the islands, damaging homes, eroding coastlines and inundating crops with salt water. Sea-level heights in the Pacific fluctuate regularly based on how weather systems set up across the ocean basin and other factors. But as the world warms and sea levels rise, those times when seas are already high, like during king tides and typhoons, become more dangerous. Even a sea level rise of an inch can mean a lot during a typhoon or hurricane when water is already lapping at your front door.
New numbers released this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest seas may rise up to two feet by the end of the century. Southern Louisiana and the Outer Islands of Yap were formed in a similar manner, by silt or sand accumulating then getting filled in by vegetation to create land from what was once water. In Yap, the material came from waves crashing against coral reefs, and in Louisiana it came from the Mississippi. So, both of these landscapes have the ability to grow land, but a sea-level rise such as one projected by the IPCC could outpace that ability and put large parts of southern Louisiana and the Outer Islands of Yap underwater. Places won’t simply disappear, the land loss will happen slowly, storm by storm. And without new land being built up, the more a coastline gets washed away, the more likely it is of getting even more washed away the next time.
In December of 2009 I traveled to the Outer Islands of Yap on the cargo ship, a two week-long voyage in which I slept on deck, sandwiched between Micronesian families, heaps of luggage and piles of coconuts. At one point we went through a typhoon.
This story continues in photos. Hover over images below for captions or view the full-size gallery (strongly recommended for tablet and mobile viewers).
Justin Nobel is presently working on a shamanistic travel guide to the American South, due out in 2014 with NO Books.