Image: Cemetery being eroded along beach
Giff Johnson  /  AFP - Getty Images
This cemetery on the Majuro Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, is among the areas being overtaken by slowly rising seas.
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updated 12/6/2010 3:30:32 PM ET 2010-12-06T20:30:32

Encroaching seas in the far Pacific are raising the salt level in the wells of the Marshall Islands. Waves threaten to cut one sliver of an island in two. "It's getting worse," says Kaminaga Kaminaga, the tiny nation's climate change coordinator.

The rising ocean raises questions, too: What happens if the 61,000 Marshallese must abandon their low-lying atolls? Would they still be a nation? With a U.N. seat? With control of their old fisheries and their undersea minerals? Where would they live, and how would they make a living? Who, precisely, would they and their children become?

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For years global negotiations to act on climate change have dragged on, with little to show. Parties to the 193-nation U.N. climate treaty are meeting again in this Caribbean resort, but no one expects decisive action to roll back the industrial, agricultural and transport emissions blamed for global warming — and consequently for swelling seas.

From 7,000 miles away, the people of the Marshalls — and of Kiribati, Tuvalu and other atoll nations beyond — can only wonder how many more years they'll be able to cope.

"People who built their homes close to shore, all they can do is get more rocks to rebuild the seawall in front day by day," said Kaminaga, who is in Cancun with the Marshallese delegation to the U.N. talks.

The Marshallese government is looking beyond today, however, to those ultimate questions of nationhood, displacement and rights.

"We're facing a set of issues unique in the history of the system of nation-states," Dean Bialek, a New York-based adviser to the Republic of the Marshall Islands who is also in Cancun, told The Associated Press. "We're confronting existential issues associated with climate impacts that are not adequately addressed in the international legal framework."

The Marshallese government took a first step to confront these issues by asking for advice from the Center for Climate Change Law at New York's Columbia University. The center's director, Michael Gerrard, in turn has asked legal scholars worldwide to assemble at Columbia next May to begin to piece together answers.

Nations have faded into history through secession — recently with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, for example — or through conquest or ceding their territory to other countries.

But "no country has ever physically disappeared, and it's a real void in the law," Gerrard said during an interview in New York.

The U.N. network of climate scientists projects that seas, expanding from heat and from the runoff of melting land ice, may rise by up to 1.94 feet by 2100, swamping much of the scarce land of coral atolls.

But the islands may become uninhabitable long before waves wash over them, because of the saline contamination of water supplies and ruining of crops, and because warming is expected to produce more threatening tropical storms.

"If a country like Tuvalu or Kiribati were to become uninhabitable, would the people be stateless? What's their position in international law?" asked Australian legal scholar Jane McAdam. "The short answer is, it depends. It's complicated."

McAdam, of the University of New South Wales, has traveled in the atoll nations and studied the legal history.

As far as islanders keeping their citizenship and sovereignty if they abandon their homelands, she said by telephone from Sydney, "it's unclear when a state would end because of climate change. It would come down to what the international community was prepared to tolerate" — that is, whether the U.N. General Assembly would move to take a seat away from a displaced people.

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The 1951 global treaty on refugees, mandating that nations shelter those fleeing because of persecution, does not cover the looming situation of those displaced by climate change. Some advocate negotiating a new international pact obliging similar treatment for environmental refugees.

In the case of the Marshallese, the picture is murkier. Under a compact with Washington, citizens of the former U.S. trusteeship territory have the right to freely enter the U.S. for study or work, but their right to permanent residency must be clarified, government advisers say.

The islanders worry, too, about their long-term economic rights. The wide scattering of the Marshalls' 29 atolls, 2,300 miles southwest of Hawaii, give them an exclusive economic zone of 800,000 square miles of ocean, an area the size of Mexico.

The tuna coursing through those waters are the Marshalls' chief resource, exploited by selling licenses to foreign fishing fleets. "If their islands go underwater, what becomes of their fishing rights?" Gerrard asked. Potentially just as important: revenues from magnesium and other sea-floor minerals that geologists have been exploring in recent years.

While lawyers at next May's New York conference begin to sort out the puzzle of disappeared nations, the Marshallese will grapple with the growing problems.

The "top priority," Kaminaga said, is to save the isthmus linking the Marshalls' Jaluit island to its airport, a link now swept by high tides.

Story: View key warming indicators

Meantime, a lingering drought this year led islanders to tap deeper into their wells, finding salty water requiring them to deploy emergency desalination units. And "parts of the islands are eroding away," Kaminaga said, as undermined lines of coconut palms topple into the sea.

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This week in Cancun and in the months to come, the Marshalls' representatives will seek international aid for climate adaptation. They envision such projects as a Jaluit causeway, replanting of protective vegetation on shorelines, and a 3-mile-long seawall protecting their capital, Majuro, from the Pacific's rising tides.

Islanders' hopes are fading, however, for quick, decisive action to slash global emissions and save their remote spits of land for the next century.

"If all these financial and diplomatic tools don't work, I think some countries are looking at some kind of legal measures," said Dessima Williams, Grenada's U.N. ambassador and chair of a group of small island-nations. Those measures might include appeals to the International Court of Justice or other forums for compensation, a difficult route at best.

In the end, islanders wonder, too, what will happen to their culture, their history, their identity with a homeland — even to their ancestors — if they must leave.

"Cemeteries along the coastline are being eroded. Gravesites are falling into the sea," Kaminaga said. "Even in death we're affected."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Rising ocean levels threaten Maldives

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  1. Maldives' rising oceans

    Ahead of the global climate talks in December 2009, nine photographers from the photo agency NOOR photographed climate stories from around the world. Their goal: to document some of the causes and consequences, from deforestation to changing sea levels, as well as the people whose lives and jobs are part of the carbon culture.

    While the sources of greenhouse gases are often in the industrial world, consequences often are visible in non-industrial areas. The Indian Ocean nation of Maldives, which is struggling to hold back rising seas, is one such example. The capital Malé, seen here, is one of the world's most densely populated cities. Nearly 104,000 people are crammed onto an island about a square mile in size. (Francesco Zizola / Consequences by NOOR) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Malé sits on an island just three feet above sea level. The natural shape was added to by filling shallow waters with sand and rocks. That took the land closer to an outside coral reef, reducing the reef's ability to buffer the island from storms and rising seas.

    To counter the tides and storms, a $60 million concrete barrier system, part of it seen here, now rings Malé.

    "I chose Maldives because it's the country which is the closest to sea level," says photographer Francesco Zizola. "If it's true what the majority of scientists claim regarding global warming, then Maldives would be the first country to disappear underwater." (Francesco Zizola / Consequences by NOOR) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Residents often take advantage of low tide to collect rocks and other material to reinforce exposed areas near their homes or businesses.

    Over the last century, sea levels globally have risen about eight inches, much of that from melting ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as thermal expansion of warmer waters. Eight inches might not sound like much, but for Maldives every inch counts. (Francesco Zizola / Consequences by NOOR) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Maldives plans to move toward renewable energy but still uses a diesel-powered plant to produce electricity for Malé. (Francesco Zizola / Consequences by NOOR) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The $60 million seawall was financed by Japan and runs nearly four miles around Malé. It's about 11 feet tall.

    For more information on this project go to Consequences by NOOR (Francesco Zizola / Consequences by NOOR) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rising sea levels are not the only worry here. Warming seas, and more acidic seas due to CO2 emissions, have the potential to impact fisheries and the coral reefs on which many fish rely. Fishing makes up 20 percent of Maldives' gross domestic product and provides an estimated 22,000 jobs.

    While gaps in climate science exist, leading some to question the degree of mankind’s impact as well as whether anything should be done, most governments as well as the science academies of the U.S. and other industrial nations agree that mankind is a significant factor and that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced. (Francesco Zizola / Consequences by NOOR) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Sand is mined at Villingili Island and some of the other 1,200 that comprise Maldives. The practice is often done illegally, most of it to supply the cement industry, making the islands even more vulnerable to rising seas, high tides and storms. (Francesco Zizola / Consequences by NOOR) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Besides climate concerns, Maldives struggles with trash from locals and tourists. Most of its garbage is sent to Thilafushi Island, also known as "Rubbish Island." Originally a vast lagoon, it became an island in 1992 when garbage was used to fill it in.

    Workers incinerate or bury most of the waste. Crushed cans, metals and cardboard are shipped to India, but any hazardous waste is not removed from regular garbage. (Francesco Zizola / Consequences by NOOR) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Malé's residents are hardly a symbol of green living. Besides burning diesel to make electricity and shipping trash to Thilafushi, the Maldives capital pumps sewage untreated into the sea. (Francesco Zizola / Consequences by NOOR) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Maldives has an international airport on Hulhulé Island. The runway is just 6 feet above sea level. At high tide, that can narrow to just 20 inches.

    Share your thoughts about these slideshows and climate change. (Francesco Zizola / Consequences by NOOR) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Residents of Malé and the rest of Maldives are part of an island culture that dates back at least 2,000 years. "We do not want to leave the Maldives," President Mohamed Nasheed has said, "but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades."

    For more information on this project go to Consequences by NOOR (Francesco Zizola / Consequences by NOOR) Back to slideshow navigation
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Interactive: Global warming: Port cities are vulnerable to rising waters

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