Second world war dead washed up by Pacific Ocean's rise - caused by global warming

Coffins and skeletons thought to belong to Japanese soldiers flushed from graves as global warming increases level of Pacific Ocean

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 5:45am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 10:27am

Skeletons of second world war soldiers are being washed from their graves by the rising Pacific Ocean as global warming leads to inundation of islands that saw some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict.

On the day Europe commemorated the 70th anniversary of the storming of Normandy beaches in the D-Day landings, a minister from the Marshall Islands, a remote archipelago between Hawaii and the Philippines, told how the remains of 26, probably Japanese soldiers, had been recovered so far on the isle of Santo.

"There are coffins and dead people being washed away from graves; it's that serious," said Tony de Brum, the minister of foreign affairs for the Marshall Islands.

Tides "have caused not just inundation and flooding of communities where people live but have also done severe damage in undermining regular land so that even the dead are affected".

Spring tides from the end of February to April had flooded communities, he said at the latest round of United Nations climate talks in Bonn.

The minister's comments bring home the stark future for low-lying island nations as the planet warms, causing sea levels to rise. The Marshall Islands, a string of more than 1,000 such isles with a population of about 70,000, is about two metres at its highest point, de Brum said.

The tropical western Pacific is a region the UN said was experiencing almost four times the global average rate of sea level increase, with waters creeping up by 12 millimetres a year between 1993 and 2009. The global average pace is 3.2 millimetres a year.

"Communities in the Marshalls, because we are atolls, are either along the lagoon shoreline or the ocean shoreline," de Brum said. "If you want to move away from traditional community sites, you are moving inland for a few yards and then you're already moving closer to the ocean on the other side. So there's not very much room for manoeuvre."

The UN projects the global average sea level may increase 26 centimetres to 98 centimetres by the end of the century.

The Marshall Islands were used by the Japanese Navy in the run-up to the Pearl Harbour attack during the second world war. The US Navy based at Pearl Harbour is now trying to identify the skeletons and repatriate them, de Brum said.

"We think they're Japanese soldiers, but there are no broken bones or any indication of being war casualties," he said. "We think maybe it was suicide or something similar. The Japanese are sending a team in to help us."

Rising seas have eaten away about 300 metres from the tip of the capital island of Majuro in the past 20 years, de Brum said. Second world war ordinance has been unearthed, including a bomb on a runway, and roads connecting some outer islands have been pounded so much that cars have to drive over the reef. The ocean has washed away several smaller islands including Boken, which has subsided beneath the waves, the minister said.

The 12-day session in Bonn included two ministerial-level sessions meant to give a political boost to the troubled process.

Ministers warned that the clock was ticking for countries to lay the foundations of a 2015 deal to tackle climate change.

They said a special UN summit in September, followed by a round of talks in Lima in December, must lay the first bricks of a highly complex accord due to be sealed in Paris in December 2015.

China's top negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, pointed to traumatic memories of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, the last time countries tried to forge a worldwide deal on curbing earth-warming greenhouse gas emissions. "We hope we do not see a recurrence of the Copenhagen scenario … [with] a final agreement that is accepted by some parties" but not others, Xie said.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse