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The Drowning Isles

The Solomon Islands are an archipelago filled with idyllic beaches and perfect waves, but as temperatures and sea levels rise, much of their pristine coast is disappearing

FROM the window seat of our small aircraft, the islands 13,000 feet beneath us looked like uncut emeralds poking out of a vibrant azure pool. I pressed my nose up against the Plexiglas to study the contours of each one. Dense forests blanketed the isles, bisected by brown, winding rivers. On their perimeters sat palm-fringed, white-sand beaches. The only signs of human development here in this remote, northern region of the Solomon Islands — a 1,000-island archipelago located just northeast of Australia, between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu — were small clusters of houses settled along the coastlines, their corrugated tin roofs reflecting the sun back up at us.

Across the aisle from me, surfers Torren Martyn and Leila Hurst and photographer Ryan Craig had their eyes glued on trails of whitewater below. They were pointing out the seemingly endless number of breaking waves, feverishly tapping on the windows at the sight of any potential setup.

"Mate, look at that one over there," yelled Martyn over the roar of the engine, spotting an offshore reef pass that was reeling amid the solid north swell. Whitewater spilled over a chunk of reef, tracing what looked to be an empty A-frame.

Much of the Solomon Islands are remote and hard to access, leaving large swaths of coastlines — mainly along two of the biggest north-facing islands, Choiseul and Santa Isabel — empty, unexplored and full of surf potential.

From cruising altitude, the Solomon Islands looked like a Technicolor slice of untouched paradise, a tropical playground for visiting surfers. But as plentiful as the waves appeared to be, getting barreled in empty lineups was only half the reason we were here. The other was to visit these islands before any more of them disappeared into the ocean.

A few months prior to our visit, I came in contact with Dr. Simon Albert, a marine scientist at the University of Queensland. He and his colleagues had recently discovered, using time series and satellite imagery, that five Solomon Islands had been swallowed by the sea over the last 70 years, and another six islands had severely eroded. The cause was determined to be accelerated sea-level rise.

The landscape of the Solomon Islands is the stuff of travel brochures. But as beautiful as the scenery may be, the country is steadily losing land to rising sea levels. Not far from this island, five other islands have been completely swallowed by the ocean.

"Over the last 20 years, the rates of sea-level rise in the Solomon Islands have been three times higher than the global average," said Albert. "That's about an 8 or 9 millimeter rise each year." Half of that number, he explained, is the result of El Niño cycles, which naturally siphon the world's water into the South Pacific. The other culprit is climate change.

In some parts of the country, this rapid sea-level rise, combined with high wave intensity, has eroded beaches and destroyed people's properties. Even over the short span of five years, many have watched the ocean come into their villages and carry homes away.

"The changes have been really swift," said Albert. "People living on those islands are feeling very physically and psychologically insecure because they're feeling like their entire foundation of life is washing away."

Albert sent me two photos to help illustrate the problem. One was a snapshot of a thatched-roof house tipped over on its side, collapsing into the ocean, the high tide rushing into where the living-room windows used to be. The other was an aerial shot of Beneamina, a small, circular island near Santa Isabel jam-packed with about 30 houses, many of them sitting on the water's edge. This island, Albert explained, is now only half the size it was 10 years ago. "When I was there in December, an island nearby had one house on it," he said. "By the time we returned in February, that house had been washed away."

The majority of seaside villages in the Solomon Islands, explained Albert, are fairly young. Before the 20th century, most natives were fierce headhunters and engaged in intense tribal warfare. They lived in the hills for security, so they could easily spot invading tribes. But when Christian missionaries arrived in the early 1900s, they encouraged the Solomon Islanders to come down to the coast, build churches and live their lives by the ocean. Now almost 85 percent of the population lives along the coastline, and, ironically, many communities are now being chased back up into the hills — not by spear-wielding warriors, but by an intruding ocean.

Most people talk about sea-level rise and other consequences of climate change using the future tense — as something our coastal-dwelling grandchildren will have to deal with 100 years from now. But according to Albert, that dystopian future has already arrived in parts of the Solomon Islands. "The rates we're seeing there are the rates we're likely to see over the next 50 years around the world as things get worse," says Albert. "In a way, the Solomon Islands provide a window into the future."

Throughout the Solomon Islands, many homes skirt the shoreline and are vulnerable to impending sea level rise. During extreme high tides, this dock becomes level with the water line.

OVER the course of his life, the ocean will likely chase Jeremy Baea farther and farther inland. But for now, the 25-year-old spends most of his days running toward it.

We first met Baea inside the mobile phone store where he works, located along the main road in Gizo, a bustling tourist and commercial center in the southwestern region of the Solomon Islands. The chatter of vendors selling fresh fish and vegetables nearby at the lively waterfront market poured into the store, along with the whirrs of motorboats unmooring from the wharf.

Behind the counter, two surfboards leaned against the wall near the shop's computer. When Baea, who is half Solomon Islander and half Australian, isn't busy at the shop, he serves as the founding president of the nascent Western Solomon's Surfing Association, which he established a few years ago with his younger brother Shemiah.

One morning before work, Baea, along with Shemiah and their father, Patson, took us surfing at Titiana, a hollow, freight-train left that breaks over shallow reef. The sun had just peaked over the horizon and the soft, pastel colors of dawn still
lingered in the sky. The waves were only about chest high — small by Solomon standards — but the conditions were oil glass and the lefts perfectly shaped.

This region of the South Pacific hosts a bevy of waves and many of them remain unsurfed.This particular left, commonly referred to as Titiana, is home turk for the Western Solomon Island’s Surfing Association and is one of the more populated breaks in the country. Martyn, sitting stylish on a low-tide runner.

Shemiah had broken his board a few months prior, and since surf gear is nearly impossible to come by in this corner of the world, he and Baea were taking turns on an old, rockered-out 6’2″. While Shemiah was in the water schooling our crew with his local knowledge, I asked Baea and his father about the effects of sea-level rise in the local area.

According to Baea, although Gizo has suffered less-drastic coastal erosion than islands in the northern region of the country that are exposed to larger surf, this area has still seen its fair share of change. "I think in the next 10 years things will look completely different," he explained.

Baea's family owns a small bed-and-breakfast on a tiny island not too far from Gizo. Back in the 1950s, Baea's grandfather purchased their island, along with two others, for a mere 15 British pounds. All three of their islands are now smaller than they were back then, and they're shrinking more each year. "We're starting to look at other options, like building seawalls or moving to the mainland," said Baea.

It wouldn't be the first time Baea and his family were forced to flee their home. Back in 2007, a massive earthquake triggered a tsunami that struck the Solomon Islands and wiped out more than 13 villages, killing 52 people. "It was about seven in the morning," said Baea, remembering the day. "We had just woken up and I was sitting outside by the water when everything started shaking."

Located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Solomon Islands are seismically active and they experience half a dozen tremors each year. Baea initially thought it was just a small quake, "but it wouldn't stop shaking," he said. "It just kept going
and going and going. When it stopped, that's then we noticed the water started sucking out."

Baea and his family quickly piled into their boat. They picked up his grandmother, who lives on a neighboring island, raced out to deep waters and waited for the first surge to pass. "Riding out the tsunami was very scary," said Baea. "The water out
there is usually very calm, but it was like a washing machine, with really strong currents, waves and whitewater everywhere."

“If we stop being friendly to the environment, the future is going to be really bleak,” said Patson Baea, a 58-year-old local who’s lived in the Solomon Islands his entire life. “But one island or country can’t really do anything about it. It has to be all of us.”

Once the first surge passed, they made a mad dash to Gizo, where they could run for higher ground before the next surge. "The boat ride to Gizo was surreal," said Baea. "We watched entire houses float by in the water; rubbish was everywhere. The whole time, we knew that we had probably lost our home too."

When Baea and his family finally returned to their island, their beautiful wooden bungalows were completely demolished. It took them three years to rebuild.

Patson remembers the community's collective fear following the tsunami. "Even three months after, people still weren't out fishing or doing things in the ocean," he said. "We never thought about the sea that way before, that it could come up and take all of your belongings. It was the first time we looked at the ocean differently. We've always known that the sea belongs out there; it doesn't belong up here on land."

Patson, who's 58 and sporting a full head of salt-and-pepper hair, has also seen the ocean engulf entire islands, one in particular where he would take the kids when they were little.

After our session, Patson took us to this vanishing island. As we neared it, Shemiah jumped off the boat and paddled up to what was just a tiny sand bank. The island, Patson told me, used to be the size of a football field and was filled with large trees that were surrounded by a pristine ivory beach. They would camp out, play soccer and picnic beneath the trees' shade. Now, less than a decade later, the island was no bigger than an end zone, with rotting tree trunks lying in the middle.

"If we don't behave in the next 50 years, all these islands will be gone," Patson said, motioning to the 10 or so small islands in our view. "I'm always trying to picture what the scenario will be when the kids are older. But I think it's very hard to imagine."

Just a couple decades ago, this tiny, barren sandbank was a tree-laden island the size of a football field.

BY Solomon standards, the people living in Gizo are the lucky ones. The town and surrounding villages are built along the coast of a mountainous island, so when oceans expand and storms become more frequent as a result of climate change, people can move to higher ground. But not everyone in the Solomon Islands has an easy escape route. For the 600 residents that inhabit Taro Island, a low-lying, kilometer-long atoll that sits no higher than 6 feet above sea level, their only option is relocating their entire village, which is exactly what they plan to do.

Despite its small footprint, Taro Island serves as the capital of Choiseul province and contains a hospital, grass airstrip, courthouse, schoolyard, police station, government buildings and a few churches. The leaders of Taro have developed plans to build a similar town from scratch on the nearby mainland — one that will be better positioned to survive the future perils of sea-level rise and climate change. But according to Taro's deputy provincial secretary, Geoffrey Pakipota, relocating an entire town, even a modest one like Taro, is easier said than done.

We met Pakipota in front of the main government administration building, a raised, single-story wooden structure encompassing a manicured courtyard. Across the dirt road, a school bell rang and throngs of children poured out of their classrooms into the large grass field that sits in the center of town. The midday heat was sweltering, so he led us into an air-conditioned conference room.

Pakipota, who is soft-spoken and has an affinity for Hawaiian-print shirts, told me he's been working on the plans to relocate the island since 1994, when the town decided to expand to accommodate a growing population. But after the 2007 tsunami, the leaders of Taro realized a more urgent reason to move: their vulnerability to extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

From this perspective, Taro’s quickly changing coastlines can be difficult to detect. But in the next century, these homes could be entirely underwater. To prepare for that day, the local government is planning to relocate the island’s residents.

"There's nowhere to escape on this island," said Pakipota. During tsunami events, like the one in 2007, it takes about two hours to evacuate everyone and get them across the bay to the mainland, a process that would leave them little chance of survival if the tsunami were more intense or originated closer to their island.

In the time that Pakipota has been in government, he's noticed huge changes to the shape of Taro. He led us out of the conference room and toward the shore, just a short distance from his office. We stood on the beach next to a huge fallen tree with gnarled roots sticking up out of the ground, the latest victim of saltwater intrusion. He pointed to a string of buoys about 20 feet out to sea. "Fifteen years ago, that's where our main market was," he said. It was completely submerged and a small dock had been built in its place.

Pakipota then pointed across the bay, toward the mainland. "That's where the new township will be," he said. "It takes about three minutes by boat to get there." Taking into account future sea-level predictions, the proposed settlement will sit about 1 or 2 miles inland. "It will be away from the sea," explained Pakipota. "We're trying to build a modern, green, climate proof town. The whole coastal strip will be preserved as a buffer."

The plans for the proposed new settlement had recently been approved by the national government, but securing the property was a huge hurdle. The majority of the land in the Solomon Islands, Pakipota explained, is owned by villages or families and is passed down only within communities. In other villages that have been forced to hastily relocate because of rising sea levels — like an island nearby that had been split into two by water — arguments over rightful land ownership have caused internal strife. For Taro, it took them almost 20 years of negotiations and roughly $1.1 million to acquire the land they needed.

Even though the plans have been rubber-stamped and the project is moving forward, everything will likely come to a standstill if Taro can't procure enough financial support (an estimated $50 million will be needed for the construction of the new settlement and relocation of Taro's residents) from the national government, which will be the biggest obstacle yet.

"We love this place, but people are getting impatient and are pressing the government to do something," said Pakipota. "Whatever the investment, people need to be safe. If we spend billions of [Solomon] dollars on taking care of this town where
it sits, if anything happens, it will all be gone. Instead, we need the government to invest money in a safer place."

The majority of Solomon Islanders depend on the sea for their food and their livelihood, which makes moving farther inland uphill or more difficult for residents.

THE global sea level is now 5 to 8 inches higher than it was in 1900, primarily due to man-made climate change, and it's rising at a faster rate than it has in the previous 6,000 years. In the Solomon Islands, sea level is rising even quicker. Just in the past 25 years, the ocean surrounding the Solomon Islands has risen about 6 inches.

Those numbers might not seem significant at a glance, but one vertical inch of sea-level rise equates to about 100 inches of land loss on a flat beach. And according to scientists like David Boseto, who does environmental consulting and auditing
throughout the Solomon Islands, every inch means destruction throughout his home country.

I met Boseto in his small, halogen-lit office tucked away from the main road in Gizo. Science textbooks, nature manuals, a Ben Carson autobiography and the Bible were piled on his desk. Old and current maps of the Solomon Islands hung on the walls. He invited me to sit down and explained the details of his job, which includes surveying the impact of climate change throughout his country and helping people adapt to the threat of sea-level rise.

"There are a lot of cross-sectional issues we are facing throughout the country related to climate change," said Boseto. He began listing them off like a narrator in a late-night infomercial citing all the side effects of a new medication: In the Solomon Islands, climate change has caused an increase in malaria, earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones; it's led to more irregular seasons, leaving people confused as to when they should plant crops; the soil isn't as fertile as it used to be and crops are now yielding fewer fruit and vegetables; fish are moving farther and farther from shore and are less abundant than they were 10 years ago; coral reefs are dying. But the most visible symptom of climate change is the rising ocean and the littoral erosion that accompanies it.

Leila Hurst, banking hard off the bottom on one of the country’s finest gems.

"Most of the communities near the ocean are having to move back 10, 15 meters because their beach is eroding," said Boseto. "Village drinking wells along the coast are becoming too salty to consume. Now when there is an extended dry season, people have to boil their salty well water and drink that."

To combat sea-level rise, people are planting mangroves, constructing seawalls and moving to higher ground. But none of these methods, Boseto explained, are perfect solutions. Mangroves can be planted only in areas with low wave intensity. Seawalls are good short-term solutions, but when built haphazardly, they protect one man's property while transferring that blocked wave energy to a neighbor's. Plus, seawalls prevent the natural buildup of sand during storm events, which normally helps rebuild lost beaches.

Moving uphill and building on steep, rocky land has its challenges as well. "Low-lying areas are more suitable for island living because you have access to the sea for transportation — to travel to school and clinics and to have access to food sources," said Boseto. "But when people move uphill, they're far from those things, and they're subject to landslides during earthquakes and heavy rains."

The Green Climate Fund, a financial reservoir created by the United Nations, was designed to mobilize $100 billion a year to help developing countries like the Solomon Islands cut emissions and adapt to the risks of climate change. But in order for people in smaller villages to benefit from this fund, they need their central government in the capital of Honiara to apply for this money on their behalf. According to some, there's a substantial disconnect between villagers on smaller islands and those who decide how to best disburse the money from the Green Climate Fund.

A disappearing landscape.

In the early 2000s, Honiara was embroiled in ethnic violence and political upheaval, which left the capital in a state of chaos and economic disarray. Many believe that in the years since, Honiara has been so focused on reassembling itself that it's overlooked the needs of people in more-remote villages who are dealing with acute sea-level rise. For example, just a month ago the Solomon Islands acquired an $86 million subsidy from the Green Climate Fund for a hydro-development project that will provide cheap electricity for the capital's denizens. Meanwhile, people in places like Taro, who are watching their coastlines vanish, are having a difficult time procuring the necessary capital to relocate.

As good-natured as it may seem for developed nations to donate money to smaller nations that feel strangled by the chokehold of climate change, Boseto believes the Solomon Islands need more than guilt money.

"This is just a Band-Aid solution," said Boseto. "Bigger countries are saying, 'OK, we've emitted this much, so we will pay you this much money to help you adapt to what we've done.' But that's not what we are saying we need."

What they need, Boseto explained, is for big, industrialized countries to address the root problem and reduce their output of greenhouse gasses. They need the rest of the world to collectively commit to turning down the global thermostat.

Eric Waiara’a, at home with his family.

LIKE most Solomon Islanders, almost everything 30-year-old Eric Waiara'a does revolves around the ocean. After working as a science teacher near the capital for many years, he moved to the small coastal village of Kolipakisa to be with his wife and two sons. Now he spends most of his time fishing, diving for sea cucumbers and chauffeuring visiting surfers around in search of waves.

We conscripted Waiara'a to help us hunt down one of the best breaks in the region, near the island of Santa Isabel, where Dr. Simon Albert had found the five sunken islands. A midday thundershower had just cleared and billowy, soft-hued storm clouds hung in its wake like unfurling cotton candy. With Waiara'a at the helm of the boat, we zipped through the warm, glassy waters while flying fish skipped along the ocean's surface next to us. In the distance, we could see whitewater lining
up on the horizon.

We arrived at a shallow offshore reef where double-overhead waves were marching in from deep water, hitting a shelf and folding over themselves, forming shifty, powerful tubes. It looked every bit as good as the most popular Indonesian breaks, but without another boatload of surfers anywhere in sight.

Martyn began frantically waxing his board and screwing in fins. It took only about 20 seconds before he was over the side of the boat and scratching into the lineup.

He passed on the first wave of a thundering set, trying to gauge its power. When the next one came through, he paddled deep and swung underneath it. Sucking up off the reef, the wave seemed to drop out beneath Martyn, but his fins gripped the face and he stood tall with his trailing hand skimming the inside of the crystal-clear cylinder. As he kicked out amid a cloud of spit, Waiara'a let out a bellowing laugh from the boat, exposing his gap-toothed smile.

Martyn, below sea level. Although the waves in the Solomon Islands are often perfect, there’s a chance that the waves here could change shape under forecasted sea levels. “We could definitely hypothesize that as sea levels rise faster than coral are able to grow–which is the case in the Solomon Islands–breaks are going to become deeper and wave intensity might decrease,” says scientist Javier Leon.

Watching the scene in the lineup, and the distinct natural beauty that surrounded us, it was hard to reconcile the area's idyllic appearance with the increasingly challenging reality the environment and local communities face. The International Panel for Climate Change reports that sea-level rise is likely to increase by 3.22 feet by the end of this century. Greenland and Antarctica are melting quicker than ever before. Recent studies point to a segment in Antarctica called the Amundsen Sea sector that has gone into "irreversible decline." The body of ice there holds enough water to raise sea levels by another 4 feet, and its eventual melting could destabilize other parts of the adjoining ice sheets. The effects of this would spell disaster not only for the oceanfront settlements in the Solomon Islands, but for coastal areas worldwide.

Experts believe curbing climate change will require unified action from the international community, which has proven difficult due to the politicization of the issue. Back in 2015, 197 countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement, promising to limit emissions in an effort to keep global warming at or below 2 degrees Celsius. But many critics believe that the Paris Climate Agreement is nothing but empty promises, and that governments aren't taking aggressive enough measures to stop the burning of fossil fuels.

Waiara'a told me about how much his village has changed over the years, and how he and his neighbors have to wade through thigh-high water during extreme tidal floods in order to get to their homes. Some people even paddle their dugout canoes straight to their front doors.

I asked if there was any controversy within his village about whether or not climate change was real, explaining that in other parts of the world, people are still skeptical about its actuality. Waiara'a furrowed his brow and shook his head.

"Of course we believe in climate change. We see our beaches eroding, we see the saltwater ruining our coconut trees and we see the small islands beside us disappearing," he said. "We see it happening all around us."

All photos by Ryan Chachi Craig

[A huge thanks to Papatura Resort, Solomon Airlines, and Oravae Cottage for facilitating the reporting of this article.]