Atolls in Jeopardy, Republic of the Marshall Islands

It’s entirely plausible the Marshall Islands will vanish under the sea, its people joining a Pacific island diaspora dispersed across the U.S., Australia, and elsewhere. Despite Marshallese ingenuity and resilience, climate change could be the end game. “It’s hard to confront the fear that your island could be gone permanently and that your people would be wandering,” remarked Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a young Marshallese poet, in a recent interview with Vogue Magazine. Upcoming exhibits will to show what could be lost.


The Marshall Islands are an independent republic of 29 low-lying atolls and five isolated islands situated in the middle of the Pacific, with a resident population of 50,000 plus. Notorious for 67 nuclear test blasts at Bikini and Enewetok Atolls that caused widespread collateral human radiation damage, the Marshall Islands today are widely regarded as a “canary in the mine” for climate change. With land elevation seldom higher than three meters and seas rising at the fastest rate in the last 28 centuries, this island nation—and other low lying island nations throught the Pacific—are extremely vulnerable.

I spent two years on Arno Atoll as a Peace Corp volunteer in the late nineteen sixties. My job was to increase the production of copra, the dried kernel of the coconut. Coming back was high on my bucket list. I returned in the summer 2015 after nearly 50 years to photograph atoll landscapes and villages.

Atolls are made of coral reefs that accrued from the exoskeletons of billions of tiny polyp animals sprouting alongside the rims of sunken volcanic islands. The coral took thousands of years to build up, eventually attaining only several meters of height above sea level as plants colonized the sand. Due to their low elevation, atoll islets today are particularly vulnerable to inundation during heavy storms and seasonal king tides. Devastation follows. Intruding salt water ravages agriculture and poisons drinking wells.

While I barely recognized Majuro, the capital, after 50 years, Arno had hardly changed, as least in physical appearance. The community there still supports itself by harvesting copra. Considerable outmigration, however, had significantly diminished social life.

It is difficult to convey the indelible beauty of these atolls: the immense, serene lagoons; tiny islets heaving with coconut and pandanus trees; and vast skyscapes packed with jagged cloud formations and daily rainstorms. The Marshallese themselves are a miracle of kindness. Brilliant at adapting to a minimalist environment, the Marshallese even invented their own ocean navigation system, permitting sailing from atoll to atoll over a range of 1,300 kilometers to support families and food distribution. Extraordinary.