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Sunk by global warming? Wave goodbye to this disputed island

India and Bangladesh have been trying to snatch from each other a tiny landmass that first surfaced in the 1970s in the Bay of Bengal. It has resubmerged, an apparent casualty of climate change.

March 25, 2010|By Mark Magnier

Reporting from New Delhi — Global warming appears to have finally resolved a dispute that gunboats never could: An island midway between India and Bangladesh that became a catalyst for military threats in the 1980s is now submerged under the rising sea.The Bay of Bengal island, which India called New Moore Island and Bangladesh referred to as South Talpatti, has ceased to exist, the Jadavpur University's School of Oceanic Studies declared this week.

Sugata Hazra, director of the program, said he started looking at satellite imagery recently after reading news reports that the island, which peaked at 1.3 miles long and 1.1 miles wide, was actually becoming larger. Close examination failed to reveal anything. He then checked with local fishermen.

"They confirmed the island had gone sometime back," he said. "We raised the alarm that we'd better take stock of how much loss is occurring."

The tiny island was first noticed after a severe cyclone in the early 1970s. Both countries soon laid claim amid speculation that there might be oil or natural gas beneath its sandy shores.

No permanent structures were ever built on it, but in 1981 India sent gunboats and coast guard members planted a flag. As soon as the Indians would sail away, security experts said, Bangladeshis would take the banner down.

Now, Hazra joked, a submarine may be more appropriate than a gunboat.

The island began shrinking in the 1990s, part of an 81-square-mile decline in land mass in the Bay of Bengal's Sunderbans mudflats over the last 40 years, Hazra said. And 27 square miles more has been lost to erosion.

In the 1990s, the island was only 2 meters above sea level, part of a low-lying delta extremely vulnerable to the rising sea.

Though the political hullabaloo between the populous neighbors over ownership of the island appears moot, the debate over the dividing line remains important, given India's continuing bid to define its borders, said Sreeradha Datta, a research fellow at New Delhi's Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a think tank.

"All the fighting was over nothing," she said. "But we still want to use the middle line to deal with our maritime boundary, which is becoming a hot issue."

"It was an amusing case of how a big country tries to bully a smaller country," said Sanjoy Hazarika, New Delhi-based analyst with the Center for North East Studies and Policy Research think tank. "This didn't go down as a great moment of Indian diplomacy."

As for the future, a United Nations panel predicted that 17% of Bangladesh will disappear by 2050, displacing 20 million people, if water levels rise by 3.3 feet, as some expect.

"There's a lesson here that the world should learn while negotiating over territory," Hazra said. "It's not whether some country makes a gain. It's whether we all collectively win or lose given the impact we're seeing on the global environment."

mark.magnier

@latimes.com

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