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How nations are coping with rising seas

By: Laura Moss on July 11, 2011, 10:19 a.m.
An aerial view of Male, the Maldives capital

Photo: Chumash Maxim/Shutterstock

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Seeking sovereignty

If a country disappears beneath the sea, is it still a country? Does it have fishing rights? What about a seat at the United Nations? Many small island states are seeking answers to these questions and exploring ways that they can exist as legal entities even if the entire population lives elsewhere.

The U.N. has yet to investigate these topics, but a seminar conceived by the Marshall Islands on "Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate" took place this year at Columbia Law School, attracting hundreds of international law experts. They say the first step is to define coastlines as they exist today and establish these as legal baselines. However, questions remain about what exactly constitutes an island’s baseline. Some say a set of fixed geographic points could define an island’s boundaries even after it’s no longer above sea level. Others argue that a baseline is defined as a coastline at low tide, which means a country’s territory decreases as its coastline erodes.