IF YOU HAVEN'T HEARD of Tuvalu, the fourth-smallest country in the world, so much the better, because its nine square miles of dry land may soon disappear from sight like a polished stone dropped in the deep sea. And if that happens, it might be unpleasant to consider that the basic amenities of our lifestyle-our cars and planes and power plants, our well-lighted, well-cooled and -heated homes-have brought about the obliteration of an ancient, peaceful civilization halfway around the world.
I'm getting sunburned. The equatorial heat is scorching, and the conversation of my host-a sneaker-clad 29-year-old conservation officer named Semese Alefaio, who prefers to be called Sam-is inclining toward doomsday. Sam is piloting our skiff into a vast lagoon encircled by the 24 wisps of land that make up Funafuti Atoll. Funafuti is the capital of Tuvalu, a chain of nine islands-six coral atolls and three limestone reefs-scattered across 350,000 square miles of otherwise vacant South Pacific blue. Scads of silvery fish leap above the water's punishingly bright surface; not far away, a dolphin crests, hangs suspended above a wave, and vanishes.
"This is heaven, yes?" Sam remarks. He speaks in a flat, affectless voice, staring straight ahead as he steers. With long, thick hair pulled back in a ponytail, Sam looks like a Calvin Klein model. But jeans are not what he's advertising.
"There," he says, gesturing above the waves with his chin, "that's the sinking island." All I can see are waves converging in skittish little folds as we approach a reef.
"Which sinking island?"
Sam tries not to show his impatience. After all, I'm a palagi, an outsider, and Tuvaluan courtesy dictates polite forbearance of my cluelessness. Sam knows that I've come here to bring back ghastly news from global warming's paradisiacal ground zero, since Tuvalu is the first sovereign nation to announce it is being swallowed by the planet.
"Look to your right," he instructs. "You see now?" I begin to make out a spit of land-a dozen coconut palms clinging above a sidewalk's width of beach. "Those trees are beginning to fall down from erosion," he tells me. "That's what the sinking island looked like a few years ago." He pauses and looks at me. "Now," he says, "look straight ahead."
A barren rocky outcrop comes into view above the waves. "Tepuka Savilivili," Sam says, naming what's left of the island. He anchors the boat and I wade toward the rocks. The water temperature, at 84 degrees, is catching up with the air temperature. A recent tide line darkens most of Tepuka Savilivili's oval remains, which are barely 200 feet long and 50 feet across. I climb ashore, and a fluorescent green crab clatters past me. A tern circles above. Sam tells me he remembers when there was a sandy beach here. Now there's nothing but black, jagged coral that looks like decoration for a lunar stage set. A shallow, bleached pit in the center marks the spot where a cluster of trees once took root. In 1997, Sam says, Cyclones Gavin, Hina, and Keli blew across the lagoon; the trees were uprooted by wind and waves, and soon afterward the island began to wash away. Where Tepuka Savilivili's miniature forest once stood, I find some plastic bottles, a container of laundry detergent, and a trio of desiccated coconuts. Waves batter the rock from all sides.