HONOLULU -- The village where Christina Deeley was born in the Marshall Islands is disappearing, bit by bit.
When she visits her family in the Laura community on the islands' Majuro atoll, Hawaii resident Deeley, 34, sees many changes confronting natives. The beach has receded by several feet. Cemeteries once located at the end of the town have vanished. Fish are becoming more scarce and fresh water polluted.
Deeley's mother, Maria de Brum, 57, still lives in Laura and wants to stay. But Deeley believes it's just a matter of time before the family matriarch will be forced to do what many others from the islands have already done. They've moved to the United States.
There's an exodus underway from Pacific Island nations to America, one driven by multiple factors, according to island leaders and migrants. People relocating to Hawaii and other states say they've come for better jobs and health care. But there's also a less recognized but unmistakable contributor, Deeley explained: climate change.
"It's hard to pinpoint migration as an effect of climate change," Deeley said. But movement from her native village is occurring in part because Laura's economy and traditional lifestyle have been warped by rapid environmental changes.
"We can no longer find enough fish to feed our families. We're no longer able to secure enough fresh water like we were before," Deeley said as she and other island immigrants gathered for a meeting at the University of Hawaii. "That way, if you think about it and take it a step further, you will see the connection between climate change and migration."
Tiny nations in Micronesia are among the places most threatened by the impacts of climate change. Many lie just a few feet above sea level, and would be submerged if waters rise by between 3 and 6 feet by 2100, as experts have said is possible. Already, stronger storms and beach erosion are altering food, invading freshwater reservoirs and changing local cultures.
Based on the number of residents expected to be living on the affected islands in 2050, between 665,000 and more than 1.7 million people might choose to leave or be compelled to migrate, said John Campbell, an associate professor and a climate change migration expert at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.
"The numbers could conceivably be quite high," Campbell said as he met with island leaders in Honolulu. "Then the question is, where do they go?"
On some islands, people might be able to move to higher ground, Campbell said. But "if the entire country is made of atolls, then you might have to have the whole country have to relocate," he said.
U.S. is 'first choice' for migrants
The United States will be the first choice for relocation for many Pacific Island residents who migrate, experts said.
The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau have an agreement with the United States that allows island residents to travel to and live in America. Known as the Compact of Free Association, in exchange, it gives the United States control over access to the waters around the island countries.
For years, island residents have come to the United States temporarily for education and better health care. Those familiar with migration patterns believe now more people will stay permanently.
"There's no question that the overflow is going to happen into the U.S., Hawaii being first," said Tony de Brum, minister in assistance to the president of the Marshall Islands. He is Christina Deeley's cousin.
Hawaii, because of its proximity to Micronesia and its similar Pacific Island culture, already is a popular destination for those seeking to migrate. But there isn't any plan to deal with what could be a much larger inflow, said Hawaii Sen. J. Kalani English (D).
"We have never dealt with this kind of situation before," English said. "We're going to have to look at all sorts of policies," including keeping adequate food supplies. Hawaii imports much of its food.
"The environmental refugees are going to be a big deal for us in Hawaii" as well as in the mainland United States, English said. While residents of some nations under the treaty have to right to enter, he said, there will be others who also want to immigrate.
"What about Kiribati, French Polynesia, Tuvalu and the other countries that are vulnerable?" English wondered.
A widening bridge to America
The Compact of Association's link to the United States already is triggering movement within the Pacific Islands. Residents of nations that aren't part of the agreement are relocating to the Marshall Islands so that they can later migrate to the United States, de Brum said.
"That's been the traditional way of doing it," de Brum said. After living on the Marshall Islands for five years, he said, people can become citizens and then legally move to the United States.
Hawaii largely has been welcoming, said several people from families with migrants. In Arkansas, the Tyson Foods factory has hired many former residents of Micronesia's islands. But there are questions about how the United States and other nations will respond when the influx of immigrants grows larger.
"How many are really likely to take climate migrants?" asked Campbell with the University of Waikato. "Countries are really particular about who they want to migrate in.
"Climate change actually brings new problems that have no experience to deal with," he added. "We don't really know what to expect."
Some already are preparing for increased migration to Hawaii.
Mike Olap, 67, a native of Chuuk State in the Federated States of Micronesia, moved to Honolulu in 2011. He has four children who live in the Aloha State and one in Alaska. His daughter Erlyn, 42, three years ago purchased four houses in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. She has sold some to island immigrants needing new homes, he said.
"She says the place is going to be sinking," Olap said, referring to Chuuk State.
Last decade brought accelerated change
Olap came to Hawaii primarily for access to health care. He hopes to return to his native island, but knows that conditions there are deteriorating every year. "It's a great change over there," Olap, clad in a black and yellow Hawaiian shirt, said as he sipped a Sierra Mist at a Honolulu restaurant. "It's a traumatic change of land features."
The beach has eroded, and coconut trees along the shore line "just fell off into the water," Olap said. While some of the changes started in the 1980, within the last decade "it was so rapid."
There now are storm surges almost every winter, he said. Waves now on occasion crest over a 6-foot sea wall by the house he still owns. The trade winds and the seasons also are shifting.
"People are scared," Olap said. "They're worried their land's going to be washed out."
There are similar stories on many islands, said Asterio Takesy, the Federated States of Micronesia's ambassador to the United States. At the place where he grew up in Micronesia, the waves hit the shoreline of the outer island, previously 100 feet from his home.
"It has now moved within 10 feet," Takesy said. "Most residents of small islands can tell similar stories. It's pretty clear climate change-induced sea-level rise will exacerbate these in the future."
Simultaneously, he said, saltwater intrusion compromises the ability to grow food and can contaminate groundwater. Water in a well near his childhood home now must be boiled before use. The oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide and becoming more acidic, he said, which weakens the shells of mollusks and other sea creatures. This has hurt fisheries.
"Ultimately, our food security is threatened," Takesy said. "The inescapable fact is that climate migration is going to become a worldwide phenomenon," he added. "It now appears we in the Pacific Islands are becoming some of the first to face it."
'Losing one's identity'
At the same time, Olap said, for natives of his home, there is resistance to leaving. When he lived on Chuuk State, he served two terms as a representative in the Legislature. He offered a bill that would have created a task force to study how to move the population from the island because "water is coming, and there is no place for us."
The measure was defeated in a vote, he said, explaining that other lawmakers were concerned it would hurt them politically if they backed the bill.
There is similar push-back on other islands. Jocelyn Howard, from Micronesia, left home in 1989 and now lives in Hawaii. She last visited her native island in 1995. At the time, she said, grasses for cattle were dying, endangering food supplies. The then-mayor was talking about purchasing land on Guam for Micronesian residents.
"The people did not want to move from their island," Howard said. Most of her family still live there and want to stay. They resist the idea that it might become uninhabitable.
"People, they do see the impact of the eroding of the beaches, but not the reality of it yet," Howard said, referring to climate change. "They haven't comprehended it yet."
Howard worries about what's ahead. "There's going to be a lot of social impact. Losing land is losing one's identity."