BONN, GERMANY – Rising sea levels have washed the remains of at least 26 Japanese soldiers from their World War II graves on a low-lying Pacific archipelago, according to the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands.
“There are coffins and dead people being washed away from graves. It’s that serious,” Tony de Brum told reporters Friday on the sidelines of U.N. climate change talks in Germany.
Putting the blame on climate change, which threatens the existence of the islands that are only 2 meters (6 feet) above sea level at their highest, de Brum said: “Even the dead are affected.”
Twenty-six skeletons have been found on Santo Island after high tides battered the archipelago from February to April, he said, adding that more may be found. Unexploded bombs and other military equipment have also washed up in recent months.
“We think they’re Japanese soldiers, but there are no broken bones or any indication of being war casualties,” he said. “We think maybe it was suicide or something similar. The Japanese are sending a team in to help us in September.”
The Marshall Islands were used as a base by the Japanese Navy in the run-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. U.S. Navy personnel based at Pearl Harbor are now testing the unearthed skeletons to identify and repatriate them, according to de Brum.
“We had the exhumed skeletons sampled by the U.S. Navy in Pearl Harbor (in Hawaii) and they helped identify where they are from, to assist in the repatriation efforts.”
Climate scientists say global warming has raised average world sea levels by about 19 cm (8 inches) in the past century, aggravating the impact of storm surges and tides. Glaciers and ice caps are melting and water also expands as it warms.
A U.N. study on Thursday said changes in Pacific winds and currents meant sea levels in the region had risen faster than the world average since the 1990s.
He said that many of the 170 nations meeting in Bonn were slowly understanding the extent of threats faced by island states. Rising tides wash salt water onto the land, often ruining vegetation and such crops as breadfruit and coconuts.
“We think they are (getting the message) but not quickly enough to climate-poof some of our more vulnerable communities,” de Brum said. Measures include raising homes on stilts, rebuilding roads and docks, and even abandoning some atolls.