So far, most atolls winning the sea level rise battle (Pacific Institute of Public Policy)

So far, most atolls winning the sea level rise battle

An increasing number of atoll studies are not supporting claims of Pacific island leaders that “islands are sinking.” Scientific studies published this year show, for example, that land area in Tuvalu’s capital atoll of Funafuti grew seven percent over the past century despite significant sea level rise. Another study reported that 23 of 27 atoll islands across Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Federated States of Micronesia either increased in area or remained stable over recent decades.

Speaking about Kiribati, Canadian climatologist Simon Donner commented in the Scientific American: ‘Right now it is clear that no one needs to immediately wall in the islands or evacuate all the inhabitants. What the people of Kiribati and other low-lying countries need instead are well-thought-out, customized adaption plans and consistent international aid — not a breathless rush for a quick fix that makes the rest of the world feel good but obliges the island residents to play the part of helpless victim.’

These same climate scientists who are conducting ongoing research in Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands acknowledge the documented fact of sea level rise in the Pacific, and the potential threat this poses. But they are making the point, as articulated by Donner, that ‘the politicized public discourse on climate change is less nuanced than the science of reef islands.’

A recent report carried in Geology, the publication of the Geological Society of America, says Tuvalu has experienced ‘some of the highest rates of sea level rise over the past 60 years.’ At the same time, ‘no islands have been lost, the majority have enlarged, and there has been a 7.3 percent increase in net island area over the past century.’

To gain international attention to climate concerns and motivate funding to respond to what is described as climate damage, political leaders from the Pacific are predicting dire consequences.

The future viability of the Marshall Islands — and all island nations — is at stake,’ Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony deBrum told the global climate meeting in Peru last December.

‘It keeps me awake at night,’ said Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga in a recent interview. ‘Will we survive? Or will we disappear under the sea?’

Obviously, statements of island leaders at international meetings and the observations of recent scientific reports are at odds. Does it matter?

Comments Donner: ‘Exaggeration, whatever its impetus, inevitably invites backlash, which is bad because it can prevent the nation from getting the right kind of help.’

If we want to grab headlines, the ‘disappearing island’ theme is good. But to find solutions to, for example, the increasing number of ocean inundations that are occurring requires well-thought out plans.

Scientists studying these low-lying islands should be seen as allies, whose information can be used to focus attention on key areas of need. For example, the New Zealand and Australian scientists working in Tuvalu said their results “show that islands can persist on reefs under rates of sea level rise on the order of five millimeters per year.” With sea level rates projected to double in the coming years, ‘it is unclear whether islands will continue to maintain their dynamic adjustment at these higher rates of change,’ they said. ‘The challenge for low-lying atoll nations is to develop flexible adaptation strategies that recognize the likely persistence of islands over the next century, recognize the different modes of island change, and accommodate the ongoing dynamism of island margins.’

Developing precise information on atoll nations as these scientists are doing is needed to inform policy makers and local residents as people are inundated with discussion about — and, possibly, outside donor funding for — ‘adaptation’ and ‘mitigation’ in these islands.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal in the Marshall Islands hired internationally recognized scientists and medical doctors to advise it on such things as radiation exposure standards for nuclear test clean up programs and medical conditions deserving of compensation, while evaluating U.S. government scientific studies on the Marshall Islands. These scientists and doctors provided knowledge and advice that helped inform the compensation and claims process.

It seems this nuclear test-related model would be of significant benefit to islands in the region, by linking independent climate scientists with island governments so there is a connection between science and climate policies and actions of governments.

If we want to grab headlines, the ‘disappearing island’ theme is good. But to find solutions to, for example, the increasing number of ocean inundations that are occurring requires well-thought out plans.

‘The reality is that the next few decades for low-lying reef islands will be defined by an unsexy, expensive slog to adapt,’ wrote Donner in the Scientific American. ‘Success will not come from single land purchase or limited-term aid projects. It will come from years of trial and error and a long-term investment by the international community in implementing solutions tailored to specific locales.’ He comments that a World Bank-supported adaptation program in Kiribati took eight years of consultation, training, policy development and identifying priorities to finally produce a plan of action. And even then, when they rolled out sea walls for several locations, there were design faults that need to be fixed. Donner’s observation about Kiribati could equally apply to the rest of the Pacific: “Responding to climate change in a place like Kiribati requires a sustained commitment to building local scientific and engineering capacity and learning from mistakes.”

It is excellent advice.

Image: Low-lying islands, such as Majuro Atoll pictured here, are changing due to storms, erosion, high tides, seawalls and causeways, and sea level rise. But few are disappearing. Photo credit: Isaac Marty

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