(This story is part of a big collaboration between the Energy and Environment fellows at Columbia and investigative groups in Germany and France. To view the data visualization that leads the project, please click here)
In the Philippine sea an island, which has enormous strategic importance for Japan, is slowly sinking. Scientists are trying to grow baby coral on the rock to save it – and spending millions of dollars on the experiment.
A thousand miles off the coast of south Tokyo, two tiny outcrops gasp for breath in a swallowing ocean. Breaking waves form an oval ring around the crests, the sputtering remains of Japan’s farthest reach in the Philippine Sea.
The Japanese have named the boulders Okinotorishima, or the ‘distant bird island’. Formed by an isolated submerged reef, it is the country’s southernmost point, one that provides an exclusive 160,000-square mile claim to these highly lucrative and strategic waters.
Okinotorishima provides more ocean dominion than the entire archipelago of Japan, but international recognition of the claim remains elusive. Countries such as China and Korea argue that only two rocks are visible at high tide, and therefore not a habitable island that can command its nation’s claim to the seas.
And as ocean levels rise, Japan’s claim is becoming increasingly untenable. Projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicate that sea levels could rise as much as 98 centimeters by the end of this century.
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