Climate change could make thousands of tropical islands ‘uninhabitable’ in coming decades, new study says

More than a thousand low-lying tropical islands risk becoming “uninhabitable” by the middle of the century — or possibly sooner — because of rising sea levels, upending the populations of some island nations and endangering key U.S. military assets, according to new research.

The threats to the islands are twofold. In the long term, the rising seas threaten to inundate the islands entirely. More immediately, as seas rise, the islands will more frequently deal with large waves that crash farther onto the shore, contaminating their drinkable water supplies with ocean saltwater, according to the research. The islands’ face climate-change-driven threats to their water supplies “in the very near future.”

The study focused on a part of the Marshall Islands in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. The research also has ramifications for the U.S. military, whose massive Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site sits, in part, on the atoll island of Roi-Namur — a part of the Marshall Islands and the focus of the research.

The U.S. military supported the research in part to learn about the vulnerability of its tropical island installations. The Pentagon base at Roi-Namur and surrounding islands supports some 1,250 American civilians, contractors, and military personnel.

The new research — conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and several other institutions in the U.S., Monaco, and the Netherlands — suggests that saltwater contamination of the island’s aquifers would probably occur at just 40 centimeters (about 15 inches) of sea level rise. Five to six centimeters globally have already occurred since the year 2000.

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