Location of Kiribati (from Wikipedia)
Location of Kiribati (from Wikipedia)

By Evan

Sea level rise is a threat to any human settlement close to sea level. No place is more aware of this than the Pacific islands nation of Kiribati. This country, a member of the British Commonwealth, is expected to be inundated by the sea if sea level continues to rise.

On Monday, the Australian government pledged $15 million to help Kiribati rebuild a road damaged by sea level rise. The article suggests that rising sea level could make the nation uninhabitable by 2030, due to erosion and contamination of fresh water sources by salt water. There certainly is some politics involved in this decision. Should Kiribati become uninhabitable, one of the most likely place for the people to go is Australia. There are over 100,000 people who live on the islands, which will only increase in the next 20 years. Having 100,000+ refugees coming towards Australia would definitely put a lot of pressure on the political establishment. The country of Maldives, another archipelago that is under threat of sea level change, has already indicated that Australia was a likely candidate for relocation should the country become inundated (they started a fund to be able to purchase land for settlement). Kiribati announced last week that they are planning to purchase land on Fiji to grow food because the arable land on the islands was diminishing.

What does this mean? Even though Australia itself has areas that would be affected by sea level rise, it has plenty of land where people could move. But when small, densely populated islands become uninhabitable, those people have to move to other countries. The boat people issue is a top political problem here in Australia, with the amount of arrivals reaching record numbers last year. Sea level has been rising at a rate of anywhere between 0-10 mm per year in the Kiribati region since 1993 (see chart below). Islands where the rate is high may need to be abandoned. Almost certainly, this will cause mass migration of people into Australia, perhaps dwarfing the influx of political refugees. Australia will need to be able to adjust their economy to handle these new people, and certainly that will not be popular in segments of the electorate. For political junkies like myself, it will be interesting to see what happens.

Rate of sea level rise measured by satellite altimetry (from NOAA)
Rate of sea level rise measured by satellite altimetry since 1993 (from NOAA)