Journey to the Sinking Lands

A witness to the world's first evacuation of an entire people due to climate change

An argument

I’m pulling together a talk I’m due to give to the Royal Geographical Society about the Carterets journey. I’m speaking twice, firstly to the Society’s City branch on October 6 and secondly at the RGS itself, on December 14.
It’s proven to be a good opportunity to finally tie together some of the loose ideas I’ve been thinking about since before I left for the islands in April. At the time, I remember thinking there was something there, but couldn’t quite form it as a finished idea in my mind.
My basic thinking goes link this (I hope to come back with more scientific data to back all this up):

This year is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. He was born in Shrewsbury, where I live. I even went to the birthday party held for him in town, where lots of people got dressed up in old-fashioned clothes and ate cake.

It is also the 300th anniversary of the first use of coke (a form of coal) to smelt iron. The site of this discovery, now called Ironbridge is described as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. I grew up in Ironbridge.

Ironbridge and Shrewsbury are just 12 miles apart. I cycle or drive that road constantly. Before I left for the Carterets, I couldn’t shake the feeling there was something that linked Darwin, Ironbridge and the islands, but I couldn’t work out what it was.

Now, I think it is this:

  • The work that Darwin himself said he was happiest with was his theory of the formation of coral atolls, what he called these ‘curious rings of land’. Essentially, Darwin was the first to suggest that coral atolls naturally formed, rose and eventually subsided beneath the sea.
  • On the Carterets, the people are being forced to migrate as their home apparently sinks beneath the sea.
  • That migration is a very Darwinian process. Right now, British butterfly populations are migrating north as their climate warms up. In fact 80% of British fauna are believed to be moving slowly north.
  • In a sense these migrations are a process of natural selection; those individuals best suited to migration will survive the move.
  • But is that to say what is happening to the Carterets is a natural process? If it were only natural, Darwinian subsidence causing the atoll to sink we could say yes it is. But is it?
  • The rate of Darwinian subsidence is too slow to account for the dramatic changes seen on the islands.
  • So is it something else?
  • The use of coal to smelt iron, and the Industrial Revolution it provoked, led directly to CO2-based pollution we see today and which is causing climate change.
  • Climate change is causing the sea levels to rise globally.
  • Is this enough to account for the destruction wrought to the Carterets? Possibly.
  • Climate change is also increasing the incidence and fury of high-tides and storm surges in the region, which literally tear away the sand from which the islands are made.
  • Is this enough to account for the destruction wrought to the Carterets? Possibly.
  • Would the natural subsidence of the Carterets be made worse by rising sea levels and worse storm surges? Yes.
  • If this is the case, then climate change has not so much changed the natural selection game, but has massively upped the stakes.
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