The Marshall Islands—two roughly parallel chains of low-lying coral atolls that stretch across 800 miles just north of the equator—have an intensely close relationship with the Pacific Ocean that surrounds them. The full implications of that relationship were apparent in a student’s question for John M. Silk, who was serving as minister of foreign affairs for the Republic of the Marshall Islands when he visited a local community college in early 2011.
“Has the government put in place a plan if we have to evacuate the Marshall Island citizens because the islands sink beneath the waves?” the student asked.
The answer was no, and it still is. “It never occurred to the government that we would like to put in place a plan like that as a contingency,” says Silk, interviewed before leaving office following the election of a new president in January. “We would basically be abandoning our country—losing our culture and identity. This is the last thing we want to do.”
The student’s question touched on what many consider to be a very real possibility. If climate change advances the way most scientists predict, the citizens of many of the world’s small island nations may face a catastrophe of mythic proportions sometime during this century. As sea levels creep upward, those islands—like the fabled lost city of Atlantis—will sink beneath the waves.