Climate Change and Small Islands

For small island nations, the physical hazards consist of both ocean temperature and air temperature increases, changes in rainfall, drought, and extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones, coral bleaching, invasive species and sea-level rise (IPCC AR6, 2022).

  • These hazards impact not only the environment, but also the people who reside in these small island nations (IPCC AR6, 2022). These extreme weather events are becoming more and more severe. Over the last 40 years, tropical cyclone intensity and intensification rates have increased across the globe (IPCC AR6, 2022). These cyclones destroy buildings and infrastructure on small island nations and threaten human life (IPCC AR6, 2022).
  • Another environmental impact that is being felt by small island nations is the impact on coastal ecosystems (IPCC AR6, 2022). An increase in severe coral bleaching, events caused by increases in ocean temperatures, and ocean acidification has led to the decline of the health of coral reefs (West, 2022). The death of corals have widespread impacts on the marine ecosystem and especially on the animals that rely on them for a source of food or shelter (West, 2022).
  • With regard to freshwater systems on small islands, they are some of the most threatened on the planet (IPCC AR6, 2022). According to the IPCC, it is estimated that there has been an 11-36% reduction in the volume of fresh ground water on small atoll islands due to sea level rise (IPCC AR6, 2022). Droughts and changing weather patterns are also affecting the availability of fresh water on small island nations (IPCC AR6, 2022).
  • Small islands face the hazard of species loss, because of the wide range of insular-related vulnerabilities, around 50% of terrestrial species are at risk of global extinction (IPCC AR6, 2022). Even the minimal percentage of space that small islands take up, they hold substantial proportions of species and diversity (IPCC AR6, 2022). 


According to the IPCC (2022), there are numerous observable impacts to small island nations, but there are also projected impacts that will likely be a major factor in the health of small island ecosystems and the ability inhabit them. Climate and ocean changes will further alter marine and terrestrial ecosystems along with the services that they provide. Sea level rise, coupled with changing wave and current patterns will significantly increase coastal flooding and erosion. Coastal flooding is forecasted with increase in intensity, frequency and duration by 2050 (IPCC AR6, 2022). With 5-10 cm increase in sea level, coastal flooding will double in frequency in the Tropical Pacific (IPCC AR6, 2022).  The projected alterations in rainfall patterns are leading to changes in aridity of small islands. This aridity will stress freshwater systems on these islands. In the Pacific, some atolls’ freshwater systems could be affected by 0.40 m of sea level rise (IPCC AR6, 2022). Humans also play a large role in the health of small island ecosystems. If terrestrial and marine ecosystems continue to be degraded, this will intensify the vulnerability of the people who live on these islands to the effects of climate change. Due to the culmination of direct anthropogenic factors, such as degradation of ecosystems or exploitation of resources, and climate change, the area available for inhabitation is decreasing. Climate change driven hazards such as sea level rise, increased precipitation events, and changes in aridity will lead to food and water scarcity. 

Children in the village of Tebikenikora

United Nations



Kiribati faces many of the same risks that other small island nations face in a changing climate. These risks include the degradation of ecosystems, sea level rise, freshwater contamination, extreme weather events and erosion. These pose a significant threat to people living in Kiribati and their ability to continue to inhabit the islands they call home.





Hazards to Kiribati

Erosion is a severe threat to the islands of Kiribati with the infrastructure located close to the ocean. Erosion can be broken up into two different types, one being man-made, and the other being natural. Man-made erosion in Kiribati consists of construction to the causeway across inter-islet channels which disrupts the supply of sand from the ocean reef to the lagoon (Gillie, 1993). Another form of man-made erosion is the interruption of sediment transfer by harbors, lagoon dredging and the creation of borrow pits near the shore. Natural erosion includes shoreline variability, which allows for sediment to be transported away from the shore leading to the loss of sediment. Seasonal variations in wind patterns and increased sea level can also result in sediment erosion in Kiribati (Guille, 1993).  Due to these types of erosion, there has been a loss of homes, roads, coconut trees and valued property.  Kiribati is experiencing increases in wave height and frequency which is placing more pressure on the islands and their seawalls (Republic of Kiribati).  With increases in wave heights comes an increase in flooding and destruction of property which poses both an environmental and economic threat to the people.

Erosion to the Coast of Kiribati

Wikimedia Commons

Map of Kiribati and the western Pacific Ocean

Wiki Commons

Tarawa, Kiribati

European Space Agency

Kiribati relies heavily on the surrounding ecosystems for survival and climate change is currently endangering them. Kiribati has one of the largest economic exclusive zones in the world (Mangubhai, 2019). An economic exclusive zone is an area that one country has the sole right to the resources in that area. The marine ecosystem encompassed by the economic exclusive zone is being threatened by climate change making the resources scarcer. In Kiribati, one issue is pollution by runoff water from sewage and fertilizers that can be detrimental to marine ecosystems (Graves, n.d.). This jeopardizes the coastal communities who rely on these ecosystems for food and economic livelihood. With the correct infrastructure in place, you can minimize the risks of contamination of sewage by ensuring that it is treated properly. Without the proper treatment, bacterial pathogens impact both the marine plants and animals, but also the people that harvest and consume them as well.  Because Kiribati is a small island nation that takes up about 811 km2 but spans 3.5 million kmof ocean territory, the country’s economy is primarily dominated by marine resources (Graves, n.d.). As the ecosystem is polluted, it further stresses the organisms who live in that ecosystem which often leads to the reduction in population of those organisms in the area.  In addition to pollution, increases in water temperatures and changes in salinity impact marine ecosystems (Graves, n.d.).  Increases in ocean temperatures also causes stress on corals. This causes them to expel their zooxanthellae (West, 2003). Especially in Kiribati, the increase change in ocean temperatures is causing corals to die off which has cascading effects on other marine organisms who rely on coral reefs. In a recent study done on the reefs surrounding Christmas Island, one of the bigger islands in Kiribati, up to 90% of corals have died and are covered in algae (Living on Earth, n.d.).  Due to the die off of these corals, it is causing the loss of habitat for fish which is decreasing their populations (Cannonn, 2021). This makes relying on the reefs for food and economic purposes unreliable. The main exports of Kiribati are marine resources and coconut products (The Commonwealth of Nations, n.d.). With a decline in the marine resources able to be exported, their GDP would go down dramatically due to the reliance of the economy on a singular resource.

Sea level rise is pushing low lying islands like Kiribati to be inhabitable in conjunction with the contamination of freshwater. Since 1993, data has indicated a rise of 1-4mm per year in sea level across Kiribati (Kiribati Meteorological Service).  In Kiribati, in a medium emissions scenario, sea level is projected to rise by 10 to 20 cm by 2050 (Kiribati Meteorological Service).  With this rise in sea level, it places property and infrastructure at risk of being damaged and destroyed which presents an economic impact to the people of Kiribati. As sea level continues to rise, there will be increased storm surges and coastal flooding which will pose a threat to infrastructure as well as freshwater sources. This saltwater intrusion into freshwater sources, contaminate the water and can no longer be used. Also, the coral limestone of which Kiribati is composed of is porous, meaning that salt water can permeate through it and contaminate the wells (Kiribati Government, n.d.). Over extraction of freshwater, droughts and the issues with polluted run off water has perpetuated Kiribati’s freshwater issues.  Droughts are becoming more common and more severe leading to more stress on the water supply (Kiribati Meteorological Service). A rapidly changing climate is a threat multiplier when it comes to the issues regarding water shortages that Kiribati is facing.

Leafless coconut trees

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


Kiribati has a very high rate of exposure to these hazards and threats. This is mostly due to the geographic location and isolation of the country. Being located in the Tropical Pacific Ocean, Kiribati is exposed to violent storms and doesn’t have much to protect them. Their climate changes based on whether it is an El Nino or La Nina year. El Nino events typically bring wetter and warmer conditions than normal. La Nina years usually have less rainfall and cooler temperatures (Kiribati Meteorological Service, n.d.).  Kiribati is also located on the edge of where the South Pacific Convergence Zone meets the Intertropical Convergence Zone. These zones provide increased rainfall from November to April (Kiribati Meteorological Service, n.d.).  Kiribati is constantly exposed to the unrelenting environmental hazards that climate change is perpetuating. In addition, Kiribati’s topography leaves them exposed to the effects of climate change. The average elevation in Kiribati is less than 2 meters above sea level and most of the islands are projected to be underwater by 2050 (COP 23, 2018). The IPCC projects that sea level rise will increase by 0.9 meters by 2030 which will leave low lying parts of Kiribati susceptible to flooding and storm surges (COP 23, 2018). Kiribati also is exposed to geographic threats regarding the composition of the islands. The islands are composed of porous limestone and coral remnants (Weiss, 2015). This composition of the islands leaves the ground water susceptible to salt water contamination underground (Weiss, 2015). This compromises the viability of living on these islands without significant strategies of adaptation.


Kiribati vulnerability stems from their reliance on the environment for economic prosperity and survival. If the sea level around Kiribati rises by 2.6 feet or more, 80% of land would be uninhabitable (Walker, 2017). Even with government subsidies to try and promote the shift in economy to copra, the chopped and dry flesh of a coconut, other economic hazards such as droughts and sea level rise are killing coconut trees. With less trees, there are less coconuts, thus less cash in the form of subsidies (Walker, 2017). Kiribati is extremely vulnerable because of the amount of money they have.  According to the most recent Household Income and Expenditure Survey, 12.9 percent of people live below the poverty line (World Bank, 2018). Another reason, Kiribati is vulnerable is because islands are low laying.  At its highest point, Kiribati is no more than three meters above sea level (Rosen, 2021). There is not a place for the people to escape the rising sea level. This makes them vulnerable to coastal flooding with storm surges and high tides (Cop 23, 2018). Due to the elevation and economic situation in Kiribati, it is extremely difficult to take preventive measure against climate hazards and to relocate or prepare for future ones. Kiribati is vulnerable to climate change with regards to the health of the nation. Due to the unsuitability of the land for agriculture on Kiribati, it perpetuates health issues like malnutrition (McIver, 2014). This causes them to be more dependent on outside sources of food. This dependency is an issue for many groups of people trying to adapt to climate change and leaves them less capable of adapting because they don’t have the ability to survive on their own (McIver, 2014).


Adaptation strategies for a small island nation such as Kiribati is limited. One short term adaptation to their issue of contaminated freshwater is the rain collection of systems with above ground storage tanks. By collecting rainwater and storing it in a place, it prevents the contamination of that water. The problem with this, is that it relies on rainfall and in Kiribati they are experiencing more droughts, furthering the freshwater availability (Van Bronkhorst, 2021). Kiribati is almost past the point of adaptation because of how exposed and vulnerable they are to the hazards and impacts they are currently facing. For most of Kiribati, trying to adapt is unfeasible and more costly as they continue to choose to stay and require increased infrastructure and imports of food and water to survive. In 1999, when the first desalination plant was constructed, it cost AUD $300,000 (Metutera, 2002).  This plant could desalinate water at a rate of 110 m3 /day (Metutera, 2002).  This adaptation strategy is unrealistic for every island in Kiribati. An adaptation strategy that they are attempting is through dredging the lagoon for fill minerals to build up Tarawa (Pala, 2020). But with this strategy comes impacts to the marine ecosystem especially the coral reefs (Pala, 2020). Based on the National Programs of Action Plan, Kiribati plans to increase the awareness of climate change and invest in monitoring methods in order to determine the most pressing hazards (United Nations Development Program, n.d.).

Fresh Water Storage

Beyond the Walls of Education

Due to the hazards that Kiribati is exposed to, adaptation is no longer a viable option when it comes to being a self-sufficient country with regarding to reliance on foreign aid for survival.  Relocation of the people of Kiribati is their only chance for survival. Anote Tong, the president’s predecessor, purchased 6,000 acres of land in Fiji for Kiribati to resettle (Walker, 2017). But the problem is that the people of Kiribati want to stay. President Maamau envisions more money invested in Kiribati though foreign aid, access to fishing rights and increased tourism (Walker, 2017). Climate change is affecting that too. Trying to adapt and pour money into Kiribati would be a form of malinvestment. It is only prolonging the inevitable, climate change making Kiribati inhabitable. Kiribati is at the forefront of the battle with climate change and is a warning of what is to come if we don’t slow down climate change.





The People of Kiribati

The people of Kiribati are facing unprecedented circumstances when it comes to their way of life. The people want to stay on the islands of Kiribati but it is becoming more expensive to import food and water due to the inability of the islands to sustain the agriculture and fresh water demands (Pala, 2020). The government of Kiribati is trying to protect the islands for the people through infrastructure projects to avoid relocation (Pala, 2020).


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About The Author

Robert Reynolds is a student at St. Lawrence University (class of 2022) and is majoring in Economics, Environmental Studies and Math. He was a captain of the St. Lawrence men's soccer team and enjoys hiking and golf in his free time.