American Samoa sunset. Photo by Eli Keene
June 1, 2016

“100 Times Stronger”

Sea Level Rise, Subsidence, and Storms in American Samoa

This story is the first of a series on what climate change means in the context of America’s southernmost territory—a small archipelago located over 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. The series will explore, through the words of local residents, not only the physical impacts of climate change, but its effects on American Samoa’s diet, identity, cultural heritage, and future as a livable place.

Samoan hospitality is a thing of wonder, and our guide for the day, Andra Samoa, is no exception. After tracking us down on the side of Route 1—American Samoa’s only major road—Andra invites us into her air-conditioned pickup truck with fresh coconuts to drink and immediately launches into a tour. Our destination is Andra’s home village of Leone, a bayside enclave on the southwest coast of Tutuila, American Samoa’s most populous island.

An energetic woman in her 50s, Andra seamlessly runs from topic to topic, touching on international politics, local governance, and her own work on environmental issues in Leone, all in a 20-minute car ride. But when we pull up across from Leone’s Zion Church, with its memorial to John Williams, the first Christian missionary to land on the island in 1832, she is all business.

“Okay,” she says, killing the engine, “I’m going to let you guys see the evidence.”

Leaving the truck above, Andra climbs down the shoreline, over the exposed roots of a coconut tree, and deftly jumps onto a pile of rocks jutting out into the bay.

“In 2014, I was able to walk on that side,” she says, gesturing downwards to the five-foot drop into the Bay. It’s difficult to tell where she could have been walking, as there is no beach in front of us, only water. “The soil came all the way to here. I can’t walk down anymore, because there’s no soil. All this has been eroded.”

Andrea Samoa on what's left of the beach. Photo by Eli Keene

Andra Samoa

It doesn’t take much to notice that the sea is slowly eating away at the edges of American Samoa. Across Tutuila, the most populous island in American Samoa’s archipelago, people point to childhood beaches that have disappeared, coconut trees falling into the ocean, and swaths of grass killed by seawater that sloshes into parks and onto roadways during storms and high tides. The 50-some concrete pillboxes that dot Tutuila’s coastline—a remnant of World War II—have begun to fall into the ocean, with some appearing improbably far off shore nearly covered by the waves. Today’s high water line is often only a couple feet from the road.

Over the last fifty years, sea levels around the Samoan archipelago have risen at a rate of about 0.8 inches per decade. A rapidly warming climate is causing this trend to accelerate; by 2050, the water surrounding villages like Leone is projected to rise about six inches. By 2100, the waterline will be fifteen inches higher.

A rise of six to fifteen inches may not seem like much. But while the sea around Tutuila is slowly rising, the island is also sinking. The islands of American Samoa were once active volcanoes. Today, the lack of thermal uplift, deflation of vacated magma chambers, and increased island weight cause a geological process called subsidence. When an island subsides, low-lying coastal areas become submerged underwater. Given the territory’s steep volcanic geography, it is these coastal lands that host the majority of the villages and infrastructure.

American Samoa sea spray near gazebo in Vaitogi. Photo by Eli Keene

Climate change is also intensifying tropical storms that wreak havoc on roads, fresh water sources, homes, and communication systems. On a calm but stiflingly hot day, these storms are fresh on the mind of Nua Satini Agatone.

“The big waves come right up to the house,” says Nua, who is the mayor of another coastal village, Vaitogi, about a 20-minute drive from Leone. “Maybe that happened way before our time, once in a while. But now it’s constantly.”

Nua’s latest problem arose from the effects of Tropical Cyclone Victor, a storm that hovered steadily about 350 miles southeast of Tutuila on January 16, 2016. While Victor never made landfall anywhere near American Samoa, its effects were felt across the island’s coast. The heavy waves ripped up asphalt roads, flooded homes, and turned the EPA “safe to swim” signs that dot the island’s beaches a forbidding red. Though Nua lives uphill from the water, he went to witness the waves churned up by Victor himself.

“One of the families, the waves came into their house,” he says, “And I gave them a suggestion. I advised them, ‘Time to move in, to move inland. Let it go.’”

The reaction to the relentless erosion and battering of Tutuila’s shores has been to armor the coast by restoring its natural defenses and building new ones. The coral reefs that historically buffered the island from strong waves and storm surges have been severely damaged by a combination of extreme bleaching from higher ocean temperatures and an outbreak of the coral-eating starfish Acanthaster planci, known colloquially as the Crown of Thorns.

Now, thanks to government-funded, locally led restoration efforts, including a team at the National Park of American Samoa that manually exterminates the Crown of Thorns by injecting them with ox bile, parts of the protective reef are coming back. In Leone, Andra is responsible for coordinating the restoration of Leone’s coral reef, coastal wetlands, and mangrove swamp as part of a project funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife division of the Department of Interior, by transplanting healthy corals to degraded areas.

Even with funding for these restoration projects, the reef is too damaged for American Samoa to rely on natural defenses alone to defend itself from storm surges. To protect many of the villages in central Tutuila, a concrete sea wall has been erected along Route 1, the only road that provides access to the hospital, the port, and other essential infrastructure.

But like all built infrastructure, there is a question of how long that protection can last.

“Water is 100 times stronger than anything man can make,” says Myron Thompson, Consultant to the Secretary of Samoan Affairs. “If climate change continues to eat up our road, what are we going to do? Everybody’s crippled. You can’t get to the hospital, to the airport. Our police can’t leave town.”

“With climate change, we’d better change our identity from ocean to mountain people.”

Myron Thompson, Consultant to the Secretary of Samoan Affairs​

His concerns about on the effects of climate change on American Samoa go far beyond flooded roads. Myron’s work at the Office of Samoan Affairs is to support traditional governance systems and Samoan culture. Samoans have always lived with the Pacific as their neighbor, but as the tides rise, he wonders how much of the culture he works to sustain will be affected.

“With climate change,” he says, “we’d better change our identity from ocean to mountain people.”

Like Myron, many people on Tutuila are thinking beyond the built environment surrounding them. When asked about climate change, the majority of residents interviewed quickly move beyond impacts on the landscape and focus instead on how environmental changes are disrupting their livelihoods, language, culture, identity, and futures.

In American Samoa, as in the rest of America, climate change is ultimately a story about people. As the seas continue to erode away American Samoa’s coastal villages, the prospect of moving inland, up the mountains becomes more real. And doing so may mean leaving behind not only homes and ancestral lands, but also livelihoods and cultural heritage.

While the residual effects of Victor continue to shoot surf twenty feet into the air down the road from Nua’s house, he seems pensive. His house is built far from the ocean on one of the highest points of the entire eastern shoreline. Still, after the storm, his thoughts are on the future.

“You know that the world has changed,” Nua tells us, “and the water is going higher and higher … Maybe in another hundred years, maybe the ocean is going to be right up here.”

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By: Victoria Herrmann and Eli Keene

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