Sep 18, 2019

Sailing through a PhD – How the “Okeanos Marshall Islands” helped me with my research

What do the Marshall Islands and Bangladesh have in common? Not much one could argue, since the small island – or big ocean – state has only 74,500 inhabitants and a total landmass of about the size of Washington D.C.  far away from continental coastlines whereas Bangladesh is home to more than 162 million people,  who live in a largely deltaic area in the Bay of Bengal. While vastly different in their demographics, geography and economy, both countries are at the forefront of expected climate change impacts. Subsistence farmers in Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands are struggling to adapt to changing weather patterns, soil erosion, salinization and extreme climate events. In some cases, people are no longer able to derive sufficient income from their land and therefore suffer food insecurity, which often leads to the decision to migrate to nearby urban centers.

Throughout my PhD research I interviewed more than eighty farmers, fishermen and local experts, to try to understand whether migration is an effective adaptation to climate change. My book which includes two case studies, one on the Marshall Islands and one on Bangladesh, has just been published by the LIT Verlag, an academic publisher in Germany.

Kira Vinke during an interview in Ailuk Atoll

Conducting research in the Marshall Islands was an extraordinary experience. To reach the outer atolls is not easy because of rare and frequently unreliable sea and air transport. Thus, without the help of the Okeanos Foundation I could not have realized my PhD project in this part of the world. We sailed on a Vaka Motu, the “Okeanos Marshall Islands”, from the capital Majuro to the outer islands of Maloelap and Ailuk.

The Vaka Motu ‘Okeanos Marshall Islands’

The journey on the boat was full of new experiences. During the day, I learned from the wonderful crew a lot about sailing, about waves, and knots, on how to make entries in the log book. Sometimes we got lucky and dolphins accompanied us for a while, swimming like silver arrows alongside the boat. We ate fresh fish from the ocean and a lot of coconuts. In our spare time we sang songs together and to each other. The sunsets on the open ocean are something I will never forget. An explosion of color before darkness set in. At night the sky was filled with stars.

Kira Vinke and Okeanos Marshall Islands crew member Iva Vunikura at the hoi

Although we had some rough weather in between, the canoe with its two bows moved smoothly over large waves. When we didn’t use the sail, we relied on the coconut oil-powered motor, which enables the canoe to run without fossil fuel imports. The first sight of land after two days of travel was marvelous and made me understand on a different, more personal level how precious our various ecosystems are.

Kira and the crew of Okeanos Marshall Islands

Once we arrived on the outer islands, we found out that many people who are now considering migrating would rather remain on their home island, but they foresee difficulties to sustain themselves in the future. The most frequently cited risks are the salinization of previously fertile soils, freshwater scarcity, prolonged droughts and inundations due to king tides and rising sea levels. Many people’s monetary income is dependent on the sale of copra, dried coconut. However, prices are attached to government subsidies and the infrequent transport availability affects their business. Often people who move to the urban center of Majuro or abroad to the US because they no longer have the ability to produce crops are confronted by another set of challenges.

In Majuro the dependence on imported food and limited work opportunities weigh heavily on the migrant’s wellbeing. In the US some reports point to cultural alienation because certain traditions which are tied to environment-based livelihoods can no longer be practiced abroad.  Due to these foreseeable challenges many people in the outer islands try to adapt as much as possible to the changing climate in their home environment. One of the conclusions of my study is that in both countries, Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands, migration does not necessarily enable people to re-establish their previous living conditions and quality of life.

Before the publication of my thesis, I had to present my PhD work to a scientific committee and answer to their questions. After this doctoral defense I received a very special gift from my colleagues: a doctoral cap with a miniature “Okeanos Marshall Islands”! It was such a surprise and I was overwhelmed  with joy and excitement.

Kira Vinke after her successful doctoral defense

The hat has now found a place near my desk at home, and every time I look at it, I am reminded of what it takes to sail through a PhD: A good crew.

Blog by Dr. Kira Vinke for Okeanos Foundation for the Sea, September 2019

Dr. Kira Vinke leads the EPICC project (East Africa Peru India Climate Capacities) at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

Vinke, K. (2019): Unsettling Settlements: Cities, Migrants, Climate Change – Rural-Urban Climate Migration as Effective Adaptation?, Lit Verlag


Droughts, sea-level rise, crop failures – against the background of dramatic challenges in a changing climate Kira Vinke examines the effectiveness of migration as one probable form of adaptation. Her research concludes that only preventative migration can be labeled as adaptation to the threatening changes and that frequently migration falls short of maintaining or improving people’s standard of living after relocation. Often, it merely ensures survival. Vinke’s illuminating study which led her to Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands appeals to policy makers to responsibly manage preventative outmigration if there is no option to protect exposed regions as human habitats.