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Because of being low in elevation, the atolls of the Marshall Islands stand at risk of any increases in the sea level. Under normal conditions, coral and the other components of a coral reef can maintain a healthy landmass. For instance, in the Marshalls, the growth rate for healthy coral is estimated to be about 1/8 to 1/4 inch per year, compared with a currently projected rate of sea level rise of 1/10 to 1/4 inch per year. Theoretically, then, the coral growth could just keep up with the water rise.
However, if the growth rates of corals are altered, the picture becomes very different. If the sea level temperature rises, there could be big changes. Right now, the average sea temperature around the Marshall Islands is about 84 degrees F (29 degrees C) - just about the upper limit where coral can survive. According to Dr. Thomas Goreau of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, the increase of merely by another 1.8 degree F (1 degree C), could trigger massive coral bleaching and die-off.
Increases in the sea temperature which have resulted in coral bleaching have been recorded in recent years on coral reefs elsewhere in the world, including other parts of Micronesia. Branching corals and table corals are the most susceptible to ocean warming, and thus are the first to suffer, but eventually, all types of corals succumb. Dr. Goreau reports that during recent El Nino - induced warmings in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans, bleachings close to 100% were found, with an actual mortality of an estimated 70- 99% in some areas! Coral that has been so affected does not easily recover, even if the water temperature returns to its normal range. When coral reefs are thus destroyed, the former protection they provided to the land is lost.
Climate change can similarly bring about changes in ocean currents and weather patterns. According to a recent report on climate change in the Marshall Islands, projected that "temperatures will continue to rise on all atolls with the highest increases in the northern areas; total rainfall will decrease for all atolls; there will be an increase in severe droughts especially in the northern atolls; and the intensity and frequency of extreme events (storms and storm surge) will increase."
These conditions also cause problems to freshwater supplies. A decrease in rainfall means that people tend to utilize the underground water lenses more, to the point that they become salty. Furthermore, an increase in sea level also allows salt to seep into the lenses, and when there is not enough rainfall to counteract this intrusion, the situation becomes very bad. Besides the obvious loss of drinking water, "iaraj" pits, which depend on the lenses become unusable.
A small foretaste of what could happen was observed when Typhoon Paka passed through the Marshalls in late 1997. On Ailinglaplap, food crops were severely hit and outside food had to be brought in for the people living there. The El Nino-induced drought that followed was so intense that eventually, all of the Marshalls were declared disaster areas, and emergency water-making equipment and food supplies were shipped in. And that was to allow people merely to survive. Most of the land area changed from its normal healthy - looking green to brown. Many coconut trees and breadfruit trees died during that period of no rain, and even native and other traditional plants showed stress. It is still too early to know what the long-term effects will be, but even close to two years later, many breadfruit trees continue to shrivel up and die.
Of all ecosystems, coral reefs are considered to be the most sensitive to global warming. Coral reef countries, such as the Marshall Islands, are thus at risk, of not only the "destruction of their critical services - fishermen, shore protection, tourism, sand protection and biodiversity," but also of "the actual disappearance of the[se] lowest lying countries." It was not without reason, therefore, that even back in 1989, during an intergovernmental meeting on climate change and sea level rise held in Majuro, it was "suggested that such countries could be considered for UNEP [United Nations Environmental Programme] protection as 'endangered species'."