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10.10b.4 West Pacific Islands

This source has two maps of the Pacific Ocean that show the location of Tuvalu. Tuvalu is south of Kiribati and the Marshall Islands and on the same latitude as Papua New Guinea.

United States. Central Intelligence Agency

United States Central Intelligence Agency. West Pacific Islands. [Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 1998] Map.

On the two maps above, find the tiny independent nation of Tuvalu, which will be the focus of this investigation. What island nations surround it? It has nine islands, all low-lying coral atolls, spread across 500,000 square miles of ocean. The land area of those atolls is about 10 square miles, and 11,000 people live in this densely populated nation. Most of the land is less than 6 feet above sea level. A coral atoll is a group of little islands on top of a coral reef shaped in a ring. Inside the ring is a lagoon of sea water. Because coral created the atoll land, it is only a few feet above sea level. Other South Pacific islands were created by volcanoes, which gives them tall mountains in the interior. All South Pacific nations face problems with flooding during storms, but nations like Tuvalu that are only made up of atolls could be destroyed entirely by sea level rise.

The islands that are now in the nation of Tuvalu were populated by Austronesian people between 1500 and 1000 BCE, in the same period as they spread out among all the islands of western Polynesia. Their use of double-outrigger canoes and expertise in navigating the deep ocean was the key to their expansion. Although they spoke similar languages and traveled and traded with people on other islands, their cultures later tended to become isolated and distinct. In the late nineteenth century, the British absorbed what they named the Ellice Islands into their empire. When Tuvalu became independent in 1978, its people chose to form a nation independent from Kiribati and other neighboring islands because the Tuvaluans had a distinct culture. However, as the fourth-smallest nation in the world and with no marketable natural resources, Tuvalu's viability is questionable.