From Paradise to Paris: A Postcard from Bikini Atoll

The leaders of small island nations met with President Obama in Paris today, continuing a rare publicity hot streak that started with the runup to the international climate negotiations. And they used the spotlight to warn that while others dawdle over down-the-road dangers, they face existential threats today.

It’s a red flag they’ve been raising for years, but rarely to such audiences.

That’s one of my recollections from a 1999 reporting trip to the Marshall Islands, where talk of climate change was, in fact, front page news in the local paper, while the big story back home in Washington, D.C., was the looming Y2K computer snafu.

Another is my first glimpse of the tiny country’s capital. I had a window seat, but Majuro Atoll didn’t show itself until just about the moment the 737 touched wheels on the narrow sand spit deep in the Pacific.

Which could describe much of the country.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a five-hour flight from Honolulu, and it’s about the size of D.C. But its 70 square miles are spread over a vast expanse of open ocean between Hawaii and Australia, and it’s shared by 1,225 islands and 29 coral atolls, collections of slender islands and islets which from the air can resemble charm bracelets tossed into the sea. On some atolls, neighboring islands are close enough to walk between at low tide, if you don’t mind rolling up your pant legs. 

Many of the 70,000 Marshallese live within view of ocean, lagoon or both and within earshot of lapping waves. From their vantage point, it’s not hard to understand the obsession with sea levels.

“There’s a graveyard here that’s been here for a long time, but now the tombstones and the gravestones are literally out on the reef,” Jack Niedenthal, who has lived there for 34 years, says in a Skype conversation from his home on Majuro. “People don’t bury their people here in a place where they think it’s going to get washed out to sea. That, to me, puts the whole thing into perspective.”


I first spoke with Niedenthal 16 summers ago, before spending a week at Bikini Atoll on one of the Marshall’s relatively few islands big enough to support people, which it had for centuries. But you could still cross Bikini on foot in less than an hour, or beach-walk the island’s shoreline in an afternoon.

I did both, pondering that some things hadn’t changed much since the first explorers reached this place in canoes. In pretty much any direction you look, it was hundreds and maybe thousands of miles before you’d run into signs of another human. Well, except down, as it turned out. On a corner of the island opposite the protected lagoon, scarlet rock crabs scampered over plastic bottles, fishing floats and the odd flip-flop, bouyant refuse washed up from who knows where.

The U.S. government chose Bikini as its Cold War middle-of-nowhere site to test successors to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, including the largest thermonuclear device it has ever detonated. That 1954 explosion, 1,000 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb and several times as strong as scientists were prepared for, vaporized three islands on the atoll, left a 250-foot-deep crater a mile wide, and caused widespread nuclear fallout.


Experts miscalculated again in the late 1960s, when the U.S. deemed it safe for the Bikinians to return home. Those who did were moved off of their atoll in 1978 with elevated radiation levels as cesium-137 seeped from the shallow soil into the island’s breadfruit, pandanus and coconut. On Majuro, I visited the graves of some of those Bikini refugees, including several who had developed thyroid cancer or other illnesses their survivors blamed on radiation exposure.

Bikini now supports a unique, if pricey, dive operation where you can explore a lagoon with crystalline waters, sunken World War II-era ships brought in as targets for the nuclear tests, and an abundance of reef sharks (I was there as digital correspondent for Discovery Channel, which was filming a live Shark Week special from Bikini), and dine on fresh food, all of it shipped to the island. It is an undeniably beautiful, ironically peaceful place. But it has no permanent residents.

Many Bikinians now live on isolated Kili Island, about 500 miles from their traditional atoll, but some are looking for another home. Bloomberg News reported recently that the government of the Marshalls, citing climate change, “asked the U.S. to change the rules governing a fund set up in 1982 to help the islanders and their descendants resettle within the Pacific islands,” so they can use the money, or otherwise get congressional help, to relocated to the U.S.

Niedenthal, a dual U.S. and Marshall Islands citizen who was hired by the Bikinians to operate that trust fund, says regular flooding on Kili from rising seas is making life on the tiny island, which unlike an atoll has no protective lagoon, increasingly untenable.


Twice this year “you had water up to people’s knees in their living rooms, all over the island, not just on the edges,” says Niedenthal. “This has to be climate change. If it never happened before and suddenly it’s happening now. I mean, what else is it?”

An advocate for climate education whose work includes a “global warming fairy tale” film, Niedenthal nevertheless volunteers that he’s pessimistic about what the Paris summit, which runs through Dec.11, can achieve.

“They start talking about, ‘Oh, by 2030 or 2050, this or that.’ Well, we need, like, 2016. That’s our issue. It’s gotta be much faster than some of these countries are talking about.” 

As delegates from across the globe meet over the issue of manmade climate change in Paris, some point to the Marshalls as a canary-in-the-tropical-coal-mine, a witness of sorts to unintended consequences from the industrial revolution to the atomic age. 

Niedenthal has been connecting those dots for years. But he seems a bit cautious about all the newfound interest.
“I don’t think the story needs embellished,” he says. “Anybody who knows that once or twice a year you’re going to have water in your living room, suddenly you start thinking about moving.”

By Greg Henderson