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Sunday, August 01, 2004

POETIC LICENCE: Good news for the Flat Earth Society, but bad news for the Maldives

Scientists say something strange has been going on for the past four years. Earth’s gravity field has suddenly shifted gears and begun getting flatter, reversing a course of centuries during which the planet and its gravity field grew rounder each year. The scientists who noticed the change and reported it in Friday’s issue of the journal Science suspect Earth itself may be flattening out, with the oceans rising near the equator, but they aren’t sure.

Could it be, then, that the London-based Flat Earth Society will end up having the last laugh, telling us: “See! We always said that the Earth was flat.”

A country that is not likely to be laughing at this latest piece of news, however, is the island nation of Maldives. The highest point in the Maldives is only five feet above sea level, so it wouldn’t take much for the 1, 800 tiny coral atolls and sandbanks that form the miniscule South Asian nation to vanish below the sea.

If that were to happen, where would the Maldivians go? America wouldn’t take them, having become absolutely paranoid, post-September 11, about more immigration to the United States. Neither would Australia, given the recent brouhaha down under about refugees from Afghanistan trying to make it to Australia in leaky vessels. Australia sent one lot of refugees off to the South Pacific island nation of Nauru to cool their heels while the government debated whether to allow them entry into Australia.

Sri Lanka, which is only 800 miles from the Maldives, might agree to take some of them. But how many Maldivians would want to go to Sri Lanka given the civil war that has been raging in that country for years between Tamil separatist rebels in the Jaffna peninsula to the north and the beleaguered government in Colombo?

What about India, then? Again, unlikely. The only time India has ever shown any interest in its tiny neighbour was when New Delhi sent a bunch of Indian army commandos to the Maldives in the 1980s.

Bangladesh could be a possible candidate if it weren’t for the fact that most of that country itself is only a few feet above sea level and would probably disappear under the water if the oceans were to rise. As it is, much of Bangladesh is under water much of the time anyway, with torrential monsoon rains and periodic tidal waves submerging large tracts of the country.

Which leaves Pakistan. We have so many refugees and illegal immigrants living in this country, including several million Afghan refugees and an estimated one million Bengalis, that a couple of hundred thousand Maldivians also turning up here wouldn’t make much difference. The entire population of 250,000 could be accommodated in one corner of Karachi’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal neighbourhood with room to spare.

The Maldives were first inhabited around the 5th century BC by settlers from southern India and Sri Lanka. Legend has it that an itinerant Muslim scholar converted the islanders to Islam in 1153 AD. From 1558 to 1573 the islands were ruled by the Portuguese. In the 17th century government was by a sultanate, protected by the Dutch rulers of Sri Lanka (Ceylon). After the British took Ceylon in 1796 the Maldives became a British protectorate (formally so in 1887). Although the Maldive Islands were declared a republic in 1953, in the same year the country reverted to a sultanate. Full independence from Britain came in 1965, with the sultanate being replaced by a new republic in 1968.

Given this British connection, would the British government be prepared to allow the Maldivians to settle in the UK in the event of the South Asian nation disappearing under the sea? Again, it’s unlikely.

Only about 20 islands have Maldivian populations of more than 1,000. The nation’s economy depends heavily on tourism, with foreign tourists (350,000 in the year 2000) being channelled towards some 86 specially developed resorts. Despite its miniscule size, the Maldives is by far the most prosperous country in the South Asian region, with a GDP per head that, at over $ 1,000 a year, is twice that of India or Pakistan, and nearly 20 per cent more than Sri Lanka’s.

The long-term question, however, is the continued existence of the islands. A few years ago, Maldivian President Gayoom warned the developed world that global warming, by melting the ice-caps, would literally submerge the republic. Now, the country also has this business of the oceans rising near the equator as a result of the Earth flattening to worry about.

“Sometime around 1998, something began to make the Earth’s gravity field flatter,” says Christopher Cox of the US’s Raytheon Information Technology and Scientific Services. “The result is it looks as if post-glacial rebound has reversed itself.” It’s not a change anyone could notice; it’s only revealed by sensitive satellite measurements. The shift, however, is significant. “Whatever it is, it’s big,” Cox says.


(Original story here)


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