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Seychelles threatened by global warming

Indian Ocean islands hit by rising sea levels and bleaching coral reefs.

The sandy beaches outside the Seychelles capital Victoria January 17, 2009. The Indian Ocean islands are vulnerable to rises in the levels of the Indian Ocean. (Richard Lough/Reuters)

VICTORIA, Seychelles — Climate change can often seem like something that will happen in the distant future to people living in faraway places. But what if you live in one those faraway places and the future has already arrived?

“We are seeing the early effects of climate change,” said Rolph Payet a leading environmental expert, special advisor to the Seychelles’ president and Nobel laureate in 2007, alongside Al Gore in 2007 for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

On his fingers Payet checked off a list of impacts already hitting the Indian Ocean archipelago: warming oceans, rising sea levels and shifting unpredictable rain patterns.

“Our concern is that we are moving to a point of no return where the climate goes down a slide that you cannot stop. We are not far away from this tipping point,” he warned.

85,000 people live in the Seychelles, the vast majority on Mahé, the largest of the 115 islands. Its interior is made up of soaring granite peaks tumbling with thick jungle and fresh waterfalls but most of the people, their homes, shops, businesses, hotels, roads and even the airport are squeezed into a narrow coastal strip just a meter or two above the clear calm Indian Ocean waters.

When a massive tsunami hit Asia in 2004 the tidal aftershocks rolled across the Indian Ocean as far as Africa’s east coast. The waves met little resistance in the Seychelles where the capital Victoria was submerged in shallow seawater.

The waves washed around a miniature silvery replica of London’s Big Ben clocktower that stand’s at the little city’s heart and lapped up against the gates of State House.

“Rising sea levels are the biggest threat to the islands,” Payet told GlobalPost.

Coral islands will be most dramatically affected by sea level rises as their palm-fringed beaches and luxury resorts sink beneath the seas.

Last October the government of the coral atolls that make up the Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives donned scuba gear to hold a cabinet meeting underwater. Their country is on average just two meters above sea level so the dramatic stunt was designed to draw attention to the Maldives’ inevitable demise if global warming continues.

“We're now actually trying to send our message, let the world know what is happening, and what will happen to the Maldives if climate change is not checked,” President Mohamed Nasheed told journalists after he resurfaced.