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Indian Ocean islands hit by rising sea levels and bleaching coral reefs.
Even high-rising granite islands such as Mahe in the Seychelles will not be safe. “On the granitic islands the impact of sea level rise is more subtle,” said Payet. “An island does not have to be underwater to be impossible to live on.”
Just a few millimeters of sea water leaching into the water table affects agriculture and water resources rendering the island uninhabitable. “Already we’re starting to see those changes where there is erosion of the beaches and property is being lost, where saltwater is coming into the groundwater,” he said.
Islands disappearing beneath dramatically rising seas caused by melting polar ice caps are a longer-term threat to the Seychelles and other island nations but warming waters are taking their toll now.
As the sea’s temperature creeps upwards the water expands causing small sea level rises, fish such as tuna shift their patterns and migrate out of territorial waters reducing national income and the ‘bleaching’ of temperature-sensitive coral damages reefs threatening biodiversity and tourism.
Payet calls the bleaching a signal coming from the ocean. “[Now we are seeing] the first mass coral bleaching ever recorded in the Seychelles,” he added.
“By the time the world reacts [to climate change] it will be very expensive to adapt, but they will react because these things that are happening on the islands will also happen on the mainland and in developed countries as well,” said Payet.
But will the rich world react quickly enough? The Seychelles and other small island nations cannot stop the sea from rising or cut greenhouse gas emissions to a globally sustainable level, and while the world fiddles at inconclusive meetings such as Copenhagen these are the places on the frontline of climate change.
“We have already had islands disappear in the Pacific, not countries yet but definitely islands," said Payet. "It’s a question of survival for the small islands and many of the larger countries don’t understand this.”
Editor's note: The photo has been changed to accurately reflect the issues issues in the story.