Celine Dyer and Rima Moeka’a, from the Climate Change Cook Islands Office, spoke to the students from Tereora, Nukutere and Imanuela about the nuances and effects of climate change.
Dyer spoke about climate variability - the nature climate cycles which are important to know in order to understand climate change.
“Last year in the Cook Islands we discovered that there are two natural climate cycles that more or less determine climate here,” Dyer said.
“That doesn’t mean that there are only two climate cycles, but the two for us here are the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the other second is the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).”
In the ENSO cycle, there are two phases – the El Niño and the La Niña, which produce opposite effects in the northern and southern groups.
When the Cook Islands go through the El Niño phase, the northern group islands are warm and wet, and get a lot of rain, whereas the southern group will be warm and dry, and vice versa.
The CCCI office also found that during El Niño events there is a greater likelihood of islands being hit by cyclones.
“According to the info from 1870 to 1969, the Cook Islands had 28 cyclones during El Niño, and during La Niña we had 12. From 1970 to now, we’ve had 36 cyclones during El Niño and only six during La Niña,” Dyer explained.
“That confirms that they produce opposite effects.”
Dyer also described the PDO cycle, another natural occurrence.
From data collected between 1900 to 2010, research showed the cycles are long term, and tend to last anywhere from 10 to 30 years.
Wet conditions were prevalent in the southern group for much of the 1950s to the 1970s during a predominantly negative phase of the decadal cycle, while drought conditions dominated from the 1980s to the 2000s during a predominantly positive phase.
She expects there will be an ongoing wet phase in the Cook Islands that could last as long as 30-40 years.
To illustrate the cycles, a photo taken on Mangaia in 1957, during a negative phase was shown. The picture showed water flowing through a taro swamp and full of fishes and freshwater fauna.
It was followed by a photo of the same area in 2014, during a dry season, where taro swamp areas had dried up throughout the southern group, resulting in the loss of many species that thrived in the wetland habitats.
Dyer and Moeka’a explained the man-made phenomenon of climate change and its consequences.
“Over decades there has been lots of greenhouse gases that have been emitted into the atmosphere, which has created a blanket over the globe,” Dyer said.
“And as that blanket has warmed up, the global temperature has shot up in the past 1000 years.”
Though some people in the Cook Islands may not be bothered by melting icebergs thousands of miles away, these icebergs will in fact have very real consequences for the outer islands, especially in the northern group.
Penrhyn is already seeing its sea level rise, and with the sea level expected to rise 3-4mm a year, which will soon see houses submerged.
Lagoons were another area that could soon be devoid of fish, as coastal erosion is making them shallower each year.
“Why should we be concerned when the lagoon is shallow? The water heats up faster, and it can kill the fishes, and in turn causes coral bleaching.”
As climate change takes away natural food sources and agriculture practises, Dyer encouraged adaption of livelihoods to the current environment as the way forward.
“We can’t just change the natural process, but maybe we can change the man-made process.”
Moeka’a mentioned that the CCCI currently have 51 projects that are working towards the fight of climate change, and ended their presentation by quoting former US president Barack Obama.
“Obama said we are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change, and the last generation who can do something about it.”