Climate change may drive Marshall Islands the way of Atlantis

Climate Cast
Every Thursday, MPR meteorologist Paul Huttner joins The Daily Circuit to talk about the latest research on our changing climate and the consequences we're seeing here in Minnesota and worldwide.
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In the Marshall Islands, a string of atolls in the South Pacific, the stakes from climate change are clear and immediate.

During storms like the one that came late last month, parts of the island nation southwest of Hawaii disappear under 2 feet of water. Meanwhile, a persistent drought is damaging the food supply for a population of 68,000 people.

"The elders tell us that there have been droughts like this before, but I don't think anybody has ever seen it where it's so wet," Tony de Brum, minister for climate change, told Australia Network News, as reported by the Weather Channel. The land rises only about 6 feet above sea level, leaving the Marshalls with little margin during severe weather.

Paul Huttner, chief meteorologist for MPR News, discussed the plight of the Marshall Islands and their possible future on Thursday's Daily Circuit Climate Cast.

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"This is a place that's quite literally on the front lines of climate change," he said. "Could it be the next Atlantis?" According to a report on Climate Central:

All 34 atolls are chains of islands sitting on top of coral reefs — the remnants of long-extinct volcanoes that have sunk below the sea, leaving idyllic-looking, palm-fringed lagoons. The 1,100 islands are sometimes a few kilometers (a mile or so) long but only 100 meters (328 feet) or so wide and less than two meters (6.6 feet) above sea level, leaving them vulnerable to storm surges and exceptional tides.

Normally, the scant fresh water supplies are topped up from frequent evening rains, but a devastating drought, which the locals blame on climate change, has reduced a desperate population to rationing water supplies to a liter a day (33 ounces). Their plight has been made worse by the high tides that threaten their homes and tiny gardens.

Some of those tide changes are becoming a threat closer to home, as well, Huttner said — and it's worth considering the impact of rising waters near U.S. cities like Miami, Tampa, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

"One of the interesting things about the U.S. coast is the vulnerability of our airports," he said, many of which are built close to the water. New York's LaGuardia airport was inundated with water during last fall's Hurricane Sandy, for instance.

In Minnesota, the changes in climate can also force changes in nearby forestry, wildlife and natural structures. Lee Frelich, a forest ecologist at the University of Minnesota, joined Climate Cast to talk about the changes facing northern Minnesota and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area as the climate shifts.

It starts with tree limits, he said. A number of tree species' northern range tends toward central Minnesota — but Frelich and his team have noticed that their edges have begun to push farther north. Red maple, for instance, is beginning to show up in the Boundary Waters. So is the red oak, which is far more typical in the Duluth area, about 100 miles to the southeast. "We're getting thousands of occurrences per square mile of red maple throughout the Boundary Waters," he said.

It's become a cycle: The wind storms called derechos, Frelich said, have appeared more frequently. They level the forest. The forests burn in drought seasons, and the fires have been more severe than in the past. Some of the pine species have become close to extinct. And when the forests regenerate, they become something you'd be more likely to see 100 miles south. And with the flora come the fauna.

"Deer are moving further north because the snow cover isn't as deep for as long; that's a limiting factor for deer," he said. And they bring parasites that damage the moose population.

This isn't the first time a shift like this has happened in Minnesota. Just look to the white spruce, which stretched from Hudson Bay to Missouri and Tennessee.

"You know, 4,000 years ago," Frelich said, "the spruce was farther north, and we had grasses and oak trees in Minnesota."