The rising ocean is swallowing the Marshall Islands, and the tiny nation’s 61,000 residents are wondering: What then? Will they still have a country, complete with a UN seat, and control of their fisheries and now-submerged minerals? “We’re facing a set of issues unique in the history of the system of nation-states,” one adviser to the islands tells the AP. The island is expected to be underwater by 2100, but is already becoming uninhabitable, as the ocean dumps salt into its water supply.
The Marshallese government has asked Columbia University’s legal scholars to research the issues for them. They’ve found plenty of instances of nations fading, usually through conquest or annexation. But “no country has ever physically disappeared,” says the head of the university’s Center for Climate Change Law. “It’s a real void in the law.” Perhaps the thorniest question: What happens to the 800,000 square miles of ocean the islands have exclusive fishing rights to? Most of the nation's income comes from leasing those waters. (Read more Marshall Islands stories.)