Where the Waters Are Rising

A close-up look at the low-lying Maldives, where global warming hits the seawall

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CITY ON A LILY PAD: On the capital island of Male, where 80,000 people live less than 4 ft. above sea level, the margin of safety is increasingly slim

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And, to a degree that's easy to lose sight of today, their efforts succeeded. Air and water in most of the developed world are dramatically cleaner than they were in 1970. Millions of acres of forests, wetlands and wilderness have been preserved. Once endangered species like the bald eagle and the American alligator are thriving. And while the situation is much less rosy in many parts of the world, environmental values have been so firmly incorporated into the American psyche that the recycling bins in millions of homes and offices and on street corners, which would have seemed positively radical back in 1970, don't merit a second glance. Quite a few consumers go out of their way to buy such products as hybrid cars and environmentally friendly coffee. And a number of corporations that were once considered the enemy are working with environmental groups to find ways to be more responsible.

So many battles have been won, in fact, that it's harder to rile up the public than it once was, particularly when the problem seems so diffuse, the threat so distant. The result? Vast quantities of carbon dioxide from the burning of oil, coal, wood and natural gas have entered the atmosphere, where they will remain for well over 100 years. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol calls for developed nations to roll back emissions below 1990 levels. But even if that goal were achieved today, it's already too late to stop some degree of warming from occurring. That means we may soon start seeing unpredictable and potentially destabilizing changes in weather patterns and ocean currents.

And for certain it means that the sea, expanding as it heats up, will rise. Sure, says climatologist Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., we can do things that temper the eventual extent of that rise--which could be as little as 4 in. or as much as 3 ft. by the year 2105--but we can do nothing about the sea-level increase to which the climate system is already committed. That's because big wheels in the atmosphere and ocean have started to turn. No matter what humans do, the oceans will continue to rise through the end of this century and well beyond--and the more carbon dioxide humans pump out, the higher the oceans are likely to go.

This is terrifying news for the 300,000 or so souls who live in the Maldives, but it could also spell disaster for people living on or near the sea everywhere--in Venice, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, New York City, the Nile delta in Egypt, the Ganges delta in Bangladesh or the Mississippi delta on the U.S. Gulf Coast. In all, perhaps 3 billion people, half the world's population, live within a hundred miles of the sea. And at least 100 million of them occupy low-lying deltas that, like the Maldives, rise not much more than 3 ft. above sea level. "Whatever our fate tomorrow," Maldives President Gayoom is fond of remarking, "will be your fate the day after tomorrow."

But what is that fate exactly? Is it really to disappear beneath the jewel-toned waters of the Indian Ocean? This is a question I came back to again and again during the course of my weeklong visit.


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