"Do they not then see that We are visiting the land,
curtailing it of its sides? Shall they then prevail?"
(Qur'an 21:44)

Tuesday October 22, 2002
Section 2 / 5

Singking Feeling


(Note: A few paragraphs are left out here, and we apologise - Pengurus Laman)

The isolated country of Tuvalu is not much more than a few specks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but it is at the centre of international debate over climate change. As the highest point on the island is a mere five metres above sea level, many islanders worry that rising sea levels caused by global warming will wash away their country.

By all appearances, Tuvalu is a Polynesian paradise. With seven coral atolls and two coral islands, the country is spread across 560km of the South Pacific north of New Zealand. Palm trees grow along white sand beaches that fringe the turquoise waters of lagoons.

It remains to be seen whether science will support Tuvalu's predictions of impending doom, but no one doubts that the country faces a precarious existence.

At the ripe age of 65 million years, its atolls are nearing the end of their geologic lifespan. Not only do islanders face the danger of the sea rising, they also face the inevitable problems of the land sinking.

Each atoll was formed when a volcanic island sank beneath the sea, leaving a ring of coral islands around a lagoon.

An outer reef protects the land from the pounding of the sea. The coral can grow upward and keep pace with a gradual increase in sea level, but if the ocean rises too quickly, the natural barrier could be lost.


"If the reef is destroyed, it's goodbye Tuvalu," said Wolfgang Scherer, director of Australia's National Tidal Facility.

The atolls are especially vulnerable to tropical storms that can blow in and change the landscape overnight. In 1997, a cyclone swept the topsoil and every tree and bush off the islet of Tepuka Savilivili in Tuvalu's main atoll, Funafuti.

Tuvalu had little contact with the outside world until Spanish explorers arrived in 1781. In the 1800s, slave traders stole hundreds of people from the islands to work the guano mines of Peru. Missionaries converted the rest of the population to Christianity.

Today, many Tuvaluans have a literal faith in the Bible and don't believe any harm will come from global warming.

Shopkeeper Lutelu Kofe, 46, is typical. He is more concerned about harm to the community from rising alcohol levels than rising water levels.

"I read the Bible and God said to Noah: No more floods," Kofe said. "So I'm not worried. When I see the sea, it's the same as before."

While there is no question that the world's oceans have been rising, no one can predict with certainty how fast they will rise in the future.

Nine years ago, scientists from Australia's National Tidal Facility installed high-tech gauges in Tuvalu and 10 other Pacific islands to measure changes in sea level.

The Tuvalu gauge has detected an average increase of 1mm a year - the same rate at which the oceans have been rising for the last century. Because the average ocean level can fluctuate more than a foot from year to year, researchers say they will need at least two more decades to determine whether the water is rising faster than before.

"The critical question is whether sea level rise is going to accelerate," said Scherer. "So far, there is no evidence of that happening in Tuvalu or anywhere else around the globe."

As the Earth's average temperature has gone up over the last century, glaciers in the Rocky Mountains, the Swiss Alps, the Himalayas and the Andes have receded.

The great fear is that the huge ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica will melt, drastically increasing the volume of water in the oceans and inundating low-lying coastal areas.

In February, the time of year when the tides typically are highest, the water rose to within 2.5cm of flooding the home of teacher Easter Molu. Now she is convinced that global warming will destroy the islands.

"We think maybe next year the water will be inside our house," said Molu. - LAT-WP

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