The numerous atolls that make up the island nation are now regularly swamped due to sea level rise. But as more people flee for the US, many fear their culture will be lost to a country that has already taken so much from them
There may be music in the roar of the sea, as Byron eulogized, but the waves can also bring creeping unease. On low-lying fragments of land like the Marshall Islands, the tides are threatening to take away what they previously helped support: life.
Hilda Heine surveys the latest temporary sea wall that cleaves her property from the waves. It has been knocked down twice since February by floods and she frets about her plants that will probably face a salty demise.
Her vista would, sadly, be unremarkable in the Marshall Islands were it not for the policeman languidly guarding the corrugated metal wall Heine is the president of the Pacific island nation. Here, no one is spared the rising seas.
I need a better wall, one with rocks, Heine mutters. Her presidency will probably be defined by climate change. Heine took charge in January and immediately declared a state of emergency over a drought so dire that water was rationed in the capital, Majuro. The nation also faces the existential threat of sea level rise and, with it, the potential exodus of its population.
The numbers are increasing, of people leaving, Heine says. We see that almost every day. It concerns us. I think to a certain extent there are people who are thinking about the sea level rise and theyre wanting to make sure theyre on secure land.
There is one destination at the top of the list for departing Marshallese: the USA. More than 20,000 people from this remote sprawl of islands, located between Hawaii and Australia, are now in the US. Surprisingly, the largest Marshallese community has gathered not in New York or Los Angeles, but around Springdale, an unremarkable corner of Arkansas.
Better job prospects and a college education are major pulls, but climate change is now elbowing its way on to the list of considerations. A third of the Marshall Islands 60,000-strong population now resides in the US and some of those left behind fret that many more will follow, with the archipelagos unique culture blemished by each departure. The Marshallese government has openly worried about massive outmigration in recent years a fifth of the population left between 1999 and 2011.
As the seas rise, the pathway to the US could be closing. A compact of free association, which allows Marshallese people to live and work in the US without a visa, ends in 2023 and there are no guarantees it will be extended. Those already living in the US would be able to stay but, if the agreement isnt extended, those living in the Marshall Islands will be treated like hopeful migrants from any other country.