Call it the macabre side of climate change: The bodies of at least 26 Japanese soldiers from World War II have been washed out of their decades-old graves on the beaches of Marshall Islands, one of many low-lying island nations in the Pacific whose future is threatened by rising seas.
The news was announced by Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum at the Bonn Climate Change Conference, where ministers from 170 governments around the world gathered last week for talks that previewed United Nations climate negotiations scheduled for later this year.
Speaking on the sidelines with reporters during the conference, de Brum pointed to the unearthed bodies as the latest in a string of incidents that reveals how imperiled Marshall Islands – an archipelago of islands and coral atolls between Hawaii and Australia, on which about 70,000 people live just a few feet above sea level – is by human-caused climate change.
"These last spring tides in February to April this year have caused not just inundation and flooding of communities but have also undermined regular land, so that even the dead are affected," de Brum said in Bonn, according to the U.K.-based Telegraph newspaper.
"There are coffins and dead people being washed away from graves, it's that serious," he added.
GIFF JOHNSON/AFP/Getty Images
A cemetery on the shoreline in Majuro Atoll in Marshall Islands is shown in this file photo from 2008, being flooded from high tides and ocean surges.
The Japanese, who had occupied Marshall Islands since the end of World War I, used the island chain as a military operations base until U.S. troops invaded and took control in February 1944. The bodies of the soldiers who were washed from their graves are believed to have lived here then.
“We think they are Japanese soldiers,” Mr de Brum said at the Bonn conference, according to the U.K.-based Independent newspaper. “We had the exhumed skeletons sampled by the US Navy in Pearl Harbor (in Hawaii) and they helped identify where they are from, to assist in the repatriation efforts.”
A recent U.N. report showed that sea levels have risen much faster in this part of the world than most anywhere else – by about 12 millimeters per year, roughly four times the global average of the past couple of decades.
In the island nation's capital city Majuro, the telltale signs of rising sea levels are unmistakable, the Telegraph reports:
"The town consists of one main road that runs the length of the island, leaving the waterfront homes and shops on either side glaringly exposed to rising seas and high tides," the newspaper said. "Across the country, coconut trees have washed away. There is less land to grow breadfruit, one of the nation’s main food sources, which cannot grow on soil where the groundwater has been infiltrated by the salty sea water."Follow @terrellwrites
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An aerial view of Rongelap Island, one of more than 1,000 that make up the Marshall Islands in the Northern Pacific. The impact of climate change has left its capital with about two hours' worth of fresh water every other day, and many of its outer islands with no fresh water at all. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)