The reef islands formed on coral atolls are generally small, low, and flat, with elevations of only a few meters. These islands are thus highly vulnerable to elevated sea levels caused by extreme events and global warming. Such vulnerability was recently evidenced at Fongafale Islet, the capital of Tuvalu, when it flooded during accelerated spring high tides possibly related to sea level rise caused by global warming. Many factors, not only environmental but also economic and social, determine the vulnerability of an island to sea level rise. In this study, we used data spanning 108 yrs to reconstruct changes in topography, land use/cover, population, and the distribution of buildings at Fongafale Islet. The results indicate that the vulnerability of Fongafale Islet relates to its original landform characteristics: the central part of the island was formerly dominated by swampland that flooded at high tides. Fongafale Islet experienced greater population in-migration and centralization beginning in the 1970s following the independence of Tuvalu and Kiribati. Migrants were also responding to declines in overseas mining operations and limited options for paid employment. As the population increased, construction took place in vulnerable swampland areas. Our results clearly demonstrate that examinations of global environmental issues should focus on characteristics specific to the region of interest. These characteristics should be specified using historical reconstruction to understand and address the vulnerability of an area to global environmental changes.
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