Environmental scientists from Delaware State University, Virginia State University, and Morgan State University have devised a survival plan for a tiny island nation threatened by global warming. That the nation doesn’t exist is beside the point.
By 2075, the Lao Pao River—the main water supply and lifeblood of the South Pacific’s Ayese Islands—will be a shell of its old self. A victim of climate change, the river will occasionally run dry for weeks at a time. And as a result, the islands’ 100,000 residents will experience crippling water shortages roughly once every eight years.
Global warming’s pinch will be felt in other ways, too. The shorelines of Falula—the biggest and most populous of the Ayesian islands—will creep inward by as much as 100 feet by 2075. Tropical cylcones will become more intense and will inflict broader destruction. Some neighborhoods that now flood once every 25 years will flood once every seven or eight.
If you weren’t aware of the Ayese Islands’ plight, well, that’s not too surprising: The islands are fictional, invented as part of a climate-change case study by researchers at Delaware State University, Morgan State University, and Virginia State University. At the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, Gulnihal Ozbay (Delaware State) and her collaborators simulated global warming’s impact on the Ayese Islands’ economy and infrastructure. Then, they devised a plan to help the Ayesians cope.
Both geographically and demographically, the Ayese Islands resemble many of the real island nations of the South Pacific. Those islands are, in many ways, the front line in the battle against climate change. Sea levels are rising faster in the Pacific basin than anywhere else in the world, making developing nations in the South Pacific increasingly vulnerable to tropical cyclones—a cruel twist of fate considering that the islands collectively are responsible for just three hundredths of one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Indeed, one of the biggest decisions Ozbay and her colleagues faced was how best to protect Falula from the increased flood risk due to sea-level rise. A sea wall would keep storm surges at bay but would be expensive. Plus, it would take precious shoreline away from the island’s burgeoning tourism industry. The team’s cost–benefit analysis suggested the Ayesians would be better off building stilt houses instead.
Ozbay and company also advised the Ayesians to stockpile an extra 20 million gallons of drinkable water, to prepare for the eventuality of water shortages. They further recommended that a planned vacation resort be moved about 50 yards further inland, to allow for future shore erosion.
Though it was just an exercise, the Ayese Islands study evokes real-world cases of climate-influenced urban planning. In 2013, a New York City advisory council formally recommended elevating the city’s wastewater pumping stations to mitigate the risk of damage due to increasingly frequent flooding. In North Carolina’s Outer Banks, forecasts of a three-foot sea level rise prompted a tiff between environmentalists, state assemblymen, and property owners over how best to confront the threat to shorefront properties.
Indeed, one expects that scenarios like the one envisioned by Ozbay and her colleagues will play out time and time again in the coming decades. The only difference: The people and places will be real—and so will the stakes.