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Climate Change to Blame for Devastating Cyclone, Says President of Vanuatu

Climate

You may never have heard of the republic of Vanuatu, an island nation located in the south Pacific. But, like many island nations, it's on the front lines of climate activism because of its vulnerability to climate change.

Just how vulnerable it is was demonstrated last week. Category 5 Cyclone Pam swept across Vanuatu on Friday with winds more than 200 mph, damaging or destroying virtually every building on the main island of Port Vila, wrecking most of its infrastructure and killing at least 10 people. The damage, death and injury toll is still being assessed, especially on outlying islands where communication is limited. Seventy percent of its population lives in these very poor remote areas, which already have minimal infrastructure. It's said to be one of the worst disasters in the region's history.

Tropical Cyclone Pam eventually grew to winds of more than 200 mph by the time it hit the islands that comprise Vanuatu. Image credit: @NOAASatellites.

"This is a very devastating cyclone in Vanuatu," Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale to Al Jazeera. "I term it as a monster, a monster. It's a setback for the government and for the people of Vanuatu."

Lonsdale put out a call for humanitarian aid for the most basic necessities, including drinking water, medicine, clothing, eating utensils and other household items. Australia, New Zealand and the UK have already responded to his pleas.

And in an interview with Associated Press, Lonsdale put the blame squarely on climate change.

"Climate change is contributing to the disasters in Vanuatu," he said. "We see the level of sea rise. Change in weather patterns. This year we have heavy rain more than every year."

Anote Tong, president of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, whose existence is jeopardized by rising sea levels, which was hit by Cyclone Pam to a lesser extent, agreed, saying, "Climate change has exacerbated the severity of natural disasters and frequency, that's worsening the impacts on different communities. I put forward this argument that climate change and disasters are so integrated and so related."

When the hurricane hit, Lonsdale and other Vanuatu government officials were in Sendai, Japan, attending the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. They immediately headed home, where action was needed more than conversation.

The natural beauty and tourism industry of South Pacific island Vanuatu are threatened by climate change.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

And World Bank vice president and special envoy for climate change Rachel Kyte told Agence France Press that those at the conference seemed not to connect climate policy and the growing number of extreme weather events such as Cyclone Pam.

"I worry that a sense of urgency and a sense of shared ambition is not at the right level," she told AFP at the Disaster Risk Reduction Conference. "It's hugely ironic that this storm should hit Vanuatu while we are all here. If we truly care for those people, we have to respond. I think we have to hold ourselves accountable."

"I don't think I would say climate change caused (Cyclone) Pam, but I would say the fact is in the past three or four years we've seen category fives coming with a regularity we've never seen before," added Kyte. "And that has some relationship with climate change. It is undisputable that part of the Pacific Ocean is much warmer today than in previous years, so these storms are intensifying. We may have helped communities become resilient to the kinds of storms we experienced in the past, but resilience to a storm with wind speed of up to 300 kilometres per hour— that's a whole new intensity.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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