July 01, 2013

By Bill Jaynes
The Kaselehlie Press

June 26, 2013 Pohnpei, FSM -The months' long drought in the northern islands of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) has made it painfully clear that Pacific Islands and their residents are vulnerable to the whims of climate. Yesterday morning's high tide in Majuro, the capital of RMI brought a further reminder.

Yesterday morning's massive tide swamped the southern region of the atoll island. It flooded an as yet uncounted number of homes, closed the airport, and spread debris across the region. Portions of a 20 mile long segment of the island that extended to Laura were closed until workers could clear the debris. The sea wall around the dump was also breached and waves scattered trash down the length of the island.

Majuro resident Provan Crump told Radio Australia that waves broke down one wall of his house in the early morning hours yesterday.

"I'm right on the ocean and it broke down my wall and we had water coming into the house at about five o'clock," Crump told Radio Australia. "I reckon one wave put about a ton of water inside the house when it broke down the wall."

He told Radio Australia that he watched as several waves washed right across the island into the lagoon.

Bernie Grong, who is from Yap, FSM, but who is currently working in Majuro posted pictures of her journey as she headed to work at 6:00 in the morning. The photos showed high flood waters but a visually calm sea. She wrote on her Facebook page, "At first I thought I slept through a typhoon...trippy!"

Because of debris on the runway that included garbage, coral, and bits of the sea wall, United Airlines was forced to overfly Majuro yesterday morning. Because the United mechanic was to have been picked up in Majuro, the flight also was forced to overfly Kwajalein, Pohnpei, and Chuuk. United Airlines sent a "rescue flight" with a new crew to return travelers to their destinations.

The airport was cleared by yesterday afternoon and today's scheduled flight landed without event.

Majuro's cleanup efforts began as soon as the flood waters receded, but Marshall Islanders were under no illusion that yesterday morning's high tide would be the last. The Majuro Weather Service issued an advisory saying that flooding could occur during periods of high tide through Thursday.

"Looks like similar conditions are being forecast by NOAA/NWS Tiyan Guam for the next few days," RMI's Senator Tony deBrum wrote in a widely circulated email yesterday morning. "'Astronomical tides' they are being called--go figure." But the tide that came last evening and again this morning wasn't nearly as high as yesterday morning's high tide. It didn't breach the sea walls and affected only the low lying areas of the atoll.

Neville Koop, Climatology/Meteorology Adviser at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Program in Samoa described the two events that combined to make Tuesday's tide much higher than it would have been had only one of the factors been involved. He told Radio Australia in an on air interview early this morning that the first factor was the moon.

Tides are always higher during the full moon but this week's full moon was what has come to be called a "super moon".A "super moon" is a full moon that occurs at the same time as the moon is closest to the earth during its elliptical orbit. A super moon occurs approximately once every 14 months. The next one will be in August of 2014. The gravitational effect of the moon during a super moon is about ten to twelve percent higher than most other full moon events, and for this reason the tide variation between high and low tides is greater than normal, by about the same margin.

However the "super moon" tide alone would not have been enough to cause yesterday's inundation of southern Majuro. The second factor was a train of large swell waves that travelled from the south Pacific near New Zealand northward past Fiji and Kiribati then up to the Marshall Islands. While these waves were generated by a storm a week or so ago, they only arrived in Majuro yesterday. Fiji also experienced some sea flooding over the past weekend from the same event.

Mr. Koop told Radio Australia that the surge was spawned by the southern end of the low pressure system that contributed to the extreme winter storm that hit New Zealand last week.

He explained that last evening's tide in Majuro was not as high as yesterday morning's tide because the highest level of the storm surge has moved on, and the moon's effect on tide levels is also diminishing as it continues its orbit and moves further away.

"A FEMA team is in town to help out with our drought disaster declaration for the northern Marshalls," Senator deBrum wrote in his email yesterday. "This morning (Tuesday) the high tide breached the road beginning at PII all the way down to Laura in a number of vulnerable areas. The team is running all over the place taking pictures and freaking out after learning United is cancelled for today and perhaps the next two or three flights because the airport is closed (sea wall breached ocean side). They cannot even fly to the Northern islands to assess the drought situation. Welcome to Climate Change, America," he exclaimed in his widely circulated email. The sea level in RMI has risen over the last 60 years. During the last 20 years the data has been recorded by satellite. The data collected by the satellite suggests annual sea level rise in RMI has been .3 inches (7 mm) per year since 1993.

Climates and tides in any one particular area on the globe can vary from year to year in any specific location. Scientists call it "Climate Variability". Twenty years is not nearly enough time to determine whether or not the increase in sea level is a result of global warming but scientists are predicting an increase in the rate of sea level rise in the current high emissions environment.

"By 2030, under a high emissions scenario, this rise in sea level is projected to be in the range of 1.2-6.3 inches (3-16 cm)," says the International Climate Change Adaptation Initiative report on RMI. "As there is still much to learn, particularly how large ice sheets such as Antarctica and Greenland contribute to sea-level rise, scientists warn larger rises than currently predicted could be possible."

Whether or not last weeks' storm in New Zealand was a direct or an indirect result of long term climate change, or whether it was completely unrelated to climate change, yesterday's inundation flooding in Majuro demonstrates that Pacific Islanders are vulnerable to sea level rise, and that they will only become more vulnerable as Climate Change intensifies.

Adaptation measures need to be instituted, and quickly.

According to news reports of the day, in 2010 the United Nations announced plans to begin to solicit international aid for Majuro to help them build a three mile long sea wall. Apparently that never happened. Giff Johnson said that the only sea walls of which he is aware are the sea wall at the airport's runway which was funded by the FAA, and a few small sea walls built as Climate Change adaptation measures funded by regional entities.