If the Marshall Islands are in the “engine” of Earth’s climate, then their corals can help us understand how and why that engine has changed through time.
The Carson Scholars program at the University of Arizona is dedicated to training the next generation of environmental researchers in the art of public communication, from writing to speaking. Partnering with Terrain.org, the program will present essays and other writing from students and alumni of the Carson Scholars Program—A Life of Science—with hopes of inspiring readers to understand not only research findings but the textures of the lives of scientists and others engaged in the crucial work of helping the planet along in an age of unprecedented change.
We’re attracting a crowd. It might be our attire—we’ve accessorized our customary floral dresses with hiking boots and wide-brimmed hats—or our conspicuously American accents, but it’s probably the noise. Drowning out the slapping of the Pacific against the nearby seawall, and the creaking of the palms in the trade winds, our geologic drill roars as it eats into an inconspicuous gray boulder.
We keep an eye to the east, where clouds sprout from tiny puffs into towering dark columns in mere minutes, bringing the kind of drenching rain that only the tropical heat can fuel. That rain threatens to stall our drill and our research. Weather notwithstanding, every kid from miles around is flocking to this backyard to gawk.
“Yokwe,” I say. It’s one of the few Marshallese words I know.
Yokwe (interjection): Hello.
You’ll find the Marshall Islands tucked away on the edge of the world map: tiny, seemingly insignificant, and often ignored. I found the Marshall Islands tucked away in the Oceania gallery of Boston’s art museum when I was in high school.
At first, it looked like a meaningless jumble of twine-tied sticks and cowrie shells, an oddity in a curation of meaningful things. Its caption, however, revealed a different story. It was a Marshallese map, not of territories or boundaries, but of ocean swells. The cowrie shell atolls were connected by patterns of wind-driven waves that bent around and bounced off of each atoll, a kind of natural braille that a Marshallese navigator could read with the keel of his canoe to feel his way between distant islands. Encoded in those sticks and shells was ancient knowledge that Western science hasn’t yet fully deciphered. That chart led to a project for my high school art portfolio, and at the time, I figured that was the end of the story.
Little did I know that this chart would inspire my graduate research, and this museum was just minutes away from where that research would begin.
As my interests channeled toward earth science, climate science crept ever more frequently into conversations. I learned that the “engine” of the earth’s atmosphere was the tropical rain belt, where the trade winds from the northern and southern hemispheres converge, then warm in the tropical sun and rise upward and poleward, fueling Earth’s climate and weather patterns. As it happens, the Marshall Islands sit at the center of this engine: What happens in the Marshalls doesn’t stay there. One day, I Skyped with one of my advisor’s ex-students, who wanted a PhD student. I wanted a PhD. She was in Boston. I was at a marine institute in Australia. The Marshall Islands sat someplace along the invisible line that connected us across the Pacific, and at the nexus of our research interests.
The next summer, I began my PhD by stepping off the Island Hopper onto a salt-sprayed tarmac spanning the width of a Marshallese atoll, and I marveled at the lucky confluence of events that had landed me there.
Yokwe (noun): Love.
If remoteness is a resource, the Marshallese are blessed with an abundance of it. The limited internet offered an excuse to ignore emails and social media for a few weeks. The intermittent power gave us time to stargaze. And when we donned our scuba gear and slipped beneath the waves, we found a seemingly pristine coral reef, teeming with fish and whales and sharks, that stretched down the atoll’s submarine slope into the blackness that shrouded the seafloor 10,000 feet below.
I knew that someplace beneath us was the stump of an ancient volcano, and the reef around us was the volcano’s crown, which stretched toward the sunlight to keep pace as the mountain sank. This reef formed the bedrock of the atoll above, and weathered coral replenished the sand on its beaches. Then it struck me: This reef doesn’t just fringe the Marshall Islands—it is the Marshall Islands.
That’s what I try to explain to the children gathered today in this rainy backyard: the boulder we’re drilling isn’t rock at all, but a coral that lived thousands of years ago, before the islands first emerged above the waves. All I can say is “wod”—coral—as I pass around a drill sample, a cylinder of white skeleton. I point out the skeletal layers—each layer a year’s growth, a page in the climate history of the Marshall Islands. Inscribed in the chemistry of the skeleton are changes in temperature, rainfall, and wind patterns. It’s a fossil weather station from a time before thermometers.
If the Marshall Islands are in the “engine” of Earth’s climate, then these corals can help us understand how and why that engine has changed through time. I’ve foisted my hope onto this coral, a hope that maybe its climate history can help to anticipate the future. I mark the coral sample, bag it, and gingerly pack it away.
After a full day’s sampling, I take a stroll along the beach. The white sands grade smoothly into a cerulean lagoon fringed with coconut palms. I remember how, before I left, family and friends had reacted to the news that I’d be spending three weeks on a tropical Pacific island. “Oh, you poor girl!” they’d say with mock sympathy. In their minds, I was vacationing in paradise. Field work never feels like a vacation—the labor, stress, and illnesses quickly dispel that notion—but in moments like this, it does feel like paradise.
Yokwe (noun): Sympathy.
Soon after our field work, my advisor moves to the University of Arizona, and I follow her. My coral work continues in the new lab. A computerized micro-mill grinds up samples of coral powder, working along the core one millimeter at a time, and I feed the powder to the mass spectrometer. Just like these corals, this method is older than me, a method that measures ratios of oxygen isotopes that change with temperature and rainfall. After a day and night of processing, the machine spits out its chemical analyses. Among the squiggles of the seasons, punctuated by the occasional El Niño, an unmistakable upward trend emerges, creeping towards warmer temperatures. The trend confirms the truth behind what every credible climate scientist has said for decades, but this truth is not comforting.
Remoteness is only an illusion. The Marshall Islands are linked to the world around them, like the sticks that link the cowrie shells in a traditional chart. Their trade winds are laced with ever-increasing carbon dioxide, trapping heat and warming the sea. If it warms enough, the ocean will bleach their vibrant reefs into bone-white and barren seascapes. My dive partner back in the Marshalls sends me photos of the coral bleaching happening now. If these trends continue, the reefs—the nation’s seawall against storms, its food supply, its very bedrock—will eventually die.
And that’s not all. Every climate class I’d attended showed the same graphs, projecting more than two feet of sea level rise during my lifetime. I remember the homes built just above the tide, and understand. They’ve built sea walls, of course, but what can a patchwork of corrugated steel, cinderblocks, and ironically placed Exxon Mobil signs do to hold back the sea? The same waves that helped the Marshallese find these islands might someday chase them away.
Yokwe (interjection): Farewell.
My identity is laden with contradictions as odd as wearing a floral dress with hiking boots: impartial scientist and passionate human, climate advocate and gas-guzzling American. Those conflicts remind me that while climate science may not be political, climate change is. It’s a luxury to pretend the climate isn’t shifting outside of our norms. It’s a luxury to cope with heat waves by turning on the AC, to cope with drought by shipping in water, to cope with sea level rise by moving inland. The Marshallese have no such luxuries.
How to talk about climate change—I’ve read the books, done the workshops, heard the talks. They tell scientists to end with a positive message. They tell scientists to reiterate that, by changing our actions now, we can keep disaster at bay. We can, but I’m not sure we will.
Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner calls the Marshalls “the land that is close to an expiration date.” With all our global commitments to reducing our carbon footprints, warming will still be twice that needed to drown the islands. Studies say that the atolls could be uninhabitable just 20 years from now. The country I’m studying now may not exist when I retire.
I try to bury these thoughts as I remove the finished core from the micro-mill mount. Like everything else we collected in the Marshalls, this core comes from a coral that is years, even centuries, past its own expiration date. This meter of calcium carbonate skeleton is bookended by a death at one end, a birth at the other. Neither matter as much as the lifetime in between. That lifetime is a chapter of Earth’s climate history, a story that is worth spending years of my life to read, translate, and tell.
I’m still reading that story, and I’m not sure how it ends. But I am sure that it matters—not just to me, but also to the children who gathered around to watch us collect this coral sample, to everyone living in the Marshalls, to everyone impacted by the changing climate, even if they don’t know it. This long-dead coral attests that some things that expire still have value.
Yokwe (literally translated): You are a rainbow.
Yokwe is a conversation, a research project, a lifetime, in one word. It is a reminder, enshrined in the Marshallese language, that many things may have expiration dates—rainbows, corals, countries—but their impermanence only makes them more precious.
Emma Reed is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona’s Department of Geosciences, and recently completed her Ph.D. there. She studies the climate history of the tropical oceans to better anticipate future climate change.
Header photo of Marshall Islands by Romaine W, courtesy Shutterstock.