Climate Change or Tectonic Shifts? The Mystery of the Sinking South Pacific Islands

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Part 2: A Language's Lone Survivor

Photo Gallery: Rising Seas or Sinking Islands? Photos
Gerald Traufetter / DER SPIEGEL

Ballu is in a hurry. Her team has less than 48 hours to determine whether other parts of the island's coastline are disappearing as well, and they have plans to visit the village of Temuo on the eastern side of the island. After lunch on their research ship Alis, operated by France's IRD institute for development research, they once again lower their motorboat into the water.

On their way, the research team is caught in a tropical rain shower. Then they come upon a beach where they can see coconut palms with their roots exposed by the water through a steaming veil of rain. Are these the initial signs that the island is sinking, or that the sea level is rising?

Ballu's team receives an eager reception from the villagers. She wants to talk to them to learn more about the ocean's behavior, with the help of François, the linguist. François, however, quickly becomes captivated by what he later describes as "a linguist's finest hour," which arrives in the form of a man with a faded Nike T-shirt, sparse hair, high cheekbones and a flat nose -- Lainol Nalo, the village chieftain.

"Mamabo apika," Alexandre François says in greeting.

"Mamabo apika," Lainol replies.

"That's Tanema!" François cries excitedly. He doesn't know much more of this language than the greeting he's just uttered, and if he wants to learn it, Lainol is the only person on the planet who can still teach him.

François digs out his digital recorder and plays back a voice for Lainol, a voice the man knows very well -- his grandmother's. She died last year at the age of 105, and she spoke Tanema, as well.

On his last visit to Vanikoro, François recorded the centenarian telling him a story. Now he'd like to have the story translated. "That way, I can get a sense not only of the vocabulary, but also of the language's syntax and structure," he explains.

A Unique Laboratory for Languages

Language is more than just a means of communication. "It's also a form of memory," François says, and it's full of knowledge about the island, the plants that grow here and the laws of the ocean. "When the last speaker of a language dies, he or she takes all of that knowledge and all of those stories to the grave."

The islands of the South Pacific, in particular, prove to be a unique laboratory for languages. Although just 0.1 percent of the world's population lives here, the region is home to 1,250, or 18 percent, of its languages. "What stands out is their unequal distribution," François says.

Two different ethnic groups inhabit these islands, Polynesians and Melanesians. Both groups are descended from the Lapita, a culture that set out around 3,000 years ago to explore the Pacific. Both modern-day populations have dark skin, but Melanesians' facial features bear more of a resemblance to Africans, while Polynesians look more Asian.

The two groups also have very different ways of life. The Polynesians have remained a seafaring people like their ancient ancestors, navigating by the stars and sensing the ocean's currents with their hands. François has catalogued over 25 names for types of wind and more than 100 nautical terms used by Polynesians.

The Melanesians, on the other hand, who make up the majority population on Vanikoro, discovered agriculture and developed the multitude of languages that François regards as his life's work to decipher.

Lainol, the tribal leader, believes he knows the reason for this diversity of languages. "If we have our own words, people from another village won't understand us," he explains, adding that he considers this a strategic advantage.

"They made a conscious decision to distinguish their language from those in other villages," François says.

An Island Dragged into the Sea

While the linguist is hunting down the vocabulary of a dying language, a young man draws Ballu into conversation. His new polo shirt and neat trousers set him apart from the island's residents in their faded shirts, most of which come from used-clothes donations from around the globe.

The man introduces himself in English as Michael Meninga, 38, a teacher sent here for three years from Lata, the capital of Temotu Province. He asks Ballu if she would be willing to talk to his students about her research.

Meninga pulls out a new laptop, which seems like an alien object from another age in this traditional village. Back at his roughly hewn teacher's desk, he hooks up the computer to a car battery he's charged with a solar panel, bringing the PowerPoint culture of modern academia on a collision course with the local people's beliefs in ghosts and evil forces.

Using the particular variant of pidgin English spoken here, Ballu starts to explain about the planet's hot core and the continental plates that drift across molten rock. She talks about "big fella earth sec sec," meaning the earthquakes that everyone here knows well.

Right under their feet, she explains beneath the palm frond roof of Temuo's village school, one plate is slipping under another. Ballu splays her hand to represent the Australian Plate disappearing under the Pacific. "No soap soap," Ballu adds, jerking her left hand -- the plates snag against one another and the built-up pressure is released.

Earthquakes and tsunamis strike Vanikoro regularly, but people here are at the mercy of the forces of nature in a longer-term way, as well: On its slowly sinking course, the Australian Plate is dragging Vanikoro along into the depths.

Ballu was able to document that this is the case for the nearby island of Tegua in a well-received publication last year. That island sank nearly 12 centimeters (five inches) between 1997 and 2009, to the point that the coconut plantation now famous at global climate conferences was underwater. "The sea level rose, but three quarters of that was caused by the land's subsiding," she explains.

Mislead by Missionaries

That the UN had been premature in declaring the villagers on Tegua to be climate change refugees became clear when a large earthquake caused the island to shoot back out of the water in 2009. "The coconut plantation has been on dry land since then," Ballu says.

However, she points out that, for the people there, it doesn't much matter which specific physical phenomena forced them to abandon their village. What frustrates Ballu is that a climate-change adaptation fund helped them resettle in a new village, but in a location hardly better than the original one. "It's at a lower elevation," Ballu says. "Spring tides or tsunamis can still reach it."

At the village school, Ballu looks around and senses her audience is no longer following her, so she asks a more specific question: "Why do you think earthquakes happen?" At first, no one dares to speak. Then a young woman, presumably an assistant teacher, ventures an answer. Her mouth is bright red from the betel nuts she chews, as most residents of Vanikoro do, and she describes a man, a dark magician, possessed by evil spirits. "The earthquakes are his fault," she says.

A belief in spirits survives on Vanikoro to this day. Although scientists have a hard time accepting them, it was precisely these superstitions that once protected people from the forces of nature. As one elderly man explains: "The missionaries said: 'Now you believe in Jesus; now you don't need to be afraid.'" But the results were disastrous: The people moved down from the island's slopes and closer to the sea.

That same sea is steadily encroaching. Ballu's GPS devices indicate Vanikoro is sinking by seven millimeters (0.3 inches) a year.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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1. Sea Level Rise
DouglasM 06/15/2012
Definitely tectonic shifts, according to Holgate, a recognised world authority in geophysical research at the UK-based Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in Liverpool, in his paper published in 2007, the following results represent the most comprehensive measurements of decadal sea-level change rates during the 20th century. Between 1904 and 1953 global sea levels rose by 2.03 mm per year, whereas from 1954 to 2003 they rose by only 1.45 mm per year, giving an annual mean rate of 1.74 mm per year over the 100 years to 2003, or seven inches per century. Importantly, there was no increase in the rate of change over the whole century.
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Graphic: Tectonic shifts in the South Pacific. Zoom
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Graphic: Tectonic shifts in the South Pacific.


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