04/22/2012 12:46 am ET Updated May 20, 2013

When It Hits Home...

Around 10,000 years ago, while a group of 29 high volcanic islands crumbled back below the surface of the Central Pacific Ocean, tiny polyps banded together to form massive coral reef colonies, now known as the coral atoll nation of the Marshall Islands.

My parents kept a small retail store on one of the 29 atolls when I was very young, and from breakfast to dinner without stopping for lunch, I would swim and play with my cousins on the old bullet-ridden Japanese pier, beside manta rays jumping clear out of the water and Taroa, Maloelap's signature Terushima Maru listing to port. I still remember falling to sleep imagining that sunken WWII freighter guiding itself closer to dock.

Last week, after 16 years away, I returned to my childhood playground, the islands I grew up on. The journey normally takes about 25 minutes by plane, but this time it was 14 hours by boat. I plan to make at least two more trips this year, largely because the people who live there have given me a tremendous gift by electing me to represent them on the Maloelap Atoll Local Council. The first trip will be to collect different varieties of pandanus seedlings to plant on the urbanized capital atoll of Majuro, 100 miles south of Taroa. The pandanus is a deep-rooted tree with nourishing fruit, and is part of our limited arsenal to preserve both culture and coastline.

Some of my Marshallese friends liken today's warning of sea level rise to God's warning for Noah to "make thee an ark of gopher wood." As a result, Noah was prepared when sea levels shot up within 40 days and 40 nights. Will there even be a Majuro or a Taroa to speak of in 40 years?

Both my homes are now disappearing. Last week on Taroa, I saw that beaches have begun to creep inland, particularly during king tides. Coconut trees have fallen sideways, and even the Y-shaped pandanus branches now lean seaward, the sandy soil beneath inundated by the expanding ocean.

Thinking of it now, I am transported back to one youthful day on the Japanese pier on Taroa, when pink and orange clouds bedazzled the horizon. A few of us still remained after another full day swimming alongside manta rays, reluctant to go home. I sat transfixed by the fleeting sun, when a bright green flash of light suddenly burst out just as the sun sank below the waves. I was unsure of how refracted light could emit green amongst such different colors as orange and pink. I've only seen the green flash that one time, so I know it is rare.

It may be too late for the people of Taroa to hold back inundation, storm surges, erosion and other natural processes that are now amplified by climate change. But for now, the way I see it, climate change for Taroa will boil down to ensuring healthier coastlines, more sustainable methods of existence, and preparing our children to articulate their own imperiled future on or off these fragile islands.

I am reminded of plans raised last week on Tarao to establish a community-based Marine Protected Area, specifically to protect a school of mackerel that traditionally could only be harvested by scooping them out of the water with a special basket made from pandanus roots. Legend has it this school is magical and will never be depleted.

I think of all these things, and how they all add up to the enormous amount of work we must do, both because of and irrespective of climate change -- us on Taroa, the 53,000 others in the Marshall Islands, and the billions with whom we share this earth. There is so much work to do together. I think again of the old bullet-ridden pier, the green flash of my youth. Somehow, I know it will always be within my people's sight, and our home will not stay gone forever, but someday rise again, polyp by tiny polyp.

Mark Stege's Photos