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2004-08-30 15:37:05

After The Maldives Will The Bahamas Disappear

BBC asks whether global warming is a bigger threat to the world than terrorism.

It is not likely that New York City will any time soon be swept away by giant tidal waves rolling in from the Atlantic as depicted in a recent movie. But perhaps the movie did help to focus minds on the threat which global warming and rising sea levels pose for the inhabitants of planet Earth.

The message is taking a very long time to sink in. Some experts fear the process might have already passed the point of no return, or getting close, and that when world leaders finally wake up it will be irreversible.

Last week, the BBC World Service, that superb mass media gift of the British people to the world, presented an informative and provocative report on the current state of affairs and what is likely to occur in the future.

The BBC asks whether global warming is a bigger threat to the world than terrorism. Prime Minister Tony Blair says it is the biggest long-term problem facing the world, and top UK scientist Robert Watson clearly sees it as a far bigger threat than Al Qaeda.

There is one little country that is taking global warming and rising sea levels very seriously indeed and that is the Maldives. As a matter of fact, the government and people of the Maldives are afraid that their country will disappear altogether under the rising sea. If that should happen, how far behind will be the islands of The Bahamas?

The Maldives is an archipelagic nation like The Bahamas but with a slightly larger population living on 200 of its more than a thousand islands in the Indian Ocean. The trouble is that none of the islands is more than 1.8 metres (six feet) above sea level and about 80 per cent of them are half that high.

The Maldives is already feeling the impact of rising sea levels and climate change. BBC correspondent Nick Bryant reports that on one densely-populated island, 60 per cent of the residents have volunteered to evacuate over the next 15 years because of the encroaching sea.

Tidal surges flood residents' homes every fortnight and recently hammered a hole 10 feet wide in their concrete flood defences. The capital island, Male, only a mile and a half long, is protected by a wall almost 10 feet high which took 14 years to construct at a cost of $63 million. Japan footed the bill.

But the wall offers protection for just this one island and then only against tidal surges rather than rising sea levels. Within this century the archipelago could become uninhabitable and its entire population evacuated.

Mr. Bryant concludes: “This is a paradise faced with extinction.'

Some scientists believe that the globe might be going through a cyclical change of climate but most agree that even if this is so, the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities, including deforestation and destruction of coral reefs, are helping to accelerate the process to an alarming rate.

Predictions are that in this century the global temperature could rise by anywhere between 1.4 and 5.8 Celsius. At 1.4 that will be greater than the temperature change believed to have occurred since the beginning of human civilization.

Perhaps climate change is already beginning to affect weather patterns with unusual droughts, floods, heat waves, violent storms and the extinction of some species.

Climatologist Dr. David Viner has constructed a model of the future of climate in southern Europe for a NATO conference, reports BBC correspondent Kate Forbes. He predicts that by 2020 temperatures could increase by 2.5C.

That may not sound like much, says Dr. Viner, “but remember it was only a three degree increase last year in the heat wave that killed many thousands of people across Europe.'

Estimates of the 2003 death toll run as high as 20,000.

Sea levels have already risen between 10 and 20 centimetres as the warmer oceans expand and Arctic ice has thinned by 40 per cent in recent decades in summer and autumn.

Environment and science correspondent David Shukman on a visit to Greenland gives this dramatic description:

“First you hear a savage cracking sound, next the rolling crash of thunder. Then as the icebergs rip away from the margin of the ice sheet they plunge into the grey waters of the Atlantic with a roar that echoes around the mountains.'

A major NASA study by satellite and aircraft in 2001 concluded that the margins of the Greenland ice sheet were dropping in height at a rate of roughly one metre a year. A team led by Carl Boggild of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland recorded falls as dramatic as 10 metres a year. In places the ice is dropping at the rate of one metre a month.

Says Mr. Shukman: “Many more icebergs falling into the sea will cause two things to happen — the sea level will rise and the injection of freshwater could disrupt the ocean currents, including the Gulf Stream. What happens in this remote barren land has the potential to affect us all.'

No wonder the people of the Maldives are so concerned. We should be too, because most of the islands of the Bahamas are flat. Even without a dramatic rise in sea levels we have to worry about unusual weather patterns, especially more violent hurricanes.

So what should we do?

Our voice should be heard in every relevant international forum on global warming and climate change. We should urge the developed countries to take action before it is too late and we should join the Maldives and others in diplomatic initiatives.

Maldive President Maumoon Adbul recently wrote to US President George W. Bush urging him to reconsider and sign on to the Kyoto Protocol which he repudiated soon after coming to office.

We should do our bit by way of energy conservation, clean energy research, planting more trees, curbing pollution, recycling, protecting against shoreline erosion, designing cooler homes and offices and, above all, teaching our young to be environmentally conscious.

In the Maldives environmental science is taught in every school and given the same importance as writing and arithmetic.

After all, it is about their very survival.

And one other thing.

We should keep the gas and oil industry as far away as possible from our sea beds and our already endangered but increasingly valuable coral reefs.

Arthur Foulkes, The Tribune
August 3, 2004

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