The people of Kiribati and other low-lying atoll islands live no more than 3 meters above the surface of the Pacific Ocean — and now the ocean is rising to meet them. Heat from global warming is increasing the ocean’s volume, melting polar ice, raising sea levels worldwide, and nowhere are the effects more devastating than in the Pacific’s small island developing states. Sea-level rise and storms — strengthened by warmer seas — challenge the very existence of these and other island nations. These conditions magnify the destructive force of disasters such as Cyclone Pam, which hit Vanuatu and other low-lying Pacific islands in 2015, followed soon after by Typhoons Maysak and Dolphin. More carbon emissions will continue to warm the seas, contributing to more powerful and unpredictable storms.

Rising seas and strong winds have already made their mark on these islands: injuring and killing residents, and destroying homes, villages and roads. In some areas, severe coastal erosion and flooding have forced the relocation of entire villages. The invading sea also wipes out food crops and contaminates the islands’ sole source of drinking water, formed by rain that seeps through the soil and floats atop the seawater, about 5 feet below ground level. The effects of this slow-moving disaster on people are devastating—with groups such as women, children, the disabled and the elderly becoming more vulnerable.