Hell and High Water

Two man-made catastrophes — a toxic nuclear legacy and rising sea levels — threaten to sink the Marshall Islands’ country and culture.

Two man-made catastrophes — a toxic nuclear legacy and rising sea levels — threaten to sink the Marshall Islands’ country and culture.

On Christmas Eve in 2008, a slender string of Pacific islands braced for bad weather. As is customary in the Marshall Islands, holiday preparations had begun months before. Baskets filled with food were wrapped up in anticipation of the festivals planned for the following day. Families looked to get a full night’s rest ahead of a day filled with songs and dancing.

But the overnight flooding was worse than expected. Children listening for Santa’s sleigh bells woke up the next morning to see their presents floating in the water.

It was the third storm to hit the country in two weeks. A winter storm of that scale can be a welcome development for surfers hitting the waves along the coastline of Hawaii, but as the waves rippled roughly 3,000 miles southwest through the Pacific Ocean, conditions took a devastating turn.

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Laura Laurum was born on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands before the region was evacuated in 1946, when the United States used its military occupation of the islands to carry out more than 67 nuclear bomb tests.

The winds were hardly the strength of those generated by the super typhoon that made landfall some six years later in the South Pacific, raising the waterline to engulf three-story buildings. And it was no Hurricane Sandy, which ripped through the northeastern seaboard of the United States with tides that peaked at 32 feet.

By comparison, the waves that struck the Marshall Islands that Wednesday evening reached just 5 feet high. But for a country that stands only just as many feet above sea level, even less-severe storm systems can result in natural disaster.

By the time Christmas Day arrived, at least 600 people were forced from their homes. The churches that would ordinarily host traditional “jeptas” holiday ceremonies were turned into triage facilities overnight.

The government declared a state of emergency. Public hygiene and sanitation were a primary concern. The water was likely contaminated after being steeped in the soil of the cemeteries that dot the coastline.

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Storm events and large waves often carry pieces of broken coral reef and sediment to shore, which are then used as construction material to build on the atolls.

It would take weeks before officials could fully assess the damage. Deborah Manase, deputy director of the Office of Environmental Planning and Policy Coordination at the time, outlined the existential crisis the Marshallese faced: The storms were not isolated, random phenomena.

The island nation’s leaders blamed an alarming new trend for triggering the rising tides.

Climate change, officials said, was eating up the coastline.

“It shows that we’re extremely vulnerable,” Manase told the AFP News Agency that Christmas. “If the tide had been two feet higher, it would have been much worse.”

Within five years, floods would again sweep past the gates of Majuro, the capital city. This time, the impact was just as Manase predicted.

Bikini

MAJURO

MARSHALL ISLANDS

Kili

PACIFIC OCEAN

Papua New Guinea

Capital

Water, Everywhere

The Marshall Islands, an independent nation made up of five islands and 29 atolls equaling about the size of Washington, D.C., are home to an estimated 72,191 people. Its residents have fled toxic radiation and now face the threat of rising sea levels.

Graphic by Melissa Paige Taylor

Bikini

MAJURO

MARSHALL ISLANDS

Kili

PACIFIC OCEAN

Papua New Guinea

Water, Everywhere

The Marshall Islands, an independent nation made up of five islands and 29 atolls equaling about the size of Washington, D.C., are home to an estimated 72,191 people. Its residents have fled toxic radiation and now face the threat of rising sea levels.

Capital

Graphic by Melissa Paige Taylor

Bikini

MAJURO

MARSHALL ISLANDS

Kili

PACIFIC OCEAN

Papua New Guinea

Water, Everywhere

The Marshall Islands, an independent nation made up of five islands and 29 atolls equaling about the size of Washington, D.C., are home to an estimated 72,191 people. Its residents have fled toxic radiation and now face the threat of rising sea levels.

Capital

Graphic by Melissa Paige Taylor

Water, Everywhere

The Marshall Islands, an independent nation made up of five islands and 29 atolls equaling about the size of Washington, D.C., are home to an estimated 72,191 people. Its residents have fled toxic radiation and now face the threat of rising sea levels.

Bikini

MAJURO

MARSHALL ISLANDS

Kili

PACIFIC OCEAN

Papua New Guinea

Capital

Graphic by Melissa Paige Taylor

image with artdirection
Trash piles up along the shore of Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands.

For much of the world, the catastrophic consequences of climate change are years down the line. But a new class of displaced people, so-called “climate change refugees,” has emerged as some populations find their environments increasingly inhospitable.

It’s happening in Bangladesh, where coastal flooding has begun to wipe out entire villages and crops. In the United States, parts of the Louisiana bayou have started to slip beneath the Gulf of Mexico, forcing American communities to relocate to higher ground.

But the situation is dire for inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, where moving further inland is not an option. If tides were to rise by the projected levels, living there would resemble being trapped in a narrow room with the walls closing in on both sides.

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A partially submerged abandoned ship sits just off the shore of Majuro.
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Not all of the islands and atolls that make up the Marshalls are inhabited by people. Of the 29 atolls, 24 are inhabited, as are five of the major islands. On Kili Island, youth enjoy playing basketball in the evenings.

Appearing as just specks on the map sprinkled between Hawaii and Australia, the independent nation is among a collection of low-lying islands in the Pacific that stand to suffer the greatest and most immediate consequences of climate change.

The bulk of the country’s mass is made up of five small islands and 29 separate atolls, or coral reefs that form a ring around a lagoon. At its thinnest point, the edge of an atoll can be less than a mile wide and just a few feet above sea level. The delicate nature of the Marshall Islands’ geography makes it susceptible to the whims of the seasons and strength of the tides.

Matters will only get worse for the islanders. The international science community is near unanimous in its conclusion that not only are sea levels rising, but they are rising at an accelerated pace. Global sea levels rose by an average of 8 inches over the last century, but the rate began to roughly double starting in the early 1990s. A litany of scientific reports now project that sea levels could rise by another 1 to 4 feet over the next century.

Still, Curt Storlazzi, a geologist and oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, predicts that the Marshall Islands aren’t likely to disappear entirely. While storm events have flooded the islands, the overwash also brings bits of sediment and coral reef onto shore. Piece by piece, an island grows.

Kili, one of the smallest islands in the Marshalls, is now home to the descendents of the roughly 167 people who were relocated from Bikini Atoll where the U.S. carried out more than a decade-long campaign to test nuclear bombs.
Children sleep in their home on Kili Island, a tiny strip of land where residents were relocated from the Bikini Atoll in the late 1940s.
Kili, one of the smallest islands in the Marshalls, is now home to the descendents of the roughly 167 people who were relocated from Bikini Atoll where the U.S. carried out more than a decade-long campaign to test nuclear bombs.
Kili, one of the smallest islands in the Marshalls, is now home to the descendents of the roughly 167 people who were relocated from Bikini Atoll where the U.S. carried out more than a decade-long campaign to test nuclear bombs.

The major problems arise when fresh water supplies are contaminated and crops are decimated. Even the tiniest bit of salt water is undrinkable for humans, spoiling fresh groundwater aquifers. A drought in the northern atolls of the Marshall Islands in 2013 showed how untenable the situation could be. Water had to be rationed, and disease spread.

Fortifying against rising sea levels is often expensive and time-consuming. Options include an investment in infrastructure, such as building sea walls and desalination tanks, or even mass relocation for particularly vulnerable regions. The government has not yet acted. The president and foreign minister have spoken before the United Nations to raise awareness of the nation’s plight, while some groups have advocated that the world’s highest emitters of greenhouse gases offer aid as reparations for climate change.

Short of that, some Marshall residents have attempted to build makeshift sea walls near their homes, piling stacks of trash, concrete and broken pieces of coral reef to fend off the waves.

Storlazzi says that while the islanders have weathered strong storms in the past, it’s the frequency of major weather events that leaves little time to recover and replenish fresh water supplies. If the time between storms continues to shorten, the effects of climate change in the Marshalls could come to embody Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ironic idea of punishment for a parched mariner stranded at sea.

“The islands aren’t going to drown, they’re going to die of thirst,” Storlazzi said.

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Majuro is the largest city in the Marshall Islands and home to one of the highest geographic points of the entire country, which stands at 10 feet above sea level. Still, the capital city has remained susceptible to storms and overwash.
“We still have that dignity for our culture. We want to preserve all of those values that we have and not forget about where we come from.”
– Marshallese native Melisa Laelan, now a U.S. citizen
Many Marshallese say their culture is structured much like a village where the entire community looks after one another.
Religion is a crucial institution throughout the Marshall Islands, with more than three fourths of the population divided between the United Church of Christ and the Assemblies of God.
Religion is a crucial institution throughout the Marshall Islands, with more than three fourths of the population divided between the United Church of Christ and the Assemblies of God.
Religion is a crucial institution throughout the Marshall Islands, with more than three fourths of the population divided between the United Church of Christ and the Assemblies of God.

Lore has it that a single man started the greatest exodus of Marshallese outside of the Pacific, leading the people of an island nation to resettle in the landlocked state of Arkansas.

John Moody is credited for the migration wave to Springdale in 1979, drawn by the hope of stability and jobs. The city is nestled deep in the Ozark Mountains, close to where the tips of Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas meet. He was set up with a gig at the local Tyson poultry processing plant. Friends and family soon followed.

By official census count, some 6,000 Marshallese have settled in northwest Arkansas, though experts and local leaders bet the actual numbers are likely double that. It’s the largest population of Marshallese in the continental United States.

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The Marshallese population tends to skew young throughout the islands and atolls, with more than half of residents under the age of 24.

The resettlement began long before the tides in the Pacific began to rise so noticeably. Poor healthcare, limited access to higher education and dismal employment opportunities throughout the islands drove entire generations from their native homeland in search of a new life. Achieving that goal was possible thanks to a unique partnership between the Marshall Islands and the U.S., designed to cover dark spots of when the two nations' histories first converged.

Beginning in 1946, the United States government used its military occupation of the Marshall Islands to test out a new invention — the hydrogen bomb, the most powerful weapon in the country’s arsenal to protect its people from the threats of global powers.

Over the next fifteen years, the U.S. would detonate at least 67 nuclear bombs, both above ground and underwater. Soon the trademark mushroom clouds disrupted the Pacific skyline along the Bikini Atoll, where sandy beaches and the shape of the coral reefs had famously inspired a new swimsuit style.

An atoll located between the Majuro and Kili Islands shows the frailty of the coral reefs that encircle the lagoon.
The situation is dire for inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, where moving further inland is not an option.

Natives on the atoll were shuttled to the neighboring Kili Island, a tiny strip of previously uninhabited land, one of the smallest locations within the Marshalls. But residents couldn’t escape the radiation. A study conducted by the United States Atomic Energy Commission later concluded in 1956 that the Marshall Islands were “by far the most contaminated place in the world.”

The Marshall Islands eventually gained its independence in 1979. Seven years later, in atonement, the U.S. offered the new nation a unique deal.

In addition to reparations for those affected by the nuclear fallout, all Marshallese were given a special immigration status. They could bypass all regular immigration laws, resettle in the U.S. and pick up a job without ever having to apply for a work visa or green card. The terms were indefinite. They could stay for as long as they wanted. They could stay forever.

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The string of islands and atolls are named after British explorer John Marshall, who first came to the region in 1788. Before his arrival, the islands were known to natives as “jolet jen Anij,” or “Gifts from God.”

The pact was ideal for those in search of better opportunities for future generations. But there was a catch.

Marshallese immigrants who are able to find work pay into the federal system through taxes, yet they are barred from reaping the benefits in return. Access to social welfare programs is limited, and Medicaid and Social Security are off the table.

The gaps in access to high-quality and affordable health care exacerbated many long-standing problems within the Marshallese American community. A wide spectrum of the population suffers from chronic health problems, including diabetes, tuberculosis, high blood pressure and even leprosy. But once they arrive on the mainland, the cost of care is prohibitive, says Michael Duke, a professor of anthropology at the University of Memphis.

“The health conditions that people face are really troubling,” Duke said. “Many people come to the United States in order to get health care. It’s then a sort of rude awakening how expensive it is.”

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A number of men on Kili Island go spearfishing at night, when six months out of the year fish gather near the coastline.

Melisa Laelan, a native Marshallese and Arkansas transplant, quickly noticed how lack of access to public services compounded an already difficult culture shift for her community.

As one of the only Marshallese interpreters working in the courts throughout northwest Arkansas — islanders speak a musical native language unique to their country — Laelan saw a number of families being dragged into the legal system because they were unfamiliar with basic public health issues. Instead of taking their kids to the doctor, parents were sending them to school sick.

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A man unloads bags of copra, the dried tender meat from inside a coconut, brought to the port of Majuro.
“Most of our people would agree: As soon as we lose the island, we’ll most definitely lose our culture.”
– Chris Balos, a Marshallese native currently living in Arkansas
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A car and other metal parts rust and decay near the shore.

Even Laelan didn’t know what diabetes was, nor how life-threatening it could be when left untreated, until she watched her mother slowly die from the disease. There were few places to turn to in finding preventative care that her mother could afford. The medical bills quickly stacked up.

Laelan started the Arkansas Coalition for the Marshallese in 2011 to try and fill the gaps in public health education. Volunteers with the group frequently load up the back of a pick-up truck with basic household necessities — toilet paper, cleaners and school supplies — to hand out at apartment complexes at the heart of the Marshallese communities based in the Ozarks.

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The pastor of a church on Kili Island sits near the altar bearing gifts from the congregation.

Throughout the years the Marshallese have maintained a cultural identity structured much like a village. There are no hard lines separating extended versus nuclear families. Instead, there’s a strong sense of sodality. Laelan describes the mentality as, “What’s mine is yours.”

“We still have that dignity for our culture,” she added. “We want to preserve all of those values that we have and not forget about where we come from.”

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Children play along the shore where abandoned vehicles and rubble act as a makeshift seawall to shield residents from the waves.

As tides continue to rise around the globe, some younger Marshallese Americans are treating what’s happening to their homeland with a sense of urgency. They want to ensure that the Marshall Islands will still exist for future generations.

But awareness and education on the harmful effects of climate change are still lacking, says Chris Balos, a 28-year-old Marshallese expat who has been trying to spread the word within his community.

Many islanders who are fending off floods back home don’t always link the destruction to climate change. Some elders are determined to simply stick it out.

“The islands aren’t going to drown, they’re going to die of thirst.”
– Curt Storlazzi, geologist and oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey

Balos’ grandmother followed the rest of their family to resettle in the U.S., but she remains adamant that she wants to be buried back on the Marshall Islands. It’s a source of heartache for Balos and a driving force in why he now speaks out about the harmful effects of the rising tides.

He can’t bear the idea that decades from now, his grandmother’s grave could be swept beneath the ocean, permanently out of reach from his future children and grandchildren.

“Most of our people would agree: As soon as we lose the island, we’ll most definitely lose our culture,” Balos said.

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A woman sits in the waiting room at the Bikini Atoll Town Hall, hosted in the capital city of Majuro. Hanging above her head are images from the Cold War-era nuclear bomb tests and photos of Bikini natives being relocated from their homes.

Michael Christopher Brown is a photographer and filmmaker raised in the Skagit Valley, a farming community in Washington State. His recent work explores the electronic music and youth scene of Havana, Cuba, and the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “What interests me about the photographic process is the relationship between distance and honesty. As one moves closer to their limits, they often become more honest,” he says. He has contributed to publications such as National Geographic and the New York Times Magazine, among others. He was the subject of the 2012 HBO documentary Witness: Libya.

His project Libyan Sugar (2011) explores ethical distance and the iconography of warfare while using a phone camera. Libyan Sugar was released in 2016 by Twin Palms Publishers, a film and mixed media installation will complete the project.

Michael joined Magnum Photos as a nominee in 2013 and became an associate member in 2015.