There's debate about the causes, but rising seas are lapping away the edges of tiny island nations-and could eventually drown them

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Teautu teuria is a blithe bear of a man who seems largely oblivious to the debate on global warming. He does not pretend to understand the science behind rising seas, nor does he appear much interested in his visitor's sketchy exposition. But he is prepared to tell a story. In the last six years, he says, a 10-m-deep strip of his land has been inundated by encroaching tides, with a harrowing consequence: "I had to dig up the skeleton of my brother and make him a new grave further inland."

Teuria performed the exhumation in Eita, a district of Tarawa, Kiribati's capital. Twenty minutes west of there by car, at a cemetery in Betio, sand has spread between graves adorned by decaying headstones. A local man points out a rusted field gun left over from World War II's Battle of Tarawa, in which U.S. Marines seized the island from the Japanese in 1943. "Even at high tide, that gun used to be 15 or 20 m from the shore," he says. Now the sea laps at its base.

At the Ministry of Environment and Social Development, Baranika Etuati talks sometimes to foreign inquirers about the chance that rising sea levels could wipe out her little-known country. And though she's been known to use the odd colorful phrase, mostly she responds in the measured manner typical of government officials the world over. At night, however, when she is simply Baranika, a 29-year-old widow with a young daughter, her emotions take over. "Sometimes when I sleep, I dream of the big wave swamping everything," she says. "And I awaken so frightened that I can sleep no more."

If the end is near for Kiribati, it won't come as a single engulfing wave. Over a period of decades, the 33 atolls of Kiribati will have been rendered uninhabitable by flooding, which will ruin homes and the small patches of arable land, poison drinking water, spread disease and drown the fragile economy. But Etuati's recurring nightmare captures the worst-case scenario accurately enough: sometime in the next century or two, Kiribati-which straddles the Equator and is home to some 91,000 people-could disappear.

It does not face this threat alone. Among the Pacific island states, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands are also at risk of vanishing if sea levels keep rising. The field of climate change is not planetary astronomy: its scientists cannot forecast with precision. Still, it is widely accepted that the global mean sea level has risen by 1-2 mm a year for the past century, and that the rate of sea-level rise will accelerate during the next century. "It is not a question of whether the Earth's climate will change," Robert T. Watson, chairman of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said recently, "but rather by how much, how fast and where."

For a clearer picture of the threat to low-lying islands, experts say they have a lot more monitoring to do, perhaps 40 years' worth. In the meantime, the I-Kiribati are entitled to their fretful nights. "Of course they should be worried," says Wolfgang Scherer, director of the National Tidal Facility (Australia), which for 10 years has managed the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project. "How would you like to live on an island where most Joe Blows live within 2 m of mean sea level? I'd worry if I was them, no question about it."

The ocean is all but inescapable in Kiribati. From the air, the islands are thin strips on a vast canvas of blue. At several points along South Tarawa's only road, the sea stretches on both sides to the horizon, which in the balmy evenings is an unearthly orange. On such beauty partly rests the nation's hopes for greater prosperity through tourism. But since the late 1980s some of the better-informed locals have watched the ocean less in awe than with suspicion.

By then, the world suspected there was an unhappy consequence of running its civilization by burning fossil fuels, that the process produced a gas-carbon dioxide

-that thickens the blanket of infrared-absorbing gases in the atmosphere, trapping heat and warming the Earth. As the air heats up, sea levels rise, partly because seawater expands as it warms. (El Niņo events-periodic weather disruptions that reverse the normal, westward flow of water across the Pacific-may also raise sea levels.) It doesn't matter that the Pacific island states produce a tiny fraction of the world's output of greenhouse gases. "The very countries which are least responsible for causing the problem," says Greenpeace climate campaigner Angie Heffernan, "will face the full brunt of climate change."

It was in Tarawa, at the 1989 South Pacific Forum, that island leaders explained their plight to a sympathetic Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who committed his government to the monitoring project. Australia's Tidal Facility set up gauges off numerous Pacific countries and has since published at intervals vaguely comforting data: the most recent readings suggest either a smaller sea-level rise around Kiribati compared to the global average, or even a fall in sea levels, perhaps because Kiribati itself is rising. But few I-Kiribati would ever see these numbers, much less be reassured by them. They trust their eyes and their instincts, and many are convinced the sea around them is changing.

In Tarawa's southeastern district of Bikenibeu, residents have built walls to protect their thatched, sea-fronted homes from what they say are increasingly common storm-induced tidal surges. One young man, found dozing in the middle of the day, explains that the structure of large, jagged rocks shielding his home was erected several years ago by another man, now dead. "One morning, after a bad storm, he set off to find rocks and carried them back, one by one," he says. Is he scared of the sea? "I am too busy to be scared."

As a people, the I-Kiribati do not live in fear; on the whole, they live for the present. Their response to misfortune is odd. One of the nation's few modern touches is a theatrette in Tarawa's crowded Betio district. Action films featuring characters being blown to bits or falling from cliffs have patrons rolling in the aisles; locals report similar reactions to real-life car accidents. As for rising seas and impending doom, some I-Kiribati live in blissful ignorance. Others accept that all islands come and go, regardless of global warming. If and when their kids need snorkels to walk to school, that is the time for concern.

For many I-Kiribati, the clincher for the reality of climate change is the disappearance of Bikeman, an islet that once sat about a half-hour's canoe ride southeast of Betio. Locals who were prepared to brave the sapping midday heat would go there for picnics. But sometime in the early '90s, Bikeman went under. The likely explanation is that the 1987 construction of a causeway between Betio and the adjoining district of Bairiki interfered so much with currents that Bikeman was swamped; but this is not a satisfactory answer for some.

Gray-bearded Nakibae Tenatabo, the Tarawa-based coordinator of the Pacific Islands Climate Change Assistance Program, outlines what he believes are "changing weather patterns" around Kiribati. The strong westerlies that once blew at Christmas and New Year, for example, "don't happen any more," he says. He speaks of Bairiki residents being forced to move inland recently when government housing was flooded, and of more frequent El Niņos.

Nightmare sufferer Etuati is one I-Kiribati who has contemplated where all this might lead. "My worst fear is that Kiribati might lose its identity, that we might all be relocated to another country," she says. "We have so many unique things-the way we dress, the way we eat, the way we speak. I don't believe we will disappear soon, but as more people move away we will lose our identity, and then Kiribati will be nothing and we will never be known again in the history of the world."

Many I-Kiribati are frustrated by apparent U.S. indifference to the island states' plight-and by the Americans' failure last month in Bonn to come up with their promised alternative to the Kyoto Protocol, which survives in diluted form. Etuati imagines the U.S. President in Tarawa, trouser legs rolled up, wading through the froth. "I recommend that George W. Bush come see for himself," she says, laughing. Then, sadly: "We try to explain to them [rich countries] that we are in trouble, but they always look at us as paradise."

It may be too late to save Kiribati. Says tidal researcher Scherer: "You could cut off all CO2 outputs and sea levels will continue to rise [for a century or more], because the oceans respond slowly to atmospheric change." In the field of climate change, certainties are as rare as chilly mornings in Tarawa. Even so, could anyone have blamed Teautu Teuria, as he carried the bones of his brother from one grave to another, for believing that the force which made this necessary was as real and as terrible as anything the world has known?