Tuvalu Special News Feature

 

Tuvalu Mo Te Atua (Tuvalu for the Almighty)


The text of this story is (C) Copyright Dr Mark D. Hayes, 2005, All Rights Reserved. Repurposing, re-use, and publication anywhere else, in any form, for any purpose, is expressly forbidden.

Copyright of associated pictures used with this story resides exclusively with the respective owners of each of the pictures - Ms Jocelyn Carlin, Dr Mark D. Hayes, Mrs Silafaga Lalua, and Mr Lomi Paeniu. Repurposing, re-use, and publication anywhere else, in any form, for any purpose, is expressly forbidden
 


INTRODUCTION:

On February 13, 2005, the Sydney Morning Herald's On Line 'blog' and discussion forum, Margo Kingston's Web Diary published a long feature, 'The Sinking of Tuvalu', by Brisbane-based journalist and journalism educator, Dr Mark Hayes.

During the following week, a spirited discussion followed that publication, traversing issues such as the future and fate of Tuvalu, the reality, or otherwise, of global warming and its effects, and what governments and citizens should, could, or should not, be doing about it.

The Kyoto Protocol came into force on Wednesday, February 16, 2005, but the United States and Australia remain the only two major developed world countries not to have ratified the Protocol.

Tuvaluislands.com publishes a longer version of Dr Hayes' feature, with permission from Ms Kingston, together with many exclusive pictures, many never published before, with permission from Dr Hayes, and the other owners of the copyrighted pictures. All other publication rights reserved.

[Click on images to display enlargements]


Tuesday, November 16, 2004, mid-afternoon, Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu,
central south-west Pacific...

Outside the Tuvalu Meteorological Office on Funafuti Atoll, an afternoon thunderstorm is pouring thick tropical rain down on the atoll. It's raining so hard conversation inside the small, white, bungalow is almost impossible

We're east across the bitumen air strip from the tiny Funafuti International Airport terminal with the best destination and luggage code in the world: FUN


A tropical storm looms over Funafuti from
the west. Tuesday afternoon, November 16, 2004
 

 

The noise of the storm has completely overwhelmed the permanent drone of the large diesel driven electricity generators in the Funafuti power station next door.

A professional photographer from New Zealand, Jocelyn Carlin, and I take turns to hold the  front door of the Met Office open for each other so we can take pictures of the deluge. The wind is driving the rain so hard we each hold the door firmly and lean against it, keeping it open just a little, otherwise the office would be flooded.
 

Jocelyn Carlin watching the storm deluge from the Tuvalu
Met Office's door. Tuesday afternoon, November 16, 2004
 

We just arrived ahead of the storm, the black wall of cloud rising up from the west above the new Taiwanese-funded three storey Government Building which dominates the Funafuti sky on the Lagoon side of the atoll only 600 meters away. We saw the storm coming and ran across the air strip, arriving just ahead of it.


Jocelyn had been on the western, Lagoon side of the atoll, taking pictures of the storm approaching from that side.


At the full moon and the new moon of each month
high tides confront the coastline and the lives of the people of Tuvalu
 


Then it struck with an almost deafening roar, the wind pushing the rain everywhere, occasional flashes of blinding lightening, the prompt cracks and later deep rumbles of thunder rattling the building.


In front of the low set open-sided Maneapa, or meeting house, next to the airport, children are enjoying a fresh water swim and frolic, while occasional vehicles plough along the flooded road, tossing streams of water from their wheels and in their wake, their head lights trying to cut through the gloom.

The storm hits Funafuti with a sudden,
massive deluge of fresh water.

 

 
Left: Children enjoying a freshwater swim, playing in the sudden flood brought by the storm.
Right: A truck ploughs through the deluge outside the airport.


Through the rain a small battered white utility truck appears, bouncing along the packed coral sand track leading into the Met Office yard and splashing through the deep puddles.


Hilia Vavae, Director of the Tuvalu Meterological
Office, braves the storm to come into work.
 

 

The person Jocelyn and I had some to see, 46 year old Hilia Vavae, scurries into her office as I hold the door open for her. She's drenched, breathless, and apologises for being late, and for the rain.


Hilia Vavae inside her office, drenched by the storm.
 

She's a slight woman by Tuvaluan standards, which tend to the Polynesian's stocky build for men and women, her disarming bright eyes and ready smile flashing while she dries herself off.

Put arguments to her that global warming isn't happening, that the seas around Tuvalu haven't steadily risen, and the smile turns to a glare, her jaw sets hard, and she steels herself to, yet again, firmly demolish such ignorant talk with rapid fire, hard data, her Tuvaluan accented English dripping with contempt for global warming skeptics or naysayers.
 

Hilia Vavae explaining, yet again, that global warming
and sea level rise are real and are affecting Tuvalu, from
the 2004 ETC television documentary, 'Trouble in Paradise'
by Christopher Horner & Gilliane Le Gallic.

 

Hilia's been with the Met Office since 1981 and head of it since 1991, so she's been there and seen everything, many times.

The slow but steady creeping of sea water into Funafuti Atoll causing local flooding when the tides and winds are right, the slow but steady rise in water levels - just over 6 mm per year since 1993 - and temperatures - steady rises except for missing data from the southern most island in the group - the more severe storms coming more often, unexpected winds and ocean currents out of season. When it's really bad, even her meticulous office is in danger of flooding, and her instruments in little equipment huts outside in the yard risk damage.

On her wall, and on the Tuvalu Met Office's Web Site she's got pictures of herself and her staff in years gone past, outside the building, in seeping sea water up to their knees.

They've given up taking any more pictures like these because the novelty of such flooding's long since worn off, replaced with a usually well hidden dread every time the tides are really high, and fear for their, and especially their children's, future.

Hilia was going to take Jocelyn, myself, and two French journalists, to inspect sites around Funafuti where we might see water bubbling up from beneath the atoll when the tide peaked at just over two and a half meters.

But the storm has brought other problems.

Islander's fresh water tanks are full to overflowing, but the water table just beneath the atoll is saturated, the water brackish and unusable, contaminated by sea water seeping into the atoll from below.


 An eroded pot hole just north of Funafuti airport,
showing the saturated water table just beneath the
ground and containing contaminated, salty,
unusable, and poisonous water.


Poisonous to any root crops, like the large, yam-like vegetable called pulaka, once a staple in the Tuvaluan's diet, planted around the atoll, as I reported on InterWorld Radio in January, 2005.

With our afternoon plans drenched, Jocelyn, Hilia, and I sit in the office with her staff, watching the storm slowly pass over the atoll to the east.


Staff at the Tuvalu Met Office sit out the storm.


As the rain eases, and the blue sky and bright afternoon sunshine returns, sheets of fresh water cover parts of the atoll around the air strip.


 As quickly as it came, but far more gently, the storm
passes away from Funafuti to the east, leaving full
water tanks, saturated ground, and overflowing
water table beneath the atoll.


I take some pictures and jokingly remark that, if we don't see real sea water causing exactly the same scene, as it does when the tidal conditions are right, these pics will do. Hilia glares at me, and I hastily point out that, as an ethical journalist, I'd never lie like that. Might be useful as an ethical dilemma for my journalism students back in Brisbane, though.
 

  
Left: Sheets of fresh water flooding near the Funafuti Air Strip
opposite the power station and the Tuvalu Met Office. Extreme high
tide sea water seepage into the atoll often looks identical to this.

Right: Looking north along the Funafuti Air Strip. FRESH water flooding
like this, or sea water seepage caused by extreme high tides, closes
Tuvalu's only air strip and erodes its foundations, requiring constant repairs..

 

Hilia takes a chart off the wall and shows us the tide projections for Tuvalu at Funafuti for the next few months.

These projections are compiled by the National Tidal Facility at Flinders University in South Australia, based on data from many sources, including weather data sent from this office on Funafuti several times a day.

Tide projections for Funafuti, Tuvalu, early February, 2005,
from the National Tidal Centre, Bureau of Meteorology (Australia)


On the other side of the atoll, attached to a concrete pier jutting into Te Namo Lagoon just south of the only hotel in Funafuti, the Vaikiu Lagi, is an automatic tide monitoring station. It looks like a thin Dalek bolted to the pier, with a UHF satellite antenna on its top pointing to the west, sending Real Time tide data back to Australia.

 

Tide monitoring gauge attached to the Vaikau Wharf
on the western, Lagoon, side of central Funafuti Atoll. Low tide.

 

We closely study the chart, and Hilia turns the page to February, 2005. She's worried, very worried, and she turns to March, and then April, 2005.

The peaks in the graphs leap off the page, some coinciding with a full moon, and some preceding or following it by a day or two.

When the highest point of land on Funafuti, which, much to Hilia's glee, I called Mt Funafuti when we went there later, is no more than 4 meters above mean high tide, the figures demand close attention.

The figures confirm the threat the graph peaks portend - 3.17 meters at 4.50pm on February 8, 3.22 meters at 5.33pm the next day with a full moon, and 3.18 meters at 6.15pm on Thursday, February 10.

Add a storm, or squalls, a stiff, solid wind from the west or the east, and widespread flooding on Funafuti is almost certain.

That's exactly what happened during the second week of February, 2005.

Hilia Vavae, meteorologist, surveys the coast line and watches
the weather in low lying Tuvalu one of the most vulnerable
nations in the world to sea level rise and coastal erosion.

 


The usually placid Te Namo Lagoon at very low tide, western
northern Funafuti, late morning, November 27, 2004.


Part 2....>

 

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