Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Pacific swallowing remote island chain
Dr. Sanjay Gupta reports from the Carteret Islands, a remote island chain that is slowly being swallowed by the ocean.
CARTERET ISLANDS -- When I started working at CNN in the summer of 2001, I really had no idea that the job would regularly take me to some of the most remote places on earth. Yet, here I am again, writing a blog from one of those places. Along with producer Heather O'Neill and photographer Neil Hallsworth, I am in the South Pacific for a story on the Carteret Islands -- a chain of islands about 1 square kilometer in size with a population of about 1,600. We are here because these islands are slowly sinking back into the sea, and no one is exactly sure why. One thing is clear though -- people are being evacuated as their homes disappear.

To get to the Carteret Islands requires five separate airplane flights and a helicopter ride that ended on a very small strip of beach. Our origin was Guangzhou, China, in the southern part of the country in the Guangdong province. From there we had a layover in Hong Kong. We then stopped for a few hours in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. After that, we flew to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. Then we flew to Rabaul and finally Buka, Papua New Guinea. For most of the helicopter ride, we were flying over nothing but water -- no land for at least an hour in any direction. It was treacherous.

Here we are surrounded by the Solomon Sea, and it is arguably one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Still, we are here as part of CNN's Planet in Peril coverage because the people of the Carteret are being called the world's first environmental refugees. While it will most likely be a few years before the islands are actually completely submerged, the effects of all that water are already being felt. At high tide, the sea washes right over the islands, its salt water ruining the few crops they are trying to grow. The people here are starving and the government of Papua New Guinea thinks it's time for them to leave.

Now if you ask just about anyone living on the islands why this is happening, they will immediately shout "global warming." I was surprised they even knew this term, but they will point north and describe the melting of the ice in Greenland to make their case for climate change. Other people we interviewed described the tumultuous history of the islands, where at one time they used dynamite to fish with resulting damage to the protective coral. They also remind us that the islands are actually part of an old volcano that has a natural history of sinking back into the sea.

To be sure, this remote population of people has hardly any impact on anyone else in the world. Yet, they believe the "rest of the world" is having a huge impact on them. What do you think? Are the Carteret Islands disappearing because of global influences and climate change or is it more of a local phenomenon?

-- By Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent
Posted By CNN: 1:24 PM ET
  22 Comments
Thank you for covering this topic, but you are asking the wrong question. Yes, of course it is climate change. I thought we were already past that debate. The question we really need to ask now is "what are we going to do about it?" This is a problem that requires global solutions because there are relatively few things that can be done locally by a small island country with virtually no resources. The need for action is urgent, so lets discuss that instead.
Posted By Kristiina, Vancouver, BC : 1:55 PM ET
Hi Dr. Gupta,
I recently read the islands are possibly being submerged due to the movement of tectonic plates. Maybe it's a combination of this and all the factors you mentioned in your blog.This certainly is a poignant story to share with your children and others.It's fortunate you were able to visit the islands and inhabitants, who soon will no longer be there.The Planet in Peril segments are well done.
Posted By Carol B., Frederick, MD : 2:56 PM ET
I am not a scientist, so I can't speak with any authority, but it seems to me that in order to answer your question, I would need to know if this is an isolated phenomenon. Are other islands in the South Pacific sinking as well? If they are, then the dynamiting of the reefs can't be to blame. If other islands in this volcanically active area are also seeing rising seas, then perhaps the earth's movements cannot be ruled out. The problem on the Carteret Islands could be caused by both global warming *and* volcanic activity.

But if global warming is a contributing factor, and I have no doubt that it is, I think nations like the U.S. that are major polluters should help pay for the relocation of these islands' inhabitants. Papua New Guinea is one of the poorest nations on earth and should not be forced to bear the burden.
Posted By Barbara, Culver City, CA : 3:35 PM ET
Hi Dr. Gupta,
It must be really depressing to travel around the globe and KNOW that the world is going to die because of global warming and human denial.
Of course the Carteret Islands are disappearing because of global influences and possibly faster because of internal changes.
I really have to hand it to you, Anderson, 360, and CNN for giving the planet it's last "hurrah". I am convinced that there will not be a year 2100. Other people who are knowledgeable on the subject of global warming agree there will no turning back soon but they don't seem to care because they will be gone by then.
Are we as a human race this selfish? Sadly, it appears so. In the meantime the clock is ticking. . . tick. . tick. . tick. .
Posted By Betty Ann, Nacogdoches,TX : 3:40 PM ET
Global warming was the first thing that came to mind. However, I would have to question how fast the islands are disappearing. The fact that people are being evacuated says something about the rate, but then again, the island area is not large at all. By using sonar, they could determine the depth of the water surrounding the islands and if that number is higher than any other sonar reading on record, then the sea level is rising. Not that the island is sinking.
Posted By Steve, Waukegan, Illinois : 3:56 PM ET
Dear Sanjay,

Thank you for describing how difficult it was to get to the Carteret Islands; it will help viewers appreciate how remote they really are.

In my opinion, I think the problem is a combination of the things you mentioned. In addition to the fact that the islands are part of an old volcano, the islanders have probably contributed to the problem by dynamite fishing and the destruction of the mangroves. However, I think it is the rising waters due to global warming that have probably helped to accelerate an already existing problem.

I was very impressed that the islanders knew and seem to understand what global warming is! Maybe they can explain it to George W. Bush!

Thank you for taking the time to bring us this report; I look forward to seeing it!

Be safe,
Jo Ann
Posted By Jo Ann Matese, North Royalton, Ohio : 4:07 PM ET
I think I'm going to have to go with the unstable volcanic island and blowing up the coral reefs on this one. I'm sure that the waters have risen also, but I don't think that Greenland has caused these people to have to leave their homes. You've been blessed with seeing parts of the world that we will probably never see. Thanks for bringing them to us. Hope your trip continues to be safe.
Posted By Kathy Chicago,Il : 4:17 PM ET
I think I'm going to have to go with the unstable volcanic island and blowing up the coral reefs on this one. I'm sure that the waters have risen also, but I don't think that Greenland has caused these people to have to leave their homes. You've been blessed with seeing parts of the world that we will probably never see. Thanks for bringing them to us. Hope your trip continues to be safe.
Posted By Kathy Chicago,Il : 4:19 PM ET
Dr. Gupta/AC360:
From what I have read recently, the Carteret Islands are not the only islands sinking. I believe Hawaii's Big Island is sinking as well.

So, is it about volcanic disruption in the structure of the islands? Or is it because of rising sea waters due to weather events like El Nino? Have islands disappeared before but we did not have the technology to document it? What does island folklore tell us about other islands disappearing in the past?

Whether it is about global warming or a local phenomenon, it is about how natives of a small island are losing their home to the sea.

I wonder how the citizens of the New York City would feel if one day the boroughs of New York were swallowed up by the Atlantic Ocean. Why does it have to be on a massive scale to be taken seriously?

Inch by inch or mile by mile, it is an extinction of a large land mass. Is that normal?

My question is: Who is going to build the ark next time?

Thanks for the report, Dr. Gupta.
Posted By Sharon D., Indianapolis, IN : 5:26 PM ET
Hey Dr.Gupta,

I would say it is a mixture between human doing and nature taking its natural course. It's happening everywhere,taking different forms.
In the past 5 years,2 of the 6 big plates of ice that was at the north extremity of Canada,in Nunavut since more then 3000 years have disappeared. When one of those broke,it caused vibration perceived by sysmic captors located 250km from there.
They attribute it to global warming,but when it detaches itself,it causes like little hearthquakes. It starts a chain reaction.
In Nunavut,they have been experiencing mudslides,loosing their homes and they have to move back more and more into the land.
It always seems to touch where people are already having a hard time. There will be those to say,so what?!?!Why should we care about those foreign strips of earth disappearing? Why should we care about places we have never heard of? Well,how about because we are all sharing the same planet,we should care what happens to others,we should be part of the solution and we should not wait until it touches our confortable lives to react.
Dr.Gupta,when those people evacuate,where are they relocated.Is the government taking care of it??Why do I doubt it??!

Joanne R.
Laval Quebec

Joanne R
Posted By Joanne R.Laval Quebec : 7:27 PM ET
Hi Dr. Gupta,
I think it's a combination of both. A local phenomenon and global influences. Mother nature will always win, but we can fight back enough to reverse and stop our bad influence on Earth. Hopefully, we can then deal with and adapt to the natural forces of our planet that we aren't responsible for.
Posted By Lorie Ann, Buellton, Calif. : 11:02 PM ET
Dr. Gupta,

On your question, I have read several articles lately that list other islands sinking and tens of thousands of refugees and the problem of where they should go. So I gathered from those articles that this island was not the only one.

Is it global warming or tectonic plate movement, etc? As active geologically (in the ring of fire) as that region of the Pacific is I would guess tectonic plate movement first. (I don't see how dynamite fishing could have any significant effect). To be global warming especially from the ice caps of Greenland, it would seem logically that the US and Europe would see effects of that before this island did.

Glad you are bringing us these reports. I hope that in the final production there is something about inland glacier melt from mountains since scientists now say that is the bigger factor for sea level rise this century than Greenland or the polar ice caps.

Thank you.
Posted By Suzanne Pratt, Knoxville TN : 12:09 AM ET
I'm rather surprised that a journalist could not have nailed down the cause of the submergence a little better. The rise in sea level is known precisely. And whether or not the island is sinking can be determined (and probably has been) by use of GPS measurements. Did Mr. Gupta make inquiries of geologists or oceanographers?

Michael in AG, California
Posted By Michael93420 : 8:17 AM ET
First of all, Islands disapear all the time. it does not make the news because they are usuall so small they do not have any inhabitants. The are in question is the largest subsidence zone on the planet. Subsidence means things SINK. The land is SINKING. This is very different from water leves rising. If this was due to water levels, all islands in that region would have the same issue.
People need to THINK and not knee-jerk 'Global Warming' a term 90% of people do not understand and that is, like most theories in the real world, as easily disproven as proven.
Posted By Jason : 10:54 AM ET
Dr. Gupta,

I may not be the smartest person in the world, but isn't sea level the same all around the world? Wouldn't we be see the seas rise at the same rate everywhere? This appears to me to be a local event.
Posted By Howie, PV Mexico : 12:42 PM ET
Sinking fast enough to require evacuation is way out of the reach of global warming. So far it appears we have gained 20 centimeters in ocean level over the past 40 years. More prosaically, driving on the Pacific Coast Highway through Huntington Beach, CA you can see that there would be major problems if the ocean had risen a meter in the last decade, that hasn't happened. The bottom line is that living on top of a volcano isn't the most stable place to be. As far as dynamiting the reefs, we overestimate our man made ability to cause an island to sink or rise.
Posted By Markland : 12:59 PM ET
Hi Dr. Guupta. Howie in MX--I seem to recall from my vast archives of watching a steady diet of PBS Nature series that no, in fact, sea levels are NOT the same/uniform around the world. Let us also remember that it is the gravity of the Moon that causes the daily tides in the oceans around the world. Cool, huh?!?
Posted By Gummer, Stanton, OH : 1:38 PM ET
WHERE IS ANDERSON COOPER?!? This used to be his AC 360 blog; but, no longer.

AC has abandoned us here at his blog for the STUPID PODCASTS!!
Posted By Stan, Seattle, WA : 1:39 PM ET
Dear Dr. Sanjay Gupta,

Thank you for covering the reality of the world. You must be missing your family at this point.

Well, I thought that Chinese farmers -as the Falun Gong described it- ate better than the products they exported to the US. But now I realize that they are as much exposed to chemical byproducts as does the rest of the world.

I have never heard of the Carteret Islands, but I think that Global warming and the usage of explosive by the local inhabitants is speeding up the timing of the already set faith of the Island for disappearing into the sea.
Posted By Ratna, New York, NY : 3:22 PM ET
My guess would be that all possible reasons (mentioned in this article) for the waters rising could be and probably are the cause for this change. Interestingly enough-to say "A couple years" before it's swallowed up seems rapid. I find that interesting... hmmmm.
Posted By Melisa, Springfield, Illinois : 3:12 PM ET
My guess would be that all possible reasons (mentioned in this article) for the waters rising could be and probably are the cause for this change. Interestingly enough-to say "A couple years" before it's swallowed up seems rapid. I find that interesting... hmmmm.
Posted By Melisa, Springfield, Illinois : 3:12 PM ET
I think that is the natural process on this earth. Parts of this earth will be stable and unstable, parts will be good and bad and parts will deteriotate whiles other parts will be building.
Arun,new york
Posted By Anonymous : 4:17 PM ET
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