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Climate refugees: a changing climate threatens to destroy people's way of life and drive them from their homelands.


The entire population of the Maldives, an island chain in the Indian Ocean, may soon have to pack their bags and say goodbye to their native home. This year, the nation's President announced that he's looking to relocate his people to nearby countries, such as Australia, Sri Lanka, or India. The reason: He fears that rising seas will eventually swamp the Maldives, making the islands uninhabitable.

People living on small, low-lying islands are among the first to suffer the negative impact of climate change. Many scientists believe that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels for energy, are increasing temperatures on Earth and altering global weather patterns. As a result, they expect the planet to experience rising seas, as well as more floods, droughts, and intense storms. These changes threaten to uproot communities all over the world, from the Arctic to Africa (see Climate Change Hot Spots, right).

It's hard to estimate how many people could become "climate refugees." "Numbers range from 25 million all the way up to 700 million," says Koko Warner, who studies climate and migration at the United Nations University in Germany. Experts suspect that climate change will only intensify, forcing more and more people to search for new places to call home.



As Earth becomes warmer, glaciers and ice sheets melt, adding water to the world's oceans. Also, thermal expansion causes sea water to increase in volume as it heats up. The result is that sea levels are rising by an average of 3.2 millimeters (0.1 inches) a year based on satellite data. That may not sound like much. But over time, the rising waters could wipe some places off the map. Some Indian Ocean and Pacific island nations are already evacuating people to larger islands or building walls in an attempt to hold back the sea. And they aren't the only areas at risk from sea-level rise. "About 70 percent of the world's megacities are in close proximity to the coast," says Warner. Rising oceans could submerge low-lying cities like Los Angeles in the next few centuries (see Underwater Cities, below).


Another worrying aspect of climate change for coastal areas is seasonal storms. "One of the things suggested by climate scientists is that the severity of hurricanes may increase," says Alex Sherbinin, a geographer at The Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City. Some researchers point to Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005, as an example of what's to come. A massive storm surge broke through the city's levees, leaving a large portion underwater and forcing hundreds of thousands of residents to evacuate. Today, a third of the city's displaced population still hasn't returned.


Climate changes are likely to hit people in developing countries the hardest. Poverty, political instability, and conflicts leave people in these areas ill equipped to deal with environmental disasters.


In Africa's Sahel region, for instance, droughts have already led to desertification, where land once used for agriculture has become dry and barren. Climate change could prolong dry spells. The opposite is happening in Bangladesh--the world's most flood-prone country. High tides and storm surges are eroding the coastline and flooding once-fertile farmland with salt water.

Many people in developing countries rely on the land. "Farmers, herders, and fishers, whose livelihoods depend directly on nature, are most vulnerable to environmental changes," says Warner. Climate shifts are already causing these people to search for better prospects elsewhere. The trend is to migrate short distances within their own countries and from rural to urban areas when possible, with a smaller number moving internationally.


The idea of climate refugees is a new one for countries and international organizations. Those studying the issue are trying to understand the environmental, political, and economic factors that influence this type of relocation. "That helps lay an agenda for governments, which really haven't had the scientific basis for deciding what type of action might be needed," says Susan Martin, a migration researcher at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.



One of the main things governments need to do, says Martin, is develop policies to help people stuck in unsustainable environments move to safer places. In Alaska, for example, warming weather has melted the once permanently frozen ground, called permafrost, under some Native Alaskan villages. The homes on the unstable land are crumbling into the ocean. Some of the communities are relocating with the help of the U.S. government. But moving an entire town is no easy feat.

Migration across borders carries its own complications. Many countries will provide safe haven to war refugees. But there's currently no such provision for people fleeing devastating natural disasters. No laws say who's responsible for helping those displaced or otherwise affected by climate change or even what their citizenship status is if their country has been washed away.

"The issue of migration shows the human face of those forced to move because of a changing climate," says Warner. "It raises some profound questions about identity, borders, and how people are going to get along in a changed world in the future."

FLOODS: In 2010, millions of people were evacuated from large areas of Pakistan devastated by flooding.

DESERTIFICATION: Reduced rainfall has made it difficult for herders to raise livestock in Africa's Sahel region along the southern border of the Sahara desert.


This map shows the regions most likely to suffer the impacts of climate change. What types of environmental problems are predicted for the U.S.?



Desertification or drought

Hurricanes and typhoons

Permafrost or ice-sheet melting

Rising sea levels around small islands and river deltas


Sea levels are expected to rise by an additional 18 to 59 centimeters (7 to 23 inches) by the end of the century. If this trend continues unchecked, the sea could submerge many major cities. What U.S. cities are at risk?

SEVERE STORMS: Strong winds from Hurricane Katrina blew the roof off a restaurant in Kenner, Louisiana.

RISING SEAS: Artificial seawalls surround the Island of Karumba, which is part of the Maldives.

MELTING PERMAFROST: The ground gives way under a house in Shishmaref, Alaska.


What difficulties might you face if you had to leave your home and resettle somewhere else?
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Title Annotation:EARTH: CLIMATE; life in Maldives
Author:Crane, Cody
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:9MALD
Date:Apr 13, 2012
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