Published November 16, 2015
The amount of water is incomprehensible. We’ve been flying for hours, and just when we’re about as far from a landmass as you can possibly get—a spot where the curving, wave-flecked Pacific Ocean stretches thousands of kilometers in every direction—an island slides into view. It’s no more than a snippet of sand and palm trees, a snake winding through the blue plain of the Pacific. Fanning out around it are 1,200 similar islands, some inhabited, others not, arranged into a constellation of 29 atolls like stars in a universe of ocean. For every square kilometer of land in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, there are 10,732 square kilometers of ocean.
By the year 2100, it’s conceivable that climate change will force the entire population of the Marshall Islands to US shores. Already, more than 25,000 Marshallese—over a third of the population—have left the islands, many in the last 15 years. Among them was Sarah Joseph, now 22 and a resident of Enid, Oklahoma.
Through all of this, Marshallese culture adapted and survived. But today, it’s facing the one battle that might be impossible to win. Climate experts predict that because of rising sea levels caused by greenhouse gas emissions, the Marshall Islands could be uninhabitable by the end of this century.
As the ocean seeps into homes and buckles roads, it’s shifting from a source of inspiration to one of fear.
Infant mortality is high, and celebrating the first year of life is an event which is special to Marshall Islanders
Unlike many Marshallese-Americans of her generation, though, Marla will later be able to say that once, she knew the ocean. She sat on her mother’s lap at the edge of the lagoon and felt the tropical water tickle her legs. She took her first steps in her paternal grandparents’ gecko-green house that rises from the sea on a piece of land sprouted from oil drums and old tires. She looked into the eyes of the sea turtle that the men speared for her first birthday feast. And, the night before her first birthday, just before midnight, she watched quietly, her brown eyes wide, as a chorus of women and children streamed into the house strumming ukuleles and singing, welcoming her to the world. To her home.