In Tonga, a volcano-triggered tsunami underscores islands’ acute climate risk


SINGAPORE (REUTERS) – For the South Pacific island nation of Tonga, the tsunami unleashed by Saturday’s (Jan 15) volcanic eruption laid bare some of the ways that climate change is threatening the islands’ very existence.

By increasing temperatures and driving up sea levels, climate change will likely worsen disasters wrought by tsunamis, storm surges, and heat waves, experts say.

Acutely aware of this risk, Tonga has been a key voice representing climate-vulnerable nations, saying at the UN climate talks in November that global warming “beyond the 1.5 deg C threshold would spell absolute catastrophe for Tonga” and other Pacific Islands as they are subsumed by the sea.

Their plea for global climate action is especially desperate, given that Pacific island nations account for only 0.03 per cent of global carbon emissions, according to the World Bank.

“While we are resilient and trying to adapt, it only takes a few extra metres of water to cover a house, to kill a child or family,” said Ms Shairana Ali, CEO of the international charity Save the Children, in neighbouring Fiji.

Tonga reported that waves of up to 15m crashed ashore on its outer islands after Saturday’s volcanic eruption, flattening homes and killing at least three people. The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across the Pacific.

As sea levels continue to rise in coming decades, tsunamis and storm surges will likely be reaching further inland with even more risk of damage.

“Tsunami surge and storm surge sit on top of sea level,” said Mr Benjamin Horton, who has studied global sea-level rise and is chief of the Earth Observatory of Singapore. So with higher seas, “you won’t need such big natural disasters to cause widespread devastation.”

Sea levels around the archipelagic nation of 105,000 people are increasing by about 6mm per year, nearly twice the average global rate, according to the UN’s Global Sea Level Observing System.

This is because the islands sit in warmer waters near the equator, where sea level rise is more pronounced than at the poles.

The damage from tsunamis and storm surges doesn’t stop at wave destruction. Sea water that washes ashore can taint agricultural soil and leave it useless for years.

Tsunami waves also exacerbate coastal erosion and destroy natural buffers against rising seas, such as coral reefs and mangroves.

With climate change warming the ocean’s surface, such storm surges are more likely as the warm water fuels increasingly powerful cyclones.

Tonga and neighbouring countries were battered by two category five cyclones in the last four years, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

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