Fiji's Mangroves, Coral Under Assault

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Scientists head for a diving expedition where they will assess the state of coral around Viti Levu. Warm waters are threatening the survival of coral, a haven for fish and other organisms. (NPR)
Scientists head for a diving expedition where they will assess the state of coral around Viti Levu. Warm waters are threatening the survival of coral, a haven for fish and other organisms. (NPR)

Mapmakers often call the islands of the Pacific "Oceania." A drive along the southern coast of Fiji's biggest island, Viti Levu, proves why it's the right name. Tin-roofed, cinder-block homes sit alongside traditional thatched houses, and just beyond the fruit trees and animal pens in the backyards lies the Pacific Ocean.

Penina Nemata, a petite woman who has lived in Viti Levu for decades, says the ocean is doing some strange things.

"I have seen a lot of change in the formation of the land. I don't know why, but I think it's because of the frequency of the storms," she says.

Nemata is part of a climate witness program set up by the World Wildlife Fund to recruit people to watch for signs of climate change --odd weather, or freak tides, for example. On this day, Nemata is taking WWF scientists to the village of Tikina Wai to get permission to study the coral reefs and mangrove forests that grow along the shore. The reefs and forests provide fish as well as protection against higher seas, and the scientists want to know whether climate change is damaging them.

Kava First, Then Work

Before permission is granted, the scientists must first sit cross-legged with local elders for a kava ceremony in thatched, one-room building on stilts.

Kava is a muddy kind of tea made with cold water and the roots of a narcotic plant that is part of Fijian tradition — kava first, and then work.

Traditions cling tightly here. People still get salt from drying pools of seawater trapped in the mangroves, and make dyes from the trees.

Village elder Mary Wairita Mutani says the residents want to know why the climate is changing.

Mutani says the tides are higher than normal in her 70 years on the island, and the tides are coming through the mangroves into the village. And although villagers are planting new mangroves — a cheap way to diffuse the high tides and slow them down — the trees are disappearing faster than they're being planted.

Penina Nemata, a resident of Suva, works with  a climate witness program set up by the World Wildlife Fund. The program encourages villagers to record changes in their environment, such as increased storm surges and bleached coral.
Penina Nemata, a resident of Suva, works with a climate witness program set up by the World Wildlife Fund. The program encourages villagers to record changes in their environment, such as increased storm surges and bleached coral.

Other changes are also obvious: trees bearing fruit at unusual times, for example. But some changes are harder to see because they happen in the water offshore.

Diving Expedition

The team of scientists heads out to dive among the reefs and mangroves along the island's Coral Coast.

Coral reefs are biological oases in the ocean, hothouses bursting with life. They can grow for thousands of years, but are fragile. Sediments running off of agricultural land block out needed light. Nutrients from fertilizers over-feed the algae in the water and cover the reefs in a sickening film. Now scientists are worried that warmer water will make things even worse for reefs.

Sam Wainimokomoko is a specialty instructor in charge of the diving boat. Monifa Fiu and her cousin, Teri Textan, run the dives. They come from the island of Rotuma, which has a population of just a few hundred, and there, Fijians tell us, women are in charge.

Lara Hansen of the World Wildlife Fund says one way to protect coral reefs is to repair mangrove forests.
Lara Hansen of the World Wildlife Fund says one way to protect coral reefs is to repair mangrove forests.

The World Wildlife Fund's Lara Hansen is the chief scientist on this surveying trip. A coral reef biologist, she spends a good part of her life in a wetsuit and a diving mask.

"We are interested in seeing the condition of the corals, especially looking at coral bleaching and mortality related to increasing water temperatures," Hansen explains. "But we are also looking at what the benefits of mangroves are for protecting those corals as they deal with the secondary stress of climate change."

Coral reefs are havens for fish that island nations depend on. They protect coastal villages from storm surges, including the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in 2004. Warm water kills the beneficial organisms that live inside and nourish the coral, and the dying coral turns white.

The divers count coral species and assess their health. It's slow work, covering a 160-foot transect in about a half- hour. Treading water beside the boat, Hansen explains why coral might be one of the smoke alarms for climate change.

"We know that if you increase the temperature by 1 degree Celsius, then you can start seeing bleaching in corals. And globally we have already increased the global temperature 0.7 or 0.8 degrees Celsius. Aand we know we are committed to probably another half-degree based on the CO2 we have already put up in the atmosphere," she says, "which means that corals and their bleaching will become an annual or permanent occurrence. The coral is, to some extent, starving to death."

Village elders gather in Tikina Wai, a village on Viti Levu, for their daily kava ceremony. Kava is a tea made with cold water and the roots of a narcotic plant. The ceremony is the first stop for Nemata and other scientists seeking permission to study the coral reefs and mangrove forests.
Village elders gather in Tikina Wai, a village on Viti Levu, for their daily kava ceremony. Kava is a tea made with cold water and the roots of a narcotic plant. The ceremony is the first stop for Nemata and other scientists seeking permission to study the coral reefs and mangrove forests.

The reefs off Tikina Wai show very little bleaching. Scientists know that some kinds of coral can withstand higher temperatures than others — valuable information to have as ocean waters warm.

Fiji's Threatened Mangroves

What marine biologists want to do is make coastlines more resilient to the effects of a warming ocean. Mangroves do just that. Mangroves are flooded forests that stand in the shallow water. They are propped up on long, spindly roots sunk into the seabed.

Jennie Hoffman, a marine biologist, stands chest deep in muddy water admiring the mangrove forest.

"Mangroves live at a particular zone, between ocean and land. Even though they are used to living in this situation, they can drown if water level gets too high. Or if the water is too salty, it can kill," Hoffman explains.

Fijian villagers in Viti Levu worry that rising, warming waters could flood their homes and kill the surrounding coral. The coral reef provides a home for much of the fish Fijian villagers consume.
Fijian villagers in Viti Levu worry that rising, warming waters could flood their homes and kill the surrounding coral. The coral reef provides a home for much of the fish Fijian villagers consume.

Scientists don't expect the sea level to rise more than a couple of feet during the next century, unless all of the ice on land melts. But even a 2-foot increase would mean higher storm surges.

The labyrinth of tree roots in a mangrove forest dissipates incoming waves and traps sediment flowing out toward the reefs, sediment that damages those reefs. They even produce a chemical that scientists such as Lara Hansen believe help keep harmful algae off the reefs.

Hansen says the mangrove and reef work is all the more urgent as climate change starts to take effect.

"It's not just a moving target; it's a moving target and we're blindfolded," Hansen says, "We don't exactly know how systems work, and we know they are changing. We're still trying to learn how things work, but species and systems are responding to the environmental changes that go along with climate change."

Hansen says conservationists tend to build fences around places they want to protect. But fences can't stop a changing climate, so scientists need a plan that would make fragile environments in FIji and around the world more resilient to a warmer world.

And that includes the people, too — people like Penina Nemata, who grew up on an island barely the size of a small Midwestern town.

"This is something that Americans can't really understand, can't fathom, what it's like to live so close to sea level," Panina says. "We don't have anywhere to go to, especially in small islands like mine. It's just miles of seas around and it's closing in. We are going to be homeless."

Produced by Jessica Goldstein

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Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

(Soundbite of music)

NPR and National Geographic are traveling the world this year to find out how climate shapes people and how people shape climate. This month, we are exploring the Pacific. Millions of people there think of the ocean as their home. Land for them may be a slip of rock, just a few miles long. The ocean that surrounds them determines their weather, much of what they eat, when and how they travel. Now, a warming climate has begun to change the ocean.

NPR's Christopher Joyce recently traveled to the Pacific island of Fiji and he has this report on the changes people there are finding.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Mapmakers often call the islands of the Pacific, Oceania. To continentals like us, that's just a name, but take a drive along the southern coast of Fiji's biggest island, Viti Levu, and you'll see why it's the right name. Tin-roofed, cinder-block homes sit alongside traditional thatched houses, and just beyond the fruit trees and animal pens in the backyards lies the Pacific Ocean.

In one of these villages, we talked to Penina Nemata, a petite woman who has traveled these roads for decades and says the ocean is now doing some strange things.

Ms. PENINA NEMATA (Resident, Suva): And I've seen a lot of change in the formation of the land. I don't know why, but I think it's because of the frequency of the storms that are happening now, changing all this area. All this seawater goes right into the main road.

JOYCE: Nemata points out a place where the ocean has taken a big bite out of what once was a village's shoreline.

Ms. NEMATA: That's where the surf used to be. This was all sandy beaches where families could hold a campfire in the night.

JOYCE: Nemata is part of a climate witness program set up by the World Wildlife Fund to recruit people to watch for signs of climate change - weird weather, or freak tides, for example. Today, Nemata is taking World Wildlife Fund scientists to the village of Tikina Wai to get permission to study the coral reefs and the mangrove forests that grow along the shore. These reefs and forests provide fish as well as protection against higher seas, and the scientists want to know if climate change is damaging them.

To get that permission, we must first sit cross-legged with local elders in a thatched, one-room building on stilts. It's a kava ceremony. Kava is a muddy kind of tea made with cold water and the roots of a narcotic plant. The kava makers chant. As eldest male visitor, I luckily get the first bowl, and after a few drinks, everyone's fingers and lips get numb - at least mine do. This is a Fijian tradition - kava first, and then work. Its permission easily given. Village elder Mary Wairita Mutani says they also want to know what's going on here.

Ms. MARY WAIRITA MUTANI (Village Elder, Tikina Wai): (Foreign language spoken)

JOYCE: She says the tides are higher than normal in her 70 years here. Animals and the people take refuge in the mangroves, but the tides are coming through the mangroves into the village now.

Ms. MUTANI: (Foreign language spoken)

JOYCE: Mutani says they're planting new mangroves. They diffuse the high tides and slow them down. In a poor country, it's a cheap way to make a dike. But mangroves - spindly looking trees that prop themselves up in the shallows with long, twisted roots - are disappearing faster than they're being planted.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

JOYCE: The kava inspires some singing around the communal bowl. Traditions cling tightly here. People still get salt from drying pools of seawater trapped in the mangroves. They make dyes from the trees. Climate change is something alien and frightening.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of people walking in the water)

JOYCE: Some changes are obvious - trees bearing fruit at unusual times, for example. Others are harder to see because they're happening out in the water offshore. A team of scientists is headed out across the mudflat at low tide. They're going to dive on reefs and mangroves along the island's Coral Coast.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

JOYCE: Coral reefs are biological oases in the ocean, hothouses bursting with life. They can grow for thousands of years, but they're fragile. Sediments running off of agricultural land block out needed light. Nutrients from fertilizers overfeed the algae in the water and they cover the reefs in a sickening film. Now, scientists are worried that warmer water will just make things even worse for reefs.

Mr. SAM WAINIMOKOMOKO (Specialty Instructor): Okay, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome aboard Lafos(ph). I'm Scuba Sam. I'm a specialty instructor. That's Apiwan, the dive master. I'll be one...

JOYCE: Sam Wainimokomoko may be in charge of the boat, but Monifa Fiu and her cousin, Teri Textan, run the dives. They come from the island of Rotuma. It has a population of just a few hundred, and there, Fijians tell us, women are in charge.

Ms. MONIFA FIU (Diver; Resident, Rotuma): The transect will be done here at the deepest dive. And we will have two teams going down with 50-meter tape each, one will lay on the southwest, and one will lay towards the northeast.

Ms. TERI TEXTAN (Diver; Resident, Rotuma): So we're doing deep first, yeah?

Ms. FIU: Yeah.

Ms. TEXTAN: We have butterfly fish, sturgeonfish, parrot fish.

Mr. WAINIMOKOMOKO: Parrot fish.

Ms. TEXTAN: Maybe groupers, snappers, sweetlips.

Mr. WAINIMOKOMOKO: Okay.

Ms. FIU: Lara, we'll see you down there.

Ms. LARA HANSEN (Scientist, World Wildlife Fund): Yup.

JOYCE: The chief scientist on this surveying trip is Lara Hansen with the World Wildlife Fund. A coral reef biologist, she spends a good part of her life in wetsuit and a diving mask.

Ms. HANSEN: What we are interested in seeing is what's the condition of the corals, especially looking at things like coral bleaching and mortality relating to increasing water temperatures. But we're also - because we're looking near mangroves, we're looking at what the benefits of mangroves may be for protecting those corals as they deal with the secondary stress of climate change.

(Soundbite of water splash)

JOYCE: It's a shallow reef, about a mile offshore and the surf breaks hard over it. Coral reefs are havens for fish that island nations depend on. They protect coastal villages from storm surges and even the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in 2004. Warm water kills the beneficial organisms that live inside and nourish the coral. The dying coral turns white.

The divers here are counting coral species and assessing their health. It's slow work. They cover a 160-foot transect in about half an hour and they have to come back up. Treading water beside the boat, Hansen explains why coral may be one of the smoke alarms for climate change.

Ms. HANSEN: We know that if you increase the temperature by one degree Celsius, you can start seeing bleaching in corals. And globally, we've already increased the global temperature 0.7 or 0.8 degrees Celsius. And we know we're committed to probably another half-degree based on the CO2 we have already put up in the atmosphere, which means that corals and their bleaching will become an annual or permanent occurrence. The coral is, to some extent, starving to death.

JOYCE: The reefs here look pretty good, very little bleaching. Scientists know that some kinds of coral can withstand higher temperatures than others, and that could be valuable information as ocean waters warm.

What marine biologists want to do is make coastlines more resilient to the effects of a warming ocean. And that's where the mangroves come in. When you get right down in them, you can see for yourself.

Ms. JENNIE HOFFMAN (Marine Biologist): I'm Jennie Hoffman, marine biologist. And I'm now standing chest deep in very muddy water, feeling the silt between my toes. And we are admiring the beauty that is the mangrove forest.

Mangroves live at a particular zone, between ocean and the land. Even though they're used to living in this situation, they can drown. If the water level gets too high, they drown. If it gets too salty, the salt can kill them off.

JOYCE: Scientists don't expect the sea level to rise more than a couple of feet over the next century, unless all the ice on land melts. But even two feet would mean higher storm surges. The labyrinth of tree roots in a mangrove forest dissipates incoming waves. The mangroves also trap sediment flowing out toward the reefs, sediment that damages those reefs.

The mangroves even produce a chemical that scientists like Lara Hansen believe keep harmful algae off the reefs. Hansen says the mangrove and reef work is all the more urgent and all that much harder as climate change starts to take effect.

Ms. HANSEN: Well, it's not just a moving target. It's a moving target and we're blindfolded. We don't exactly know how systems work, and we know that they're changing. And it's a challenge to biology because we're still trying to learn how things work. But clearly, species and systems are responding to the environmental changes that go along with climate change.

JOYCE: Hansen says conservationists tend to build fences around places they want to protect. But a changing climate does not respect fences, so scientists need another plan, a plan to make fragile environments here and around the world more resilient to a warmer climate. And that includes the people who live here, too - people like Penina Nemata, who grew up on an island barely the size of a small midwestern town.

This is something that Americans can't really understand. They can't fathom what it's like to live so close to the sea level.

Ms. NEMATA: We don't have anywhere to go to. I mean, in small countries like ours, especially small islands like mine, it's just miles of seas around and it's closing in. We are going to be homeless.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

NORRIS: There are more climate change stories from the Pacific at npr.org. Just go there and search for Climate Connections. There, you'll also see a very different take on global warming in the latest episode of our animated series, It's All About Carbon. That, from NPR's Robert Krulwich and public television's "Wild Chronicles." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.