Geography and History of Tuvalu

Tuvalu and the Impacts Global Warming

Tuvalu beach at sunset

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Tuvalu is a tiny island country located in Oceania about halfway between the state of Hawaii and the nation of Australia. It consists of five coral atolls and four reef islands but none are more than 15 feet (5 meters) above sea level. Tuvalu has one of the world's smallest economies and has recently been featured in the news as it is becoming increasingly threatened by global warming and rising sea levels.

Basic Facts

Population: 11,147 (July 2018 estimate)

Capital: Funafuti (also Tuvalu's largest city)

Area: 10 square miles (26 sq km)

Coastline: 15 miles (24 km)

Official Languages: Tuvaluan and English

Ethnic Groups: 96% Polynesian, 4% Other

History of Tuvalu

The islands of Tuvalu were first inhabited by Polynesian settlers from Samoa and/or Tonga and they were left largely untouched by Europeans until the 19th century. In 1826, the whole island group became known to Europeans and was mapped. By the 1860s, labor recruiters began arriving on the islands and removing its inhabitants either by force and/or bribe to work on sugar plantations in Fiji and Australia. Between 1850 and 1880, the population of the islands fell from 20,000 to just 3,000.

As a result of its decline in population, the British government annexed the islands in 1892. At this time, the islands became known as the Ellice Islands and in 1915-1916, the islands were formally taken over by the British and formed a part of the colony called Gilbert and Ellice Islands.

In 1975, the Ellice Islands separated from the Gilbert Islands due to hostilities between the Micronesian Gilbertese and the Polynesian Tuvaluans. Once the islands separated, they became known officially as Tuvalu. The name Tuvalu means "eight islands" and although there are nine islands comprising the country today, only eight were initially inhabited so the ninth is not included in its name.

Tuvalu was granted full independence on September 30, 1978, but is still a part of the British Commonwealth today. In addition, Tuvalu grew in 1979 when the U.S. gave the country four islands that had been U.S. territories and in 2000, it joined the United Nations.

Economy of Tuvalu

Today Tuvalu has the distinction of being one of the smallest economies in the world. This is because the coral atolls on which its people are populated have extremely poor soils. Therefore, the country has no known mineral exports and it is largely unable to produce agricultural exports, making it dependent on imported goods. In addition, its remote location means tourism and the related service industries are mainly non-existent.

Subsistence farming is practiced in Tuvalu and to produce the largest agricultural yield possible, pits are dug out of the coral. The most widely grown crops in Tuvalu are taro and coconut. In addition, copra (the dried flesh of a coconut used in making coconut oil) is a major part of Tuvalu's economy.

Fishing has also played an historic role in Tuvalu's economy because the islands have a maritime exclusive economic zone of 500,000 square miles (1.2 million sq km) and because the region is a rich fishing ground, the country gains revenue from fees paid by other countries such as the U.S. wanting to fish in the region.

Geography and Climate of Tuvalu

Tuvalu is one of the smallest countries on Earth. It is in Oceania south of Kiribati and halfway between Australia and Hawaii. Its terrain consists of low lying, narrow coral atolls and reefs and it is spread over nine islands which stretch for just 360 miles (579 km). Tuvalu's lowest point is the Pacific Ocean at sea level and the highest is an unnamed location on the island of Niulakita at only 15 feet (4.6 m). The largest city in Tuvalu is Funafuti with a population of 5,300 as of 2003.

Six of the nine islands comprising Tuvalu have lagoons open to the ocean, while two have landlocked regions and one has no lagoons. In addition, none of the islands have any streams or rivers and because they are coral atolls, there is no drinkable ground water. Therefore, all of the water used by Tuvalu's people is gathered via catchment systems and is kept in storage facilities.

Tuvalu's climate is tropical and is moderated by easterly trade winds from March to November. It has a heavy rain season with westerly winds from November to March and although tropical storms are rare, the islands are prone to flooding with high tides and changes in sea level.

Tuvalu, Global Warming, and Rising Sea Levels

Recently, Tuvalu has gained significant media attention worldwide because its low-lying land is so susceptible to rising sea levels. The beaches surrounding the atolls are sinking due to erosion caused by waves and this is exacerbated by rising sea levels. In addition, because the sea level is rising on the islands, Tuvaluans must continually deal with their homes flooding, as well as soil salination. Soil salination is a problem because it is making it difficult to get clean drinking water and is harming crops as they cannot grow with the saltier water. As a result, the country is becoming more and more dependent on foreign imports.

The issue of rising sea levels has been a concern for Tuvalu since 1997 when the country began a campaign to show the need to control greenhouse gas emissions, reduce global warming and protect the future of low lying countries. In more recent years though, the flooding and soil salination have become such a problem in Tuvalu that the government there has made plans to evacuate the entire population to other countries as it is believed that Tuvalu will be completely submerged by the end of the 21st century.

Resources and Further Reading

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Briney, Amanda. "Geography and History of Tuvalu." ThoughtCo, Oct. 10, 2021, Briney, Amanda. (2021, October 10). Geography and History of Tuvalu. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "Geography and History of Tuvalu." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).