MAJURO, Marshall Islands – It is easy to remain detached from the slow-moving reality of global climate change.
Most of the planet remains, at least for now, relatively unscathed by rising tides, severe droughts and increasingly powerful weather events that mark a warming planet. But climate change has arrived – and those living on low-lying Pacific Islands are already dealing with effects like king tides, bleaching coral, graveyards getting washed out to sea.
Compass traveled to the Marshall Islands and captured these snapshots of what it's like to live on the front lines of climate change.
In the vast South Pacific, the Marshall Islands consist of five islands and 29 atolls spread across 357,000 square miles. The majority of the islands’ 70,000 people live here, on the main island of Majuro. At its narrowest point, no more than 50 feet separate the ocean side from the lagoon side. Several floods, which many attribute to the rise in sea levels caused by global warming, have swept across the island this past year.
Nearly 1,000 people from Majuro were rendered homeless during massive flooding last April. The floods, caused by storm surges combined with seasonally high tides (often called king tides) destroyed low-lying houses on the ocean side of the island, like the one seen above.
Even the dead haven't been safe from the rising seas. This community graveyard on Majuro was battered by high tides from October 2014 through February. Witnesses said the incoming tide washed graves out to sea and exposed skeletons, which were also later claimed by the Pacific.
The Marshall Islands’ spectacular but temperature-sensitive coral reefs are another casualty of climate change. An El Nino event of abnormally warm water, combined with a Pacific already warmed by increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, caused unprecedented and massive coral bleaching in the Marshall Islands last October.
Some of the coral have recovered, while others have died, leaving nothing but skeletons that eventually collapse under their own weight and crumble to the sea floor.
Marshall Island teenagers, including some who dropped out of high school and college, learn the art of outrigger canoe building and sailing from the nonprofit Waan Aeolon in Majel, set up by Alson Kelen, the former mayor of the Bikini Atoll.
The nonprofit aims to pass on the Marshall Islands' culture while teaching participants practical skills to help gain employment after finishing their education.
The United States relocated the residents of the Bikini Atoll in 1946 to make way for nuclear weapons testing. Many islanders imagined they would return within weeks or months. Instead, the testing continued for 12 years, and the world's first nuclear refugees were moved from atoll to atoll within the Marshall Islands.
The majority ended up on the tiny island of Kili, a hostile place with no lagoon and scarce natural resources. Another small group went back to the Bikini Atoll in the early 1970s after President Lyndon B. Johnson deemed it safe to return. They were later moved to the small island of Ejit, next to Majuro, when monitoring of the native population found dangerous levels of radiation in their bodies.
Home to about 300 descendants of the Bikini Atoll evacuees, Ejit Island has been particularly hard hit by the surging tides. This picture was taken in February by the former mayor of the Bikini Atoll government in exile.
Some projections estimate a sea level rise here of nearly two feet by the end of the century – enough to inundate 75 percent of the islands and atolls. But recent flooding and subsequent damage to buildings and crops by seawater suggests many of the atolls could be uninhabitable well before then.
Representatives from the island of Kili, home to 800 descendants of the original Bikini Atoll refugees, have asked the US Department of the Interior to relocate them to the United States. There are already significant Marshall Islands populations in Hawaii, Guam and Arkansas – communities that are likely to receive some of America's first climate change refugees if sea levels continue to rise.
The International Organization for Migration recently opened an office on Majuro to help refugees who have been internally displaced within the Marshall Islands due to extreme weather events like flooding and droughts that have been linked to climate change.
The Marshall Islands’ de facto national poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner has become a global voice representing people living in low-lying countries that will be most affected by the rising seas.
Last September, she electrified delegates, including world leaders, at the opening of the UN Climate Summit in New York by reciting her work, "A Poem to my Daughter".
It's hard to grasp just how tenuous life on the Marshall Islands is – unless you see it from above. To show exactly how small the islands are compared to the vast expanses of the rising Pacific, our team captured the aerial image below with a DJI Phantom – a small unmanned quadcopter.