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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Spring 2011 > Temperature Gauge

Temperature Gauge

Notes from a Warming World

Fish – Fried

graphic of a earth-globe with a thermometer rising from it

Say goodbye to fish ‘n’ chips. Climate change could make the seas around Scandinavia too warm for Atlantic cod, and already some fishermen in northern seas are witnessing declines in catches.

A new report reviewed records going back to 1919 to examine trends in the juvenile cod caught in the Skagerrak area of south Norway. The study, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that juvenile cod grew less in summers when the waters were warmer than usual.

“The coastal Skagerrak will become ill-suited for Atlantic cod” if a projected rise in summer temperatures occurs. The most up-to-date climate models predict a two to three degrees Celsius rise in summer temperatures over the next century.

Higher water temperatures mean less food for the cod, while at the same time increasing their metabolism. Total cod catches from the Skagerrak are already on the decline. Fishermen there caught about 24,000 tons of the fish in 2008, down from 67,000 tons in 2000.

UN experts have said that rising global temperatures are pushing many fish stocks toward polar areas – where, thanks to climate change, less ice cover means more opportunity for fishing.

Friends in Need

Low-lying Bangladesh is likely to be one of the countries hardest hit by sea level rise. Awareness of its own vulnerability might be one reason why the country is so eager to export sand to the Maldives to help the island nation cope with rising waters.

Every year millions of tons of sediment wash down from the Himalayas into the rivers of Bangladesh. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to navigate the country’s rivers, and so Bangladeshi officials are planning massive dredging projects. Turns out that Bangladesh’s trash could be the Maldives’ treasure. The Maldives say they would like to take some of the dredged material and use it to reinforce the sea walls that protect their islands.

The Maldives’ 1,200 low-lying islands and coral atolls, located about 500 miles from the southern tip of India, are in danger of being washed away if the current pace of global warming continues.

Bangladeshi officials say they are inclined to help. “We are more than happy if the deal works out because it will be beneficial for a brotherly nation,” says Muhammad Faruk Khan, the Bangladesh Commerce Minister. Some day, after all, Bangladesh may find itself in a similar situation.

There’s No There There

Climbing temperatures and rising seas are raising an existential dilemma for the Maldives and other South Pacific island states such Kirbati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands: What would happen if they were forced to abandon their territories? Would they still be a nation? With a UN seat? With control of their old fisheries and their undersea mineral rights?

photo of a diver underwater at a desk appearing to sign papers; the desk has a name placard for Dr. Mohammed Nasheed, president. A flag flies in the water nearby.courtesy 350.org

As international climate negotiations drag on and global leaders fail to make binding agreements to lower emissions, some people are pondering the once unthinkable.

“We’re facing a set of issues unique in the history of the system of nation-states,” says Dean Bialek, a New York-based advisor to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. “We’re confronting existential issues associated with climate impacts that are not adequately addressed in the international legal framework.”

Nations have faded and fallen before, either through conquest or secession. But “no country has ever physically disappeared,” says Michael Gerrard of the Climate Change Law Center at Columbia University. “It’s a real void in the law.”

Complicating the issue is the fact that an island doesn’t have to entirely slip under water before it becomes uninhabitable. Even a modest increase in sea levels could make water supplies saline, ruin crops, and produce more damaging storm surges.

The plight of the Marshallese reveals how murky the issue is. Under an agreement with Washington, citizens of the former US trusteeship have the right to enter the US for study or work. But they don’t have the right to permanent residency. A global treaty on refugees mandates that countries shelter people fleeing from persecution – but it doesn’t cover people displaced by climate change.

Many residents of the island nations are also worried about what will happen to their culture, history, and identity. “Cemeteries along the coastline are being affected,” says Kaminga Kaminga, a climate change negotiator for the Marshall Islands. “Gravesites are falling into the sea. Even in death we’re affected.”

   

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