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Officials issue PSA urging residents to evacuate island homes after sea level rise threatens lives: 'Every coastline in the world is affected by this'

"It is almost certain that all the islands will have to be abandoned by 2100."

"It is almost certain that all the islands will have to be abandoned by 2100."

Photo Credit: Getty Images

An Indigenous community in a Central American country is at risk of relocation, as rising sea levels threaten to flood their small island.

What's happening?

The Indigenous Guna people live on the island of Gardi Sugdub, off Panama's coast in the Caribbean Sea, and are the first of 63 local communities that have received recommendations to evacuate to the mainland. 

An anonymous official from Panama's Housing Ministry told The Costa Rica News that authorities will not force residents to leave and that a few people have already decided to stay. 

The oval-shaped island, whose name translates to "Crab Island" in the Guna language, is 366 meters long and 137 meters wide (about 1,201 feet by 450 feet). It is home to 1,300 members and surrounded by docks and boats to support its fishing-based community.

However, its highest point is just 1 meter (3.2 feet) above sea level, and residents have failed to keep the rising water levels from inundating their homes despite using rocks, sea walls, and coral to protect the island.

It's a problem exacerbated during the rainy season, which peaks during November and December and is characterized by strong winds and powerful waves. 

"The next move is a direct consequence of climate change due to rising sea levels. The islands are on average only half a meter above sea level, and as that level rises, sooner or later the Gunas will have to abandon all the islands," said Steve Paton, the director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's oceanographic monitoring program. "Every coastline in the world is affected by this at different rates."

Why is relocation important?

A study by the Climate Change Directorate of Panama's Ministry of Environment estimated that the country will lose around 2% of its coastal territory because of sea level rise.

That and stronger storms induced by human-caused pollution have increased the likelihood that Gardi Sugdub will be uninhabitable by the end of the century.

Research from the Institute shows that the sea surrounding Gardi Sugdub is rising 3.4 millimeters per year. Adding to the issue is that nearby coral reefs have perished, leaving the island vulnerable to coastal erosion and flooding.

"It is almost certain that all the islands will have to be abandoned by 2100," Paton told BBC

What's being done about the relocation?

Panama's government has spent $12 million developing a designated area on the mainland for the Gunas living on Gardi Sugdub when they're ready to move. They built concrete houses in a rainforest just 2 kilometers (about 1.2 miles) from the closest port, where it takes an additional eight-minute boat ride to get to Gardi Sugdub.

"Our calculations suggest that it will cost about $1.2 million to relocate some 38 residents who will face sea level rise in the short and medium term," said Ligia Castro, director of climate change at the Ministry of Environment.

Challenges posed by rising sea levels aren't isolated to this region, as communities from Houston to Singapore are facing similar issues.

To combat this problem, a few architectural firms have designed floating homes, while researchers in California are working to reintroduce otters to areas susceptible to coastal erosion caused by crabs.

Steps individuals can take at home to make a difference against sea level rise include getting more involved in climate issues, such as donating to your favorite climate cause. On a smaller scale, changes at home can add up to mitigate the occurrence and consequences of carbon pollution, such as electrifying your home

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