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The Island That Disappeared Because of Climate Change

Condé Nast Traveler Condé Nast Traveler 24/05/2015 Ken Jennings

Sometimes political maps change. The "State Union of Serbia and Montenegro" might divide into two separate nations, or Nigeria might decide to move its capital from Lagos to the newly built city of Abuja. But we don't expect the physical features on maps to change. Rivers, mountains, islands—these are supposed to be permanent, right? Not always. Here's the weird story of an empty island in the Bay of Bengal that only existed for about 40 years. And it spent pretty much that whole time stirring up trouble between India and Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is one giant river delta.

At the world's largest river delta, covering more than 41,000 square miles, the Ganges and Brahmaputra river system flows into the Bay of Bengal, after traveling downstream all the way from the Himalayas. The low-lying coastline is vulnerable to typhoons and earthquakes and rising seas, making Bangladesh one of the most fragile countries on Earth. The thousands of islands that scatter the delta are home to more than 13 million people.

A new island is born.

© World History Archive / Alamy

In 1974, an American satellite charted a new island just over a mile off the mouth of the Hariabhanga River. Scientists had spotted sandbars and tidal silt in the region before, but the island had apparently been made larger and more permanent by a furious 1970 tropical storm. The newborn island never rose higher than six feet above sea level, but as it stuck around, it grew in area. At low tide, it eventually extended two miles in length.

An international incident about nothing.

India and Bangladesh have been political rivals since the "partition" that divided them in 1947. This new island appeared just past their border at just the wrong time. Despite the fact that it was only uninhabited mud, both nations eagerly claimed the territory, with India even going so far as to plant a flag and send gunships in 1981. The two countries couldn't even agree on a name for the prize. India called the little shoal "New Moore Island," while to Bangladesh, it was "South Talpatti."

New Moore is no more.

Normally, nations divide rivers at their deepest point, and continue that boundary line out to sea until it reaches international waters. Bangladesh complained to the United Nations that this rule was unfair to a "concave" nation like Bangladesh, since all its borders would converge out to sea, effectively shrinking its access to the continental shelf and potential oil and gas deposits. A 2014 ruling by a U.N. tribunal agreed, and drew a more generous border for Bangladesh—but New Moore Island still fell within India's claim. Or it would have, except that four years earlier, the island had completely disappeared, thanks to climate change and erosion. That's one problem solved, but Bangladesh's problems with rising seas may have only just begun.

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