Book Review: Sea Change: An Atlas of Islands in a Rising Ocean

Let me begin this review by saying that university presses and small presses have published some of the most creative and thought-provoking environmental literature I’ve read over the past few years.

In this case, I want to praise the University of California Press for publishing the impressive work of author Christina Gerhardt and her collaborators, a beautifully produced atlas that tells the stories of more than 50 islands and archipelagos through maps and geographic data, cultural and political histories and even poetry.

As an atlas, this book does an excellent job of getting you up to speed on the size of each island or island group, the number of people who live there, the languages they speak and a brief history.

Take the Republic of Nauru, an island of just eight square miles and also the world’s smallest independent island nation. According to Gerhardt, the island once boasted the world’s highest GDP thanks to its rich supply of phosphate (in the form of bird guano). But as phosphate supplies have dwindled so has industry and jobs, forcing the country to pivot towards incarceration — housing asylum seekers on behalf of Australia, a tragic state of affairs for an island once rich with rainforests, now struggling with high unemployment and rising waters. As the former president of Nauru, Marcus Stephens writes in a brief essay, “You’ve probably never heard of my country, and for that, I forgive you … but you will not forgive yourselves if you ignore our story.”

This book is an ode to islands large and small, north and south, and the many peoples who call them home. It is a book of science and stories and, yes, even hope amidst the rising waters.

Such as then you read about the Maldives — an archipelago of 200 inhabited islands that may be underwater by century’s end. And yet the country is geoengineering a higher-elevation island called Hulhumalé, funded by tourism dollars, to give their people a place to escape to without retreating to the mainland.

Finally, it’s worth underscoring how educational this book is, not just historically and culturally but environmentally. The visual below illustrates how critical oyster reefs are towards protecting shorelines (from the section on Deal Island in the Chesapeake Bay)

Some atlases grace coffee tables and are rarely opened. But I suspect this book would not gather dust and that’s a good thing as it deserves a wide audience. I guarantee anyone who reads it will come away with a better understanding of the world’s many islands and a desire to do something about protecting them.

Sea Change: An Atlas of Islands in a Rising Ocean
Christina Gerhardt
University of California Press

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