Seven sites across the globe facing radical alteration due to climate change

From the MAR/APR 2006 issue of Seed:

Lat. 2°30’N Long. 112°30’E

wtgnborneoslide.jpg Credit: Hannes Schleicher

Unlike in California, where it causes severe storms, El Niño brings deadly droughts to the Kalimantan Timur province of Indonesia—East Borneo to the rest of us. (Global warming, via increased sea surface temperatures, cause more El Niños.) And since the early 1990s, monsoon rains—relied upon for thousands of years—have not always come.

The water shortages have been severe, but the real problem is the fires. In the flatlands of East Borneo’s Mahakam River delta, arsonists hired by local tree farms annually light tropical underbrush ablaze to clear land for planting, as they have been doing for hundreds of years, with little ecological effect.

An El Niño drought in 1997 did not deter them. Palm oil companies set hundreds of fires across the province. Then the first of Borneo’s twice-yearly monsoons failed to arrive. The land was dry and the brush crackling. The result was the worst forest fire in recorded history: It has been burning on and off for the past nine years.

The flames raced out of control across the coastal grasslands toward what remained of Borneo’s rainforests. The world’s third largest, the forest is home to the toucan-like hornbill and the rare proboscis monkey, and is one of only two remaining habitats for the orangutan. Orang populations, already perilously low, have plunged to an estimated 15,000 since the onset of the fires—and similar fires have begun on nearby Sumatra, the orang’s other habitat. One of the world’s rarest flowers, the black orchid, also grows in the burn zone.

Though new laws against burning have been passed in Indonesia, which controls two-thirds of Borneo, they have been nearly impossible to enforce in a roadless area. When the rains finally do come, El Niño-weakened drizzles allow hot brush to smolder, often for months. The resulting smoke spreads for hundreds of miles in a thick, toxic cloud. Ash from Borneo regularly blots out the sun across Southeast Asia; in bad years, parts of Indonesia and the Malaysian land mass completely disappear from satellite images of the Earth.

In the next El Niño year, the fire will likely turn north toward the still-wild inland mountains.

Marc Herman is the author of Searching for El Dorado. His book on Indonesia, Archipelago, will be published in 2007 by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.

Lat. 45°26’N Long. 12°20’E


Water meant everything to early Venetians. Locked in the center of a shallow, 660-square-kilometer lagoon, their republic was protected from invading armies for a thousand years. Now, this very water threatens to destroy Venice.

Rising sea levels, accelerated by global warming, are forcing the Adriatic against the stones of the city, allowing saltwater to seep into brick walls and crumble them.

The early Venetians had a solution for this. When sea levels began to batter the fragile walls above impermeable marble foundations, buildings simply were demolished, foundations raised and structures built anew. Today, of course, this is not a solution for preservation, and few of Venice’s priceless historic buildings have been demolished since the 1700s.

Over the past century, Venice has seen increasing incidences of acqua alta, or high water. Global warming is causing sea levels to rise more rapidly than nature once allowed. Adriatic storms are increasing in frequency and intensity, and when those storms occur on top of high tides, portions of the city go under water.

It is not unusual to see Piazza San Marco—the city’s most famous destination, and lowest point within which reside some of its priceless jewels of Renaissance and Byzantine architecture and Catholic art—filling with water several times a month between late fall and early spring. Depending on a storm’s strength and its timing with the tide, water in the famed piazza and other neighborhoods can range from ankle- to chest-deep. 

In response, and after decades of contentious debate, gates are being built on the bottom of the lagoon’s three entrances. These gates will rise on command when storm-topped high tides approach, keeping the Adriatic from sweeping into the lagoon and against Venice’s irreplaceable buildings. But it could be 10 years before this multibillion-dollar project is completed—and many scientists and engineers believe it will fail to hold back the seas for more than a few decades, if it works at all.

John Keahey is the author of Venice Against the Sea: A City Besieged.

Lat. 8°31’N Long. 179°13’E

wtgnTuvaluslide.jpg Credit: ASTER Science Team/NASA

Tuvalu is a small, unspoiled Polynesian country inhabited by friendly people with a rich, traditional style of living.

The sovereign nation comprises a chain of nine coral islands. Stretching along 580 km, about 1,000 km north of Fiji and 3,500 km north of New Zealand, they are bordered by beaches and dense with rainforest. The low-lying islands of Tuvalu are under imminent threat from rising seas; New Zealand has agreed to accept migrants once our home becomes uninhabitable, which is expected to happen in less than 50 years. In the meantime, stronger cyclones are expected to pose a threat, so the Red Cross is working on a better preparedness plan.

Our people devote some quality time to prayers and their loved ones, and have ample time to breathe as time is not so tightly managed. We live a simple lifestyle, setting our own limits and taking time out to remember our creator and the humble position that we hold in creation. The Tuvaluan people have tried to shape the world such that it does not create a mountain of expectation for humanity, which humankind can never fulfill, and we have fought to live in a world that upholds tranquility.

With simplicity in our way of life, the people of Tuvalu are not under pressure or strain, and we neither experience densely packed commuter trains nor find ourselves in heavily blocked motorways. Instead, we walk to our workplaces and anywhere else and, if we drive, the roads are mostly empty.

Tuvaluans do not risk their lives by allowing the modern lifestyle to destroy their quality time; rather, they schedule their days’ activities knowing that there are only ever going to be 24 hours in one day no matter how much technological progress we make.

Hilia Vavae is director of the Tuvalu Meteorological Service.

Lat. 44°328’N Long. 73°9’E

wtgnvermontslide.jpg Credit: Ted Wade

For a small place—the nation’s second least populous state, and its most rural—Vermont has a surplus of icons: covered bridges, stone walls, placid cows producing cheddar cheese. But there are three essential Currier & Ives Vermont scenes—and each of them is under siege from climate change.

Consider the fall, when for a few brief weeks the Green Mountains become the Red, Orange, and Yellow Mountains, drawing buses full of leaf-peepers from around the East. That short orgasm of color may already be fading—last autumn, with no hard frost ‘til the leaves were on the ground, was rated drab by old-timers. But the longer-term damage is even more obvious: The computer modeling done by a variety of researchers under contract to the EPA shows that by mid to late century, the birch and beech and maple forests will be giving way to oaks. Which turn a nice brown in the fall.

Or think about the winter—traditionally long here, full of skiers sliding across pastures and sleds flying down barnyard hills. The season is already about two weeks shorter on average than it was in 1970. (One of the best records of climate change comes from ice-out dates on New England ponds, where old custom dictates that you stick something like an outhouse in the middle and then place bets on when it will melt through). By late century, say researchers, cross-country skiing will be extinct in northern New England.

And then there’s sugar season, those few weeks in the spring when Vermonters have always tapped the maple trees to make our one great indigenous treat. You need cold nights and warm days for the sap to really flow—they used to come in March, but now it’s often much earlier. And the future? Well, there’s a reason you don’t use oak syrup on your pancakes.

Bill McKibben’s most recent book is called Wandering Home: A Long Walk Through Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks.

Okavango Delta, Botswana
Lat. 19°00’S Long. 22°30’E

wtgnokavangoslide.jpg Credit: Bobby Haas/Getty Images

The Okavango Delta has always been unique: a swamp in the middle of a desert. Having the only water for miles, it gives us one of the densest concentrations of megafauna on Earth. 146 mammalian species, along with many of the most colorful birds in the world, live here because we have plenty of water.

We in Okavango have not yet noticed effects of global warming, unlike some in other parts of the world, where ice is melting and hurricanes are blowing. But southern Africa as a whole has seen a 20% reduction in rainfall over the last 50 wet seasons—an occurrence consistent with computer models of climate change.

The Delta receives its annual floodwaters from Angola, 400 km away and a totally different ecosystem: mountain highlands with regular rain. Some years it’s big,  other years it’s small, but there’s always something. This is one of the many charms of living here. Because we don’t get rainfall figures from Angola, we only know what the flood will be like when it arrives in Botswana, and then only when the waters peak at the Delta’s inflow. So, long before global warming became an issue, this place went through very wet and very dry cycles.

The only immediate threat to this unique place is the building of upstream dams, or a large offtake of water from the Okavango River and its tributaries. But a recent climate model predicts a significantly and consistently drier southern Africa. In the short term, this will result in an even denser concentration of megafauna here as the swamp retracts. But as it dries, well, who knows? On the other hand, the last few years have been extremely rainy, and some speculate that global warming will bring wetter times to the Okavango regardless of trends in the region overall.

But the unpredictability of the place is what makes it so special for those of us living here. Whatever happens, this remains one of the most beautiful places on Earth and should be conserved. Every day spent in the Okavango is exciting and wonderful, and every year it looks different as the floodwaters make their way through. This is one of the largest pristine ecosystems left on this planet. May it stay that way.

Hennie Rawlinson owns the Xigera safari camp in Okavango and lives there and in nearby Maun, Botswana.

Lat. 62°48’N Long. 92°06’W

wtgnArcticslide.jpg Credit: Marco van Belleghem

Inuit are tied to the land and animals. We have struggled for thousands of years and, against all odds, survived in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. In adapting to the climate, Inuit invented sophisticated hunting techniques to survive. A culture was born, which followed the cycle of the seasons. While the rest of the world went through huge transformations in the 20th century, Inuit continued to live with relatively few changes. Today, although not as much as in years past, Inuit still rely on harvesting animals, such as seals and other marine mammals, for food. With climate change, our lifestyles and practices are in jeopardy. 

In the Northwest Territories this is very noticeable, especially around Tuktoyaktuk, on the shores of the Beaufort Sea. The Inuvialuit have inhabited these shores for millennia. However, the lifestyle that these people enjoy is being disrupted because the permafrost is melting. Houses are in danger of being swept to sea. Winter roads are essential to bringing goods and allowing people to visit relatives in other communities; with delayed ice-forming and early spring break-up, it hits these people hard.

In the territory of Nunavut lies the community of Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island. Pangnirtung is just below the southern tip of the Auyuittuq National Park. Auyuittuq means “never melts.” Yet the park’s glacier is melting, creating bigger rivers than normal. Residents must wait longer for the sea ice to freeze, making traditional fishing spots inaccessible. Normally, the ice freezes prior to Christmas, but as I write this, in late January, it is delayed by almost a month. The fishermen need good solid ice. With thin ice it becomes a dangerous occupation.

If this continues, it will create havoc for us Northerners. While it is evident that the Arctic environment is an early indicator of global climate change, it is Inuit who need the polar bears (and other species that rely on sea ice for survival), to prosper in this territory. And it is we who will make the best efforts to ensure their ultimate survival.

Gabriel Nirlungayuk of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, works for Nunavut Tunngavik, a watchdog group for Inuit rights.

Lat. 18°08’S Long.178°08’E

wtgnFijislide.jpg Credit: Dennis Sabo

I will never forget my first dive at Beqa Lagoon, off the Coral Coast of Fiji, in 1999. Fiji has many world-class dive sites, and Beqa is among them. We dived around and atop an underwater pinnacle, an oceanic feature which the locals call “bommies.” It was covered in multi-colored corals and thousands of stunning tropical fish, including lionfish, fusiliers, baby clownfish inside sea anemones, and fire dart fish. The experience was so much like looking into an aquarium, I forgot I was actually in nature.

When I returned a year later, I noticed something strange: much of the coral was fluorescent white, pink or blue. It was only when I got back onto the boat that I realized I had witnessed coral bleaching at its worst.

When water heats up, corals expel the symbiotic algae that provides them with nutrients and color, leaving the corals “bleached.” (Increased solar irradiance and carbonification of shallow waters, where coral lives, are other factors related to global warming that can cause bleaching.) In Fiji, corals can survive in waters up to about 30°C (86°F). Above that, the corals will die if the temperature stays elevated for long enough. Over a period of months, I could see the dreadful effect. Much of the coral Fiji is famous for died and broke, fish disappeared, and the once stunning reef at Beqa became a sad desert. Thankfully, not everything died off and I could see little bits of live coral and some persistent fish. 

Over the next few years, I witnessed a slow recovery—suggesting that reefs can repair themselves under the right conditions. New bits of coral appeared, and some recovered significantly enough for the fish to return. My diving friends in Fiji recently wrote to me that they spotted some fish they have not seen for several years, such as Maori wrasse and batfish. It will still take many years of temperatures closer to the historical mean to return the reef to the condition it was in before 2000. But there is no reason to be confident that sea surface temperatures and other conditions fostering coral reefs will remain as constant as in the past.

Marijke Wilhelmus is a master scuba-diving trainer and web designer. She lived for five years in the Pacific, and is involved in a variety of environmental protection projects.

Originally published May 25, 2006


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