The Pacific Islands: At the Confluence of Cultural Preservation and Climate Change

The Pacific Islands: At the Confluence of Cultural Preservation and Climate Change

Nearly 500 years ago, Ferdinand Magellan christened the Pacific Ocean: Mare Pacifico – calm sea – which was, and continues to be, a misleading term considering the frequently turbulent conditions confronting sailors. In fact, an El Niño event from 1521-1522 likely produced this misnomer, as it created anomalous weather conditions that allowed Magellan to sail peacefully. In stark contrast to his experience, archaeological research and recent history clearly demonstrate just how unforgiving Pacific typhoons, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes can be. Surrounded by the “Ring of Fire,” this ocean would seem to be a proving ground for human endurance, one which native Pacific Islanders have lived in and adapted to for thousands of years.

As opposed to the unpredictable calamities that regularly occur in the Pacific, the future may bring a much slower and more insidiously destructive scenario with the potential to displace hundreds of thousands of people, disrupt fragile island ecologies, and erode cultural traditions that have been entrenched for millennia. Nations both adjacent to and far outside the region continue to emit harmful levels of carbon dioxide. The associated uptick in temperature has already affected sea level rise due to the coincident melting of polar ice.

Around ten percent of earth’s population (about 650 million people) now live in low-elevation coastal zones, mostly in less developed countries. Even in conservative estimates of population growth, more than one billion people could inhabit these areas globally by 2060. The Pacific is but a microcosm of a much bigger problem not easily remedied. If accurate, current projections of sea level rise in the region, particularly on occupied atolls, will leave inhabitants no other option but to depart for higher ground. Larger islands will likely see increased immigration and accompanying financial and social burdens. This trend has dangerous implications for island cultures, and requires an immediate remedy to climate change threats.

The world is now witness to the inevitable drowning of land and culture as a result of climatic shifts in a region that historically has dealt with the unpredictable nature of earth’s conditions, and various countries must now prepare to deal with the fallout. Given that most islands in the Pacific lie two meters or less above the mean sea level, even a slight increase in global temperatures will alter these landscapes dramatically. A prime example is that of the Marshall Islands, a collection of low-lying atolls still reeling from the testing of more than fifty atomic bombs in the 1940s and 1950s. These tests led to forced resettlement and radioactive contamination of land and sea. Some anthropologists would go so far as to say that atomic testing—which exposed thousands of people to radioactive fallout and displaced them from their homes—coupled with sea level rise, will effectively destroy Marshallese culture.

Despite the diversity of Pacific Island cultures, they are homogenous in their deep concern for land stewardship and their strong ties to their environment. As of 2007, about three-fourths of the 9.3 million people in the Pacific lived in rural settings, using land for subsistence agriculture through the cultivation of taro, sweet potato, yams, breadfruit, and other crops. Recent years have seen increased urbanization, concentrated mainly on port cities in vulnerable coastal areas. Additionally, the inhabitants’ connection to the sea has always been associated with voyaging and fishing. These practices provide crucial protein and are thus essential for a community’s survival.

Inland and coastal settlements are intricately interconnected based on kin relations, historical places of residence, and adherence to various economic and social organizations. Culturally defined activities within these areas include not only farming and fishing, but also rituals, dancing, and other customs that are key components to Pacific Island traditions. Many of these activities are economically and spiritually linked to the coast. Just by looking at fertility and migration rates that threaten to pressure traditional livelihoods in certain areas, together with gradual urbanization, one can easily imagine the cultural stressors associated with the loss of both land and heritage.

How will Pacific Islanders respond to this phenomenon and what can or should they do to mitigate the effects of the perpetually rising tide that global climate change brings? Some nations are taking proactive, albeit controversial, measures to address the problem. The government of the Maldives Islands—home to over 400,000 people living on more than two dozen atolls—is using tourist revenue to develop a sovereign wealth fund to acquire land in Australia, India, and Sri Lanka to house displaced citizens. Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas), a member of the Alliance of Small Island States, has already purchased land more than 1,000 miles away in Fiji for eventual relocation.

For nations like Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, whose citizens are frustrated by seawater flooding their homes, gardens, and other living areas, relocation may be the only solution. These remote islands lack the monetary means to effectively combat tidal inundations with concrete barriers and other major infrastructural improvements. Addressing this issue would require huge financial contributions from the world’s richest nations and significantly stronger attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The latter would require greater investitures to develop and use alternative, sustainable energy sources.

The flight of islanders from their homes represents more than removing themselves from the places their ancestors have occupied for centuries. It also signifies supplanting long-held cultural traditions of harvesting and food preparation, as well as commerce, social, and religious activities intimately tied to the land and sea. Similarly distressing is the inevitable drowning of finite cultural resources—artifacts and other remains of past human settlement—unless more concerted efforts are made to recover them through archaeological survey and site recording. Stronger governmental support through various funding agencies, such as (in the case of the United States), the National Science Foundation and National Park Service, can help realize these goals.

Put into context, climate change could mean the erasure of remnants of many Pacific Island cultures and lead to significant lifestyle changes. Regulatory mechanisms in developed nations that seek to curb greenhouse gas emissions may not suffice to stop or even slow the impending crisis. Meanwhile, sea level rise on the order of about one to two centimeters per year—perhaps two meters by the end of this century based on an estimated acceleration of Antarctica melting—would be catastrophic. “Under the high emissions scenario, the 22nd century would be the century of hell,” said Ben Strauss, director of the sea level rise program at Climate Central. “There would really be an unthinkable level of sea rise. It would erase many major cities and some nations from the map […] That century would become the century of exodus from the coast.”

There are no quick remedies to the problems facing Pacific Island societies. It is clear, however, that developed nations, particularly the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, China, and India, must provide new funding packages and comprehensive plans to assist islanders with eventual emigration to their own or other countries. Allocating resources for recording and recovering the remaining vestiges of their histories is also critically urgent and vital. There will be no Pacific future without attempts to preserve both its past and present cultural heritage.


Dr. Scott M. Fitzpatrick is a professor of archaeology in the Department of Anthropology and Associate Director of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon. He is an archaeologist, specializing in the prehistory and historical ecology of island and coastal regions, particularly the Pacific and Caribbean. Much of his research has focused on prehistoric colonization events, seafaring strategies, adaptations to smaller islands, exchange systems, and human impacts on ancient environments. He has published several books and more than 100 journal articles and book chapters; and is the founding Co-Editor of the Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, an Associate Editor for Archaeology in Oceania, and serves on the editorial boards for the Caribbean Journal of Science and Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.