by Tobias Thornes
In the midst of the unimaginably vast, empty expanse that is the surface of the Pacific Ocean – the thin, glittering film across which we have slid for nearly a month – the first, precious sighting of land feels like the fulfilment of one’s every hope and dream. For days I have feared that I would never reach this moment: that memories of solid Earth were nothing but the fantasies of a deluded mind, or worse that time would play some cruel trick upon us, standing still, so that every day we’d be doomed to relive the ‘last’ day again and again on this unbroken sea for all eternity, supposedly close to our conclusion but never actually reaching the end.
But my groundless fears were vanquished by that gratifying vision: a tiny spec growing, undeniably, hour by hour. We would not be lost, tossed on endless unnavigable waves: as soon as we saw that sumptuous sight we knew that we’d be saved. I simply stood and stared for many minutes, at my heart’s content just to see undeniable land. No longer did I will the wishful hours away; no longer did I mind, were it to take a day or week or another month to reach it. All that mattered was that land was assured, and that one day we’d be home.
Never had I thought to greet so gratefully the shores of Hawaii, a life-saving outpost in the midst of the sea. As we disembarked, stumbling on my shaky sea-legs I almost felt like tumbling down and kissing the very ground. I grasped for a handful of dirt; to me it felt like gold-dust, and the sound of waves on rocks, of birds, of crowds of people was like all the music I’d ever want to hear. It’s places like this, after a long, slow, landless voyage, that make one appreciate how, on an Earth three-quarters covered by water, just how precious and exceptional is solid ground.
Hawaii is unusual in that here the ground is growing, welling up in an effusive eruption from Earth’s secret heart. The first thing that I want to do is to explore the remaining idylls of these islands, to see the hope-inspiring symbol of new natural creation for myself – a perfect antidote to the artificial archipelago of waste I’ve just witnessed.
Hawaii is much larger than I’d imagined it. The northernmost group of islands in Polynesia, it is spread across one and a half thousand miles, with a human population of one and a half million. It was annexed to the USA as long ago as 1898, and around me I see the usual signs of imported American culture: cars, roads, shopping centres, fast food, obesity – the ugly faces of capitalism are a recent plague on this once pristine place. But there’s also an astounding amount of surviving natural beauty, as I’m about to discover. The erupting volcano of Kilauea is in the Volcanoes National Park in the south of ‘Big Island’, and it’s not difficult to find somebody to lead me there. But on my way there’s a stop I simply can’t miss making, and quite by chance I come upon the perfect guide.
This man isn’t from Hawaii. He’s from Tuvalu, half-way to Australia. But now he works as a tour guide, trying to raise awareness for his homeland’s plight at the same time as earning a living. For Hawaii is truly unusual in its continual growth; ten million years ago this was open ocean. Elsewhere in the Pacific, the trend is almost entirely the other way: in perhaps only a hundred years, Tuvalu will be gone, swallowed by the sea. And the clinching evidence to pin down the culprit of this sudden catastrophe is on display right here, at the Mauna Loa observatory on top of the world’s most massive volcano.
It wasn’t for nothing that Charles Keeling chose this site to begin making his measurements of carbon dioxide in 1958. High above most of the murk emitted by mankind, the air is clear and well-mixed by fresh westerly winds. We’ve had to come most of the way by car, but are able to make the final ascent by foot, spurning the slick road for a rockier ascent. It’s a beautiful sight before us, gleaming atop the mountain: the place that proved that humble humanity does have the power to change the planet, and pinned the blame for climate change squarely on us.
Somewhere swirling around this mountain, I think guiltily as we gaze, those fumes our car has just disgorged are making a slight but not inconsequential contribution to the climbing concentration of carbon dioxide, a trend Keeling noticed with horror and which for more than sixty years we’ve continually failed to check. The air even here isn’t so pristine as it might look, after all. That’s the terrifying truth that he found. And in a chaotic system such as our atmosphere, even single particle of invisible pollutant can have profound effects.
As we journey on towards Kilauea, my companion tells me more about the plight of the millions most undeniably affected by climate change because of the needless greed of others far away. The island atolls – Pacific paradises inhabited for millennia – are drowning alarmingly quickly. Tuvalu has already lost one of its islands, and every year the sea encroaches a little further, like a lengthening shadow before the setting of the sun.
The losses are catalysed by deteriorating reefs and inadequate conservation measures, but there can be no denying the major driving factor: global sea-level rise. Water expands when it warms; melting glaciers over land leek millions of litres into the oceans every day. The combined effect could be a death-knell, and not just for Tuvalu. The twenty-nine atolls of the Marshall islands are on average just six feet above sea level; their inhabitants are already reduced to creating their own islands of rubbish, shoring their land up with trash to hold back the tide. The Maldives are even lower. Nowadays, the stormy season brings such severe floods that their thousands of inhabitants are forced to flee their homes.
And sea-level rise is slow to start but hard to halt; this is just the beginning. Even if the world’s emissions stopped today the ocean’s encroachment might continue for a century. Soon, there’ll be no higher ground to which to flee.
We drive on through the fertile forest of Hawaii, marvelling at the multitude of life thriving on its rich volcanic soils. All these birds and flowers, some unique to this island, must have had hardy ancestors that braved the winds and seas to colonise this remote corner. But once established, life clings on, even in the harshest of environments. It will survive, whatever we do, in some form or another, to flourish again in a future aeon.
But as my guide and I reach an abrupt halt where the road suddenly stops, buried beneath a wall of magma that erupted several years ago now, I ponder. This century could well be the final farewell for Pacific islanders, as well as for many of the species that call our planet home.
My path has been blocked; I can go no further. Has humanity, too, reached the end of the road? Is it time, my friends, to say ‘goodbye’?