Exploring the mysterious island: field work in the Marshall Islands

I was (and am) an unabashed science fiction fan.  As a kid, one of my favorite books was Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, which tells the tale of a motley group of Civil War survivors stranded on an unexplored Pacific Island.  It’s not your typical Cast Away story of a bitter struggle against the elements.  Instead, the novel is partly a how-to book: by combining the skills of an engineer, a freedman, two sailors, and a journalist, the group concocts nitroglycerin, erects a telegraph, and even builds a ship!

I promise, the rest of the book isn’t as ominous as this cover suggests. (from Wikimedia Commons)

In other words, I’ve always been interested in how people can turn an inhospitable island into a home.  So, like the castaways in The Mysterious Island, I’ve found my way to the scattered islands of the Pacific.

In this case, it’s the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), a country that, unfortunately, is often shunted to the very edge of the map and labeled in tiny print, if at all.


RMI consists of a stretch of ocean studded with twenty-nine narrow, flat atolls.  It may seem like a small island country, but RMI describes itself as a “large ocean nation.”  The Marshallese have prospered on these islands for thousands of years in part because they don’t treat the ocean as a blank space on a map, but instead as a living resource, providing a wealth of seafood and navigational aids.

But the ocean can also be a powerful destructive force.  Warm tropical waters spawn cyclones that shape the outlines of the atolls themselves.  Now, sitting an average of seven feet above the ocean, the Marshall Islands is one of the first countries to feel the impacts of sea level rise.

Climate change and its impacts have brought Diane Thompson, Simon Donner, Sara Cannon, and myself to the Marshall Islands.  Simon and Sara are comparing coral reefs between populated and isolated atolls to evaluate how human disturbance can impact a reef’s ability to recover from coral bleaching.  Diane – my future Ph.D. advisor – and I are scouting for any corals, living or dead, that are big enough to yield long records of past climate variability in the Marshall Islands.  We’ve been working with collaborators at the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority, the College of the Marshall Islands, and practically anyone else with an interest in climate change and/or marine science.

It’s already been an incredibly collaborative project.  Because I’m a total noob in the ways of Micronesia, and because I’m the youngest in the group, I definitely have a lot to learn.  Fortunately, we’re all learning from each other.  Everyone brings a valuable skill to the table, like advising us which side of the atoll will be the calmest today, or planning the logistics of where to stay and what to eat, or being able to ask local residents where we can find large corals.  With cooperation, time, and luck, maybe we can give Marshallese people the tools they need to cope with the growing impacts of climate change.