Islands lost to the waves: how rising seas washed away part of Micronesia’s 19th-century history



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Laiap, to the west of the site of the now-disappeared Nahlapenlohd.
Author provided

Patrick D. Nunn, University of the Sunshine Coast

At first glance it may not seem so, but the story of the now-vanished island of Nahlapenlohd, a couple of kilometres south of Pohnpei Island in Micronesia, holds some valuable lessons about recent climate change in the western Pacific.

In 1850, Nahlapenlohd was so large that not only did it support a sizeable coconut forest, but it was able to accommodate a memorable battle between the rival kingdoms of Kitti and Madolenihmw. The skirmish was the first in Pohnpeian history to involve the European sailor-mercenaries known as beachcombers and to be fought with imported weapons like cannons and muskets.

Today the island is no more. The oral histories tell that so much blood was spilled in this fierce battle that it stripped the island of all its vegetation, causing it to shrink and eventually disappear beneath the waves.


Read more: Sea level rise has claimed five whole islands in the Pacific: first scientific evidence


Like many oral tales, this one tries to explain island disappearance post-1850 by making reference to an historical event. But in light of what we know today, the more plausible cause of the island’s disappearance is the sea-level rise in the western Pacific since the early 19th century, which has accelerated significantly over the past few decades. The disappearance of islands in the Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific has recently been attributed to sea level rise. Further north, the same is true of several reef islands off Pohnpei.

Pohnpei and its surrounding islands, both past and present.
CREDIT, Author provided

Surveys of 12 of these islands have shown that not only have some – like Nahlapenlohd – completely disappeared, but that most others have shrunk over the past decade. Islands such as Laiap and Ros, which have lost two-thirds of their land area over this time, are likely to disappear completely within the coming decade.

The island of Laiap has shrunk since 2007.
CREDIT, Author provided

Why are islands in the western Pacific becoming the earliest casualties of sea-level rise? Partly because sea levels in this region have risen at two to three times the global average over the past few decades.

In parts of Micronesia, sea level has risen by 10-12mm each year between 1993 and 2012, far outpacing the global average of 3.1mm a year. While this rate is unlikely to be sustained indefinitely, the current trend would raise sea levels by a further 30-40cm by mid-century if it were to continue.

What’s more, reef islands are particularly vulnerable to erosion by rising seas, being made almost entirely of sand and gravel. Whole islands – even some island nations with which we are familiar today – are likely to be rendered uninhabitable or even disappear within the next 30 years. These include islands in nations like Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu, as well as some in other island nations that comprise mostly larger islands, such as the Federated States of Micronesia, of which Pohnpei is one.

Armoured islands

Yet we should note that not all of Pohnpei’s reef islands are disappearing, at least not at the same rate, and some have fortuitously evolved protection that will likely help them outlive their neighbours.

The coasts of some islands – like Kehpara and Nahlap – are “armoured” by beaches of huge boulders left there by large storms, often along their most exposed coasts. Other reef islands off Pohnpei’s leeward coast, such as Dawahk, are becoming “skeletonized” as waves wash across the island removing the sand and leaving only rocks, held in place by a maze of giant mangrove roots.

Whether or not the islands themselves succumb or survive, sea-level rise is a clear threat to their habitability for humans. Short-term interventions – either natural fortifications such as boulder beaches, or human-built defences such as seawalls – are unlikely to change the long-term outcome.

This underscores the fact that low-lying reef islands are transient – most Pacific reef islands formed only in the past 4,000 years after sea levels fell and sediment began to pile up on exposed reef platforms. The sea will remove today’s islands, just as it has washed away countless others before.

But of course we cannot ignore the human dimension. While only a few dozen people today call the reef islands of Pohnpei home, they are similar to many larger reef islands in Micronesia from which people may well be involuntarily displaced during the next few decades. Where these people might go, and how they can be accommodated in ways that preserve their dignity as well as their unique cultures, are very real questions for community leaders.


Read more: Australia doesn’t ‘get’ the environmental challenges faced by Pacific islanders


People first reached the islands of Micronesia from the Philippines, about 3,500 years ago after an unbroken ocean crossing of 2,300km. It’s an extraordinary achievement when you consider that people in most other parts of the world at that time rarely sailed out of sight of land. To have survived on islands in the middle of the ocean for more than three millennia, Micronesians and other Pacific islanders must have developed considerable resilience.

On high islands in Micronesia, the evidence for this is manifest. Ancient stonework constructions line many parts of the coastline, testament to a long
history of resisting shoreline change, and sometimes of manipulating it for human advantage.

Perhaps nowhere is more evocative of this today than Nan Madol, a megalithic complex built 1,000 years ago on 93 artificial islands off southeast Pohnpei. There are many explanations about why Nan Madol was created. Perhaps the truth is that it is an expression of dogged human resilience – one of hundreds along Micronesian coasts – in the face of an unruly nature.


The ConversationI thank my co-researchers on the project focused on Pohnpei’s reef islands, Augustine Kohler from the Department of National Archives, Culture and Historic Preservation of the Government of the Federated States of Micronesia, and my colleague Roselyn Kumar from the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Sustainability Research Centre.

Patrick D. Nunn, Professor of Geography, Sustainability Research Centre, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Australia might water down illegal logging laws – here’s why it’s a bad idea


Beatriz Garcia, Western Sydney University

Illegal logging is an immensely profitable global activity, linked to corruption, human rights abuses, criminal networks, and environmental destruction. A 2017 study by the Global Financial Integrity ranked illegal logging as the third largest global crime in value, after counterfeiting and drug trafficking.

Australia imports roughly A$8.1 billion worth of timber products a year, and according to estimates from the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, up to A$800 million comes from sources with some risk of being illegally logged.


Read more: Organised crime, illegal timber and Australia’s role in deforestation


Yet the federal government is currently considering significantly weakening regulation that prevent the import of illegal timber. Companies will be less likely to know where their wood comes from, and consumers will have less assurance that they are buying products from a legitimate source.

The proposed reform will require amendments to the 2012 Illegal Logging Prohibition Regulation. Once the changes are introduced, the parliament has 15 sitting days to disallow the changes.

Major change

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources has proposed significant changes to our timber import rules, with the aim of reducing the costs for businesses to comply with regulations. The proposal is to introduce a “deemed to comply” arrangement for certain private certification schemes.

Under current laws, businesses need to assess and manage the risk that imported timber or wood products may have been illegally logged. This is known as “due diligence”, and applies to timber imports worth A$1,000 or more.


Read more: Lessons from the US: stopping illegal logging benefits both sides of politics


The “deemed to comply” provisions assume that an importer has complied with the regulations, in some cases without actual checks and proofs of legality. This will exempt companies from undertaking their own due diligence.

But the Australian government recognizes that certification schemes still face challenges in dealing with deliberate fraudulent activity. Given the prevalence of bribery in illegal logging, it is not uncommon for illegally logged timber to have the “correct” government documents and achieve certification.

This problem is recognised in the European Union, which advises that regulations take into account the risk of corruption, saying that “even official documents issued by authorities cannot be considered reliable”.

Neither the EU or US regulations recognise third-party certification systems as a means of assuring timber legality (only as part of a system of due diligence or due care).

When it comes to illegal logging, due diligence works

Illegal logging degrades forests, harms wildlife, and emits greenhouse gases. The land sector, including logging, deforestation and other activities, accounts for 24% of total global emissions.

As well as causing environmental harm, illegal logging involves human rights abuses like violence against local communities, forced labour, and pollution of vital water supplies.


Read more: CSI trees: how forensic science is helping combat illegal logging


This is why developed countries around the world have created timber import standards, which play a key role in curbing illegal logging.

Experience in Europe shows that enforcing illegal logging laws and due diligence requirements has a significant positive impact. The more European authorities enforce these measures, the more aware and compliant the industry becomes. Companies change their supply chains as a result of due diligence processes, which in turn has an immediate impact in the countries that supply the timber.

In contrast, countries with inactive or inefficient enforcement see uncertainty within the industry and lower levels of awareness.

Watering down Australia’s due diligence requirements fly in the face of this evidence. While the proposed change is designed to make it cheaper and easier for companies to comply with the law, there’s a real chance it will increase the trade of illegal timber. Businesses will have fewer incentives to make sound decisions and consumers will not be able to tell if the timber they consume is indeed legally sourced.

The ConversationAny changes to our laws should strengthen them, not water down their requirements and limit their value and effectiveness. Our current legislation is the best defence for consumers and businesses. It should be enforced to ensure that the wood imported and sold in Australia does not cause harm both to people and nature.

Beatriz Garcia, Lecturer, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Negative charge: why is Australia so slow at adopting electric cars?



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Without a comprehensive network of recharging stations, like this one in Berlin, it’s little wonder that Australia is lagging behind other countries.
Author provided

Graciela Metternicht, UNSW and Danielle Drozdzewski, UNSW

In the race to adopt electric vehicles, Australia is sputtering along in the slow lane. Rather than growing, Australian sales of electric cars are actually in decline. In 2016 they represented just 0.02% of new car sales – even lower than in 2013.

Contrast that with Norway, the country with the highest levels of electric car adoption. Almost 30% of new cars sold there in 2016 were electric.


Read more: How electric cars can help save the grid


Why are Australian motorists rejecting electric cars while those in other advanced economies are embracing them? High vehicle prices are an obvious barrier, as are motorists’ perceptions about the adequacy of the range of fully electric cars, as the National Roads and Motorists’ Association has noted. But that is only part of the answer.

Our current research, in which we used online questionnaires to survey Australian motorists’ attitudes to electric vehicles, suggests that a comprehensive network of recharging stations, particularly on popular intercity routes, is essential to encourage drivers to go electric. This seems to be even more important than subsidising the cost of the cars themselves.

Rechargers on highways, in country towns and at service centres need to be fast and convenient, so that motorists aren’t unduly delayed. Without the right charging infrastructure, there is no foundation to allow Australian motorists to go electric with confidence.

The average Australian motorist drives 36km per day for all passenger vehicles (see table 8 here). This is well within the range of modern fully electric vehicles – more than 150km for the models on sale in Australia – and actually less than Norwegians, who drive more than 40km a day on average.

Norwegian drivers also enjoy the highest proportion of rechargers in the world. But on another criterion the world leader is Estonia. It’s credited as the first nation to build a country-wide network, with a recharging station every 50km on major roads, and one in every town with a population of at least 5,000.

Bumps in the road

Every country that has successfully adopted electric cars has done so by providing an effective recharging network. But we can learn from what has gone wrong in some of these places too.

Our research suggests that governments need to ensure that recharging stations work for motorists, rather than just for the network providers. Recharge points should have standardised fittings, easy payment options such as credit and debit card facilities, and prompt maintenance – all features of existing fuel stations.

Imagine if you could only fill up with petrol by pre-registering with a network, such as Caltex or Shell, and making sure you had paid in advance before taking a long trip. It sounds ridiculous, but that is the situation electric motorists face in some places.

Britain has multiple subscriber-only recharging networks, which frequently have chargers that are out of order. Recently, sales of fully electric vehicles have stagnated and it has only been a surge in sales of plug-in hybrids that boosted sales to 1.45% in 2016, up from 1.09% in 2015.

California has solved that problem by introducing legislation to ensure that motorists don’t have to join a network and can pay for the electricity by credit card. As a result of this and other measures, such as privileged lane access and support for workplace recharging, electric cars now represent 4.8% of Californian car sales, far outstripping the US average of 0.9% in 2016.

Another Californian law ensures that the 40% of Californians who live in rental properties can recharge their cars at home. As Australians are increasingly living in high-rise developments, ensuring car parks have the capacity to recharge cars overnight will be critical. The technology exists to enable separate billing for each car, so making sure strata management allows installation will be essential for people in units and flats to adopt this low-polluting technology.

Introducing such legislation will be a necessary first step. China recently announced that it is working towards a timetable to end production and sales of internal combustion engine vehicles. It’s a good example, which Australia would be wise to follow.

This will be critical if we are to reduce transport-related emissions, toxic air pollution and noise, and improve our fuel security in the face of increasingly unstable geopolitical circumstances and our growing dependence on imported fuel.


Read more: End of the road for traditional vehicles? Here are the facts


Without an adequate recharging network, Australian motorists risk being left in the rear-view mirror as the rest of the world’s drivers go electric. With electric cars forecast to reach price equivalency with petrol cars by 2025, we need to help Australians overcome their anxieties about running out of charge before they reach their destination.

Governments can do this by mandating a comprehensive open-access recharging network to speed the uptake of electric vehicles. We won’t be able to fix the problem overnight but we have to get started. There is no shortage of other countries to look to for ideas.


The ConversationThis article was coauthored by Gail Broadbent, a postgraduate researcher at UNSW’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science.

Graciela Metternicht, Professor of Environmental Geography, School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences, UNSW and Danielle Drozdzewski, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.