Pacific Islands Rush to Establish Climate Warning Systems

One of the highlights of a visit to Palaus stunning Rock Islands is the chance to swim with swarms of golden jellyfish.

Harmless to humans, the jellyfish, which number in the millions, are known for migrating daily from east to west, following the suns movement in the sky.

Their habitat, Ongeiml Tketau Jellyfish Island, is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major tourist draw.

But like the rest of Palau, an island nation of 18,000 people that relies heavily on tourism, the area is dangerously exposed to the tropical cyclones that routinely sweep across the South Pacific.

To counter that threat, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is helping Palau to build several automated weather stations and float a buoy that tracks the height of waves. The equipment will allow government officials to monitor approaching storms, issue alerts to tour operators and plan rescue operations.

Reliable information about weather and climate is essential, says Jennifer Olegeriil, Director of the Koror State Governments Department of Conservation and Law Enforcement, which manages the Rock Islands. It is a key component in how we plan our daily operations.

A man throws a large fish onto a table

Extreme weather, such as cyclones, flooding and drought, have surged five-fold in the past 50 years, a jump experts say is being driven by climate change. Small island developing nations, like Palau, are particularly vulnerable to this climatic upheaval. Storms and rising seas are eroding coastlines, buffeting low-lying coastal communities and sending seawater streaming into already scant sources of drinking water, like aquifers. At the same time, even in the tropics, droughts are becoming more common.

To build resilience to this new normal, UNEP is helping the Cook Islands, Niue, Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu to generate high quality climate information and improve early warning systems for multiple hazards.

Financed by the Green Climate Fund, the five-year programme will help government meteorologists better forecast extreme weather and issue alerts to communities.

The project includes installing meteorological observation points in each of the five countries and providing improved observation equipment, such as automatic weather stations, Doppler radars, marine weather buoys and ocean sensors.

There have already been some promising results.

Under the UNEP programme, a pilot early warning system has been rolled out across all 15 of the isles of the Cook Islands. The system was used to provide early warning of a coastal inundation event in Rarotonga, the countrys largest island, in May 2023. Its launch followed storm surges in 2022 that pounded beachfront properties and reportedly took locals by surprise.

In Niue, a similar UNEP-backed system allowed meteorologists to better understand the mechanics of a storm that hit the island nation in March and April of 2024.

An aerial view of tropical islands

In the Republic of Marshall Islands, the UNEP programme is helping to improve the monitoring of coral reefs, many of which bleached and died when water temperatures surged in 2014. Teams are working to install coral health kits and other ocean monitoring tools that track water temperature, helping to forecast bleaching events. They also plan to distribute paper scorecards that will allow communities in remote areas to grade the health of corals. That information will then be shared with Marshall Island Conservation Society, helping the group get a better handle on the state of the countrys corals.

Healthy coral reefs are vital for supporting marine biodiversity, providing food and protein to coastal communities, and protecting shorelines against waves, storms and floods. Yet they are under relentless stress from climate change, which is warming ocean waters.

Much of the Marshall Islands consists of ocean, which means that we depend highly on our marine resources for our sustenance, says Dua Randolph, Deputy Director of the Marshall Islands Conservation Society. Coral bleaching is an existential threat for us.

Men in a small boat on the open ocean holding a bright yellow buoy

Small island developing states are responsible for less than 1 per cent of the global greenhouse emissions that are driving climate change. But this group of 39 nations, home to a combined 65 million people, are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.

Only one-third have multi-hazard early warning systems, which can detect a range of potential disasters. As a result, people in small island developing states are 15 times more likely to die from climate disasters.

Small-island states are paying the price for decades of climate inaction by the rest of the world, said Jian Liu, the director of UNEPs Early Warning and Assessment Division. There is an urgent need to invest in climate science and early warning systems to save lives and protect livelihoods in these countries.

The United Nations Secretary-General Antnio Guterres has called for every person in the world to be covered by early warning systems by 2027. The development of a National Adaptation Plan is an essential milestone in a countrys efforts to build climate resilience, experts say. They can be used to significantly improve early warning systems by funding the installation of automatic weather stations and other monitoring equipment.

Besides saving lives and livelihoods, early warning systems can benefit the environment. Improved observations and hazard mapping can raise the alarm about ecosystem vulnerabilities, and empower decision makers to take action to safeguard natural resources.

A major component of the UNEP programme is helping countries to prioritize climate resilience in their decision making, with Tuvalu the first to finalize its National Framework for Weather, Climate and Ocean Services under the programme.

Community engagement is another key feature of the programme. Niue has used education campaigns to bring greater awareness of the importance of climate information and early warning systems to school children.

Children gather around some equipment

The five-nation UNEP programme is expected to benefit at least 80 per cent of the islands populations and achieve a 15-30 per cent reduction in climate-related damage and losses.

The sad reality is that our climate has already changed and it will continue to change, says UNEPs Liu. But with early warning systems, we can help to minimize the fallout of climate-related disasters and give island nations a fighting chance.

The Sectoral Solution to the climate crisis

UNEP is at the forefront of supporting the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperature rise well below 2C, and aiming for 1.5C, compared to pre-industrial levels. To do this, UNEP has developed the Sectoral Solution, a roadmap to reducing emissions across sectors in line with the Paris Agreement commitments and in pursuit of climate stability. The six sectors identified are: energy; industry; agriculture and food; forests and land use; transport; and buildings and cities.

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