How “Titanic” is helping a South Pacific tribe understand why their island is disappearing

By Brooke Jarvis

This is all of us, some day sooner than we think.

It was a slow Sunday morning in January, Papua New Guinea’s rainy season, and the sun was making a rare appearance, lighting up the green and gold island where I was staying. I decided to walk its perimeter, but found it difficult: Large sections of the trail around the island were missing, the land fallen into the waves. Beneath a washed-out bank, on a sandy point with colliding currents, I waded into the water to look for shells. A large, brown bone washed against my calf. At first I thought it belonged to some sort of marine mammal, maybe a dugong, and picked it up. But then I saw what was clearly a human jaw, five teeth still embedded in the bone, in the water next to me. I stared at the bone in my hand, shocked to realize that I was gripping a person’s femur. Once I started to see them, it seemed there were bones everywhere. Vertebrae swirled around my feet.

I panicked — I knew that people in the region care intensely about how they handle the dead, saving for years after a person’s death for the ceremonial cement grave cap that marks their final goodbye, and I didn’t think anyone would like the idea of me, a foreigner and a woman, touching a stranger’s bones. But I doubted they would want them to float away, either. I stood in the wash of bones, numb and confused, then finally gathered what I could and wandered ashore without a plan. That’s when I came across the graveyard — part of it a small, neat plot with gardens of fake flowers still on the graves, the other a half tumbling down the eroding shoreline and into the ocean. I left the bones by an intact grave and went to find someone with a better idea. Villagers later said that local kids had recently been finding lots of bones in the same area; they reburied them in the same eroded graveyard. What else was there to do?

The Tigaks, a remote scattering of coral reefs and mostly small, sandy islands, are part of Papua New Guinea’s Bismarck Archipelago. People here live mostly by fishing — often with spears or with lines dropped from hand-hewn outrigger canoes — and by growing bananas, tapioca, cassava, coconut, and other crops in their gardens. The sun is brutal, the sea a deep, clear blue.

When I first arrived on the island of Kulenus, a small ribbon of sand buttressed by the broken trunks of drowned coconut palms, I noticed how the water suddenly shifted to neon as we came closer to shore. This was the result of shallow water washing over the white sand of what was, until fairly recently, dry land. What remains of Kulenus is a tiny, narrow strip of trees and houses — you can see straight through to the water on the other side — that rises just enough above the sea to meet the minimum criteria for an island.

That wasn’t the case the night before, during high tide. In the darkness, the sea rose to new heights, and swept through a number of nearby low-lying villages. On Kulenus, the water covered every bit of land.

As the water began to rise, residents brought their possessions inside their stilted homes, woven of bamboo and sago palm, to wait out the sea. Soon, in the lower houses and those closest to shore, the water followed them in. They moved their belongings out of the way, then moved them again when the tide kept rising. They stayed awake, vigilant to loss, sleeping only once the water finally began to recede.

Lately, a Kulenus elder named Ramis Thomas told me, this has been happening every few months. He heard on the radio that the high tides are the result of rising seas, and that rising seas are the result of mountains of ice melting into distant waters. But Kulenus is remote and just a few degrees south of the equator. Ice — available from the store an hour and a half away if you can get a ride on a boat with a motor — is a correspondingly difficult concept.

But Kulenus does have a generator, which the 70 or so residents sometimes use to watch movies. Thomas thinks of one in particular when he tries to imagine those melting mountains: “I just remember a movie about a ship that crashed onto the ice,” he said. A younger man next to him offered the forgotten title: “Titanic.” The movie’s iceberg scene is the closest Thomas can come to picturing the distant climactic changes that are raising the level of the ocean and dooming his island.

I, on the other hand, had spent years writing about climate change, mostly in the abstract: knee-deep in the predictable, angry, and apparently endless back-and-forth between “deniers” and “alarmists.” Spend enough time inside the climate wars, and it can begin to feel as though everything exists within that context. You begin to know the strange validation and even guilty satisfaction that can sometimes accompany some new piece of bad news about the climate: Maybe this will be the compelling evidence, or the “oh shit” moment, or the humanizing, emotional story, that finally gets people to care. You imagine the audience of the information. Somewhere along the way, you stop imagining the real people who are living it — who may never have heard of climate change, much less its politicization or their own strange role as poster victims.

Suddenly, on Kulenus, nothing was abstract. Thomas, who was born here in 1952 and is the father of Kulenus’s current elected chairman, guesses that three-quarters of the island he remembers from childhood — including the land that people once used for gardens — is gone. “Nothing else here,” he said. “Nothing else besides fish.” A few thin, spare mangrove shoots grow out of the waves, remnants of the residents’ futile efforts to stop the slow slippage of their home into the sea.

In Papua New Guinea, rising seas are a fact of life but a fairly rare topic of conversation. Some communities have heard about government plans to resettle them on larger islands, but the government is far away and the plans never seem to come to anything — often they’re mentioned once and then never brought up again — and people focus on the more immediate business of daily life. Even on islands where relocation (Thomas called it evacuation) is a consideration for the very near future, the great debates of the climate wars can seem very far away. When I asked Thomas how he reacted to the water sweeping across Kulenus, he told me that it could be frightening and that the salt in the soil had made growing plants nearly impossible, but also that he appreciated how the periodic dousing “cleans everything up.” I found myself reacting in surprise: Positive side effects don’t fit the usual script for a media savvy victim of climate disruption. Where was the message discipline? But Thomas didn’t see himself as a symbol in a debate or a press-ready Frontline Face of Climate Change. He was just answering a question.

Not far from Kulenus, I met a family that had been planning to leave their shrinking island the week before, but chose to postpone to wait out stormy weather. They’d go in just a few days, moving to a larger island nearby. With her five-year-old granddaughter hugging her waist, Evodia Elias pointed over the water to show me how far the land once stretched: “This island was down there,” she said. “It was a big island, and now it’s getting small.” As on Kulenus, the area where she once gardened was gone, eroded into the water; sometimes, she said, when rough seas keep people from leaving the island to fish or visit gardens elsewhere, there isn’t enough food. She was the first “official climate refugee” I’d ever met, and she had a question for me about the water that was forcing her out of her home: “Some people were telling us that it depends on the ice melting, and that’s why we have these high tides,” she said. “Is that true?”

Elias had heard that ice was melting, but hadn’t heard why. No amount of reading or writing about climate change can really prepare you to look into the face of someone who will soon flee her home and explain the greenhouse effect. It was hard to know where to begin — which new terms and concepts would need further explanation? — and I stumbled. When I awkwardly described the role of distant cars and factories (“putting something in the atmosphere that traps the heat of the sun”), I expected anger but got a resigned, knowing nod. In Papua New Guinea, where most people see little benefit from an export economy based on poorly regulated mining, logging, and agribusiness, people are familiar with paying a local cost for foreign gain.

The same tide that swamped Kulenus was knee-deep in the center of Enang, a larger neighboring village. The village chairman had an evocative handle on why the high seas were happening (“Some big countries like America are using this industry that’s making a blanket that covers the heat of the sun”) and a firm opinion on their injustice (“All these industries, all these factories, are in the big areas, while small people in the small islands, they are affected by this damage”). But that didn’t change much. On the edge of the village, he showed me the wooden skeleton of a new house rising on stilts over the water; even at this middle tide, hours away from peaking, it was separated from its neighbors by calf-deep pools. I asked why someone would build there, and he shrugged. There was nowhere else to build.

Thomas brought up Titanic because he had a question: Were there really mountains of ice like that, floating in the water? I told him there were. Were they melting? Yes.

“So it seems to me that if they’re melting, there’s still plenty of water to come,” he said. “And sea level’s going to rise up. And that is danger. Isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said. “It is.” My apologetic voice came out high and meek, and Thomas laughed at the sound of it. Someone pointed out that the ice must be very far away, but Thomas explained that the seas are connected, and I offered the analogy of a bowl, how the water rises everywhere no matter where you pour it in. “We have come to an answer now,” said Thomas. “Because you’re telling us there’s still ice — drifting, or sitting on the hills?” Reluctantly, I described places with ice as far as you can see.

“This gives us ideas that there’s still more to come,” Thomas said. “The water is still going to rise.” I finally realized that until that moment, he’d been worried but uncertain about the rising water. He’d been hoping that his people could still hang on: If things didn’t get any worse than this, if the sea didn’t get any higher, if there was no more ice to melt, then they could stay and cope. Things were tenuous but workable. And I had just delivered the news that crushed that hope. Kulenus would have to evacuate.

“I am sorry about our island,” Thomas said, speaking slowly. “But life is important.”

Photo credits, from top: Zackary Canepari (Panos); Zackary Canepari (Panos); Jeremy Selwyn (Redux); Brooke Jarvis; Patrick Brown (Panos); Massimo Berruti (Agence Vu).


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