Combating Climate Change with Science in the Marshall Islands


Pacific Island Countries are fighting a climate security battle at their doorstep. Scientists predict the region’s low-lying coral atolls could become uninhabitable as early as the mid-21st century due to “overwash.” Rising waves and the subsequent flooding are expected to contaminate atolls’ essential sources of fresh water with such frequency that they are no longer able to fully desalinate between floods.

The Marshall Islands is one such nation, comprising more than 1,000 islands across 29 coral atolls with an average elevation of 2 meters above sea level, all strewn over an expanse of ocean that constitutes the world’s 19th largest exclusive economic zone.

In one of the most climate-vulnerable countries on Earth, the Marshallese community is rallying for solutions with the help of the United States Office of Naval Research. The Kwajalein Atoll Sustainability Laboratory (KASL) is one approach to the search for answers.

KASL is a new field experimentation research lab and nongovernmental organization. The space, envisioned as a gathering place and resource hub that will help Marshallese collect ideas on adapting to climate change, is on the Marshall Islands’ remote Ebeye Island on Kwajalein Atoll, the front lines of the Pacific battle against climate change.

Marshallese Sen. Kitlang Kabua conceived the idea for KASL, which was co-developed by Kwajalein Mayor Hirata Kabua with Ebeye City Manager Scott Paul and Kwajalein Sen. David Paul helping drive the lab’s success. A Marshallese entity, it is propelled by technical and research contributions by experts and scientists from the U.S., including Dr. Gregg Nakano, managing director, and Dr. Eric Rasmussen, research director and principal scientist, of the U.S. Office of Naval Research. The KASL team is working to meet Marshallese needs in research around climate adaptation, Rasmussen said.

One of the most visible initiatives took shape in July 2023. “Jebake Nest” is the KASL team’s first-year project, a research station with three core functions: collecting and storing key data from environmental sensors on the island; delivering accessible, offline community education resources that focus on science and climate; and serving as a shelter in a disaster.

One of the Marshallese priorities in climate adaptation is cultural preservation, and Jebake Nest highlights the convergence of modern science and Marshallese heritage. It was assembled by KASL team members and the Ebeye Marshallese community in one week, will last 30 years, can be adapted from a land-based shelter to a floating one, and cost $9,000 for materials that included polystyrene foam and concrete. Its design also pays homage to indigenous Marshallese homes from the 1800s. The project is named after the rare Marshallese hawksbill turtle and Ji-Jebake, the eponymous turtle goddess.

In local lore, Ji-Jibake is said to have rescued her granddaughter from an abusive relationship and spirited her away to an island that provided everything. “We found that the association with climate impact and adaptation fit well,” Rasmussen said.

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