When somebody mentions “Maldives”, the image above of a tropical paradise often springs to mind. Andy Revkin wrote a story recently about the Maldives on his NYT Dot Earth blog that provoked quite an email exchange that I was privy to today. Here are some highlights. First the article:
By Andrew C. Revkin March 16, 2009, 8:39 am
No spot in the Maldives is more than six feet above sea level. (Click here for a narrated slide show describing this reporter’s first visit to the Maldives, in 1980.)
The Maldives, a strand of coral atolls south of India, is just about the most tenuous country on Earth. No patch of land in the island chain, where the population has risen from 200,000 to 400,000 in the last 25 years, is more than six feet or so above sea level. Even modest projections for a rise in sea level from global warming would increase flooding from storm surges. A higher rise could render hundreds of islands uninhabitable.
That’s why the country has paid particularly close attention, since the early days of discussion of the issue, to scientists who warn of a growing human influence on climate and sea levels. On Sunday, the new president of the island nation, Mohamed Nasheed, prodded the world to get serious about cutting emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases by pledging, in a short piece in England’s Observer newspaper, to make the Maldives the first carbon-neutral country within a decade:
Many politicians’ response to the looming catastrophe, however, beggars belief. Playing a reckless game of chicken with Mother Nature, they prefer to deny, squabble and procrastinate rather than heed the words of those who know best…. Spearheaded by a switch from oil to 100% renewable energy production within a decade, the Maldives will no longer be a net contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
The announcement was made in the Maldives, but synchronized with the London premiere of ” The Age of Stupid,” a new film on global warming and oil that is a mix of documentary, dramatization and animation. (I haven’t seen it yet, but the description reminds me of the work of Randy Olson, particularly his mock documentary ” Sizzle.”) Officials in the Maldives made the decision after soliciting a report on how to cut fossil fuel use and otherwise trim the country’s climate footprint from Chris Goodall and Mark Lynas, British environmentalists and authors of books on energy and climate.
The proposal recommended a mix of wind turbines, rooftop photovoltaic panels and a backup power plant that burns coconut husks (coconut is a substantial export), among other steps. The estimated cost: about $1.1 billion over 10 years. But the new energy options could pay off in the long run by greatly reducing the country’s reliance on imported oil, the report concluded.
The early concern about global warming by officials in the Maldives was visible as far back as 1988, as shown in this vignette from my first (and long out of print) book on climate, “Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast”:
Perhaps the most straightforward projections of what a greenhouse future will bring in coming decades are those related to rising seas. A foot-and-a-half rise doesn’t sound like much – unless you live in a place that just barely pokes above the ocean. I learned this when I went to Toronto in 1988 to report on the First International Conference on the Changing Atmosphere. Most of the discussions centered on devising strategies to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from automobiles, power plants, and the burning of tropical forests. Among those in attendance was Hussein Manikfan, who holds the title Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Permanent Representative to the United Nations from the republic of Maldives.
At first it seemed odd to find a representative from the Maldives at the meeting. The country, a sprinkling of 1,190 coral islets in the Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka, has no tropical forests, hardly any automobiles, and little industry beyond the canning of bonito. I spoke for a while with Manikfan. Why was he in Toronto? “To find out how much longer my country will exist,” was his simple reply.
Manikfan is worried because few of the islands have any point that is more than six feet above sea level. Even now, many of the atolls are awash during strong storms. The fear is that Manikfan’s nation – with a tradition of independence dating back thousands of years and its own language and alphabet – might have to be abandoned altogether, as if it were a slowly sinking ship.
Now for the geographically challenged, the map:
Dr. Don Easterbrook responded today to Andy Revkin with this email, cc:d to me
I just read your article on sea level alarm in the Maldives. You may not be aware of a study there by Nils-Axel Morner, a Swedish sea level expert (former president of the INQUA Commission of Sea Level Changes and Coastal Evolution). Attached is photographic evidence by Morner that sea level in the Maldives is not rising relative to the coasts but has indeed fallen! Global sea level has been rising at a rate of about a foot per century but the Maldives are either rising or subject to a local sea level anomaly related to ocean currents and evaporation rates. Thus, the ‘poster child’ of Gore’s sea level alarm is invalid.
The photographs he attached are interesting to say the least, click for larger images:
And soon others were jumping in. Tom Harris quoted a study from Nils-Axel Mörner and provided a plot from Nils-Axel Mörner’s study of sea level using C14 isotope dating.
While Andrew does not personally say that sea level rise will swamp the Maldives soon, he implies he agrees with the scenario by including nothing at all to counter the validity of the Maldivian announcement. I suggest Andrew read about Morner’s work and get an expansion of the below misleading piece published right away. You can download (for the next 7 days) one of Dr. Morner’s most recent papers on the topic at http://tinyurl.com/dhz6gk . Note the below graph from that report, especially.
Note also the Feb 2009 report of the SWEDISH SOUTH ASIAN STUDIES NETWORK at Lund U (a large, respected and very old school in Sweden) at http://www.sasnet.lu.se/maldives09.html, in which they conclude, “In June 2004, Prof. Mörner published his research results in an article titled ”The Maldives Project: a future free from sea-level flooding” in the Contemporary South Asia magazine. However, the Maldivian government did not react positively to these findings since they went against the official policy, even though the facts presented seem to be beyond dispute and are confirmed in private by individual Maldivian researchers.” I have submitted a letter to the editor to the NYT on this and I’ll let people know if it is published.
Andy Revkin responded with:
Has anyone on this list assessed this Indian Ocean / Pacific sea level study — http://bit.ly/IndianOceanSeaLevel — which seems to challenge Morner’s analysis?
To which Nils-Axel Mörner replied:
The paper by Church et al. represent desk-work at the computers. Tide gauges have to be treated with care. There are pitfalls both withrespect to stability (compaction, etc) and cyclic patterns (disqualifying regressionline approaches).Our Mildives story is based on multiple criteria: off-shore, on-shore, lagoonal, back-shore, swamp environment.Ditailed morphology (in different environmental settings) is combined with stratigraphy and biological index + numerous C14-dates.Also, our team of researchers is very strong.
Have you heard of the Australian study on 12 Pacific islands, some of them mentioned by Church? They used much more reliable equipment than the others. They claimed an upward trend but this was done by the dishonest use of a linear regression which made use of the temporary depression on all the records caused by the 1988 hurricane. If you look at the actual records in their report (attached) and ignore this temporary event you will find that there was no change for the last sixteen years. The website of the Australian Bureau of meteorology has individual and summarizing reports on this project at
The Geology speaks for itself!
As Morner points out, Church,, White, and Hunter applied a number of regional ‘corrections’ to the basic tide gauge record and calculated averages of a large region to arrive at their conclusion that sea level was rising in the Maldives. This is akin to putting one foot in a bed of hot coals and the other in a bucket of ice, averaging the temperature, and concluding that you should be quite comfortable! Putting aside the arguments around tide gauge levels, the geologic evidence appears to be indisputable and indicates conclusively that the sea levels at the sites shown in Morners paper cannot be submerging. You’re a smart guy–look at the geologic evidence in the two attached photos and judge for yourself.Figure 1 shows a post-1970 wave-cut notch eroded into the pre-1970 shore platform. You cannot do that with a submerging coastline. (The platform should be under water if the island is submerging, not being eroded at a lower level). This is a classic example of an emergent shoreline, the kind you can see in any geologic textbook.Figure 2 shows the present high tide line, the 1970 shoreline, and a pre-1970 shoreline. If the island has been submerging since 1970, as contended by Church,, White, and Hunter, the present high tide line should be above the 1970 shoreline, not below it!Any regional analysis of average sea level changes cannot trump the geologic evidence at the two sites shown. The geologic evidence is site specific, just like each foot in the coals and ice bucket. The average is meaningless.
So it boils down to this: Who would you rather believe? People doing studies on-site and gathering photographic evidence that shows clear geologic actions of lowered sea levels on the islands, or somebody sitting in an office analyzing and doing regressions on tide gauge data when they’ve never even done and checking on the quality control of the gauges themselves? Here’s one from Tasmania from this CSIRO report:
I’m sure that old algae covered dock is stable enough to use for “calibration”. Surely no possibility of shifting, or sinking there.
The description reads:
The tide gauge Luka Koper is located in northern part of Adriatic in Koper bay at the industrial pier grounded to the bottom with piles.
Here’s one in Alaska:
Here’s another, at Cape Ferguson in Australia, from BOM:
IMHO The idea that a dock (or piling) is a long term stable measurement platform is simply ludicrous. Piles sink, structures decay, boats whack them, pounding wave action loosens their grip. One feature missing from all these old style tide gauges is any way to reference the long term level of the gauge itself. In the era of GPS we can start doing this, but in the years past, how much is from simple sinking of the pilings over time? When you are looking for millimeters per year, such things become significant.
Gee, and I thought weather station measurement issues were bad. Scientists really do need to get out more. Perhaps the next IPCC conference can be in the Maldives instead of Bali. I volunteer to run beach tours to show water level notches. – Anthony