Skeletons of World War II soldiers are being washed from their graves by the rising Pacific Ocean as global warming leads to inundation of islands that saw some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict.
On the day Europe commemorated the 70th anniversary of the storming of Normandy beaches in the D-Day landings, a minister from the Marshall Islands, a remote archipelago between Hawaii and the Philippines, told how the remains of 26, probably Japanese soldiers, had been recovered so far on the isle of Santo.
“There are coffins and dead people being washed away from graves; it’s that serious,” Tony de Brum, minister of foreign affairs for the Marshall Islands, said yesterday. Tides “have caused not just inundation and flooding of communities where people live but have also done severe damage in undermining regular land so that even the dead are affected.”
Spring tides from the end of February to April had flooded communities, he told a group of reporters at the latest round of United Nations climate talks in Bonn.
The minister’s comments bring home the stark future for low-lying island nations as the planet warms, causing sea levels to rise. The Marshall Islands, a string of more than 1,000 such isles with a population of about 70,000, is about 2 meters (7 feet) at its highest point, according to de Brum.
The tropical western Pacific is a region the UN said this week is experiencing almost four times the global average rate of sea level increase, with waters creeping up by 12 millimeters (half an inch) a year between 1993 and 2009. The global average pace is 3.2 millimeters a year.
“Communities in the Marshalls, because we are atolls, are either along the lagoon shoreline or the ocean shoreline,” de Brum said. “If you want to move away from traditional community sites, you are moving inland for a few yards and then you’re already moving closer to the ocean on the other side. So there’s not very much room for maneuver.”
The UN projects the global average sea level may increase 26 centimeters to 98 centimeters (10 inches to 39 inches) by the end of the century.
The Marshall Islands were used as a base by the Japanese Navy in the run-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor during WWII. The U.S. Navy based at Pearl Harbor is now testing the skeletons washed up to identify and repatriate them, according to de Brum.
“We think they’re Japanese soldiers, but there are no broken bones or any indication of being war casualties,” he said. “We think maybe it was suicide or something similar. The Japanese are sending a team in to help us in September.”
Rising seas have eaten away about 300 meters from the tip of the capital island of Majuro in the past 20 years, according to de Brum. WWII ordnance has been unearthed, including a bomb on a runway, and roads connecting some outer islands have been pounded so much that cars have to drive over the reef.
The ocean has washed away several smaller islands including Boken, which has subsided beneath the waves, the minister said.
“The atoll ecosystem is very fragile so that if you have a severe inundation of salt, if it doesn’t rain every day for a year, recovery is probably doubtful,” he said. Then “the island loses all its vegetation and becomes very susceptible to wind and tides and more winds and the next thing you know it’s not there anymore.”