The Irony, It Burns …

Anthony commented yesterday on the question of atolls and sea level rise here, and I had previously written on the subject in my post “Floating Islands“. However, Anthony referenced a paper which was incorrectly linked by New Scientist. So I thought I’d provide some more information on the actual study, entitled “The dynamic response of reef islands to sea level rise: evidence from multi-decadal analysis of island change in the central pacific”, by Arthur Webb and Paul Kench.

One of the ironies of the new paper involves the atoll of Amatuku in the island nation of Tuvalu. Amatuku became the first poster child of “drowning atolls” due to an article in the July/August 2003 issue of Sierra Magazine, the magazine of the Sierra Club. The article was entitled “High Tide in Tuvalu”, with the sub-title “In the tropical Pacific, climate change threatens to create a real-life Atlantis.” Here’s a recent photo of “Atlantis”:

Figure 1. Photo taken in the South Pacific nation of Tuvalu (8°S, 179°E), showing Amatuku Atoll and the abandoned causeway. PHOTO SOURCE

In the Sierra Magazine article the author described the terrifying effects of “global warming” on Amatuku Atoll, site of the Tuvalu Maritime Training Institute:

To explain global warming in stark detail, all Tito Tapungao has to do is show a visitor around the grounds of his school. Dressed in his sailor’s pressed whites, the chief executive officer of the Tuvalu Maritime Training Institute points out a small brick cabin built by missionaries in 1903. Now, a century later, annual high tides rise halfway up the bedposts.

YIKES! Be very afraid. So what is the irony in the new study?

Well, I’ll get to that. But first, a bit of history. The Sierra Magazine article was what impelled me to write my 2004 paper (Word Doc) on Tuvalu. I read that article, and my urban legend detector started ringing like crazy. Consider: the missionaries’ cabin was likely built a metre or so above high tide. Add another half metre for the floor, and a half metre to get “halfway up the bedposts” … no way, I thought, that the sea level has risen two metres in Tuvalu.

Upon further investigation, I found out that the answer was already known, because geologists had studied (pdf) the area. They found the changes in the shape of Amatuku Atoll were a result of changing currents from major alterations made in the reef during World War Two. A channel was cut from the lagoon to Amatuku, and a causeway was constructed between Amatuku and nearby Malitefale Atoll. Fill to make the causeway came from “borrow pits”, holes dug in the reef flats to provide coral rubble for the construction. And some decades after the war, further borrow pits were dug to provide building materials for the Maritime Institute. The swimmers in the Fig. 1 are swimming in one of the old borrow pits. Here’s an aerial view of the changes:

Figure 2. Amatuku and Malitefale Atolls, Tuvalu, South Pacific. Amatuku is less than a kilometre long.

As you can see, the changes in the reef structure were quite extensive. All of these alterations in the reef changed the currents around the two atolls. And of course, as a result, the shape of the atolls changed. This change in shape is to be expected – after all, atolls are just piles of sand and rubble in the middle of a wild ocean. One of the results was the erosion (not from CO2, not from warming, not from sea level rise, but erosion from man-made changes in the reef) of the corner of the atoll where the missionaries’ cabin was located.

Over the years since I published my paper, I’ve taken a lot of heat for my claims. I’ve gotten plenty of irate emails from folks in Tuvalu and around the world, emails castigating me for suggesting that the rising sea levels won’t drown the atolls, emails impugning my ancestry, emails saying we’d soon see thousands of “climate refugees” from Tuvalu, emails proposing that I perform anatomically implausible acts of sexual auto-congress, and mostly emails saying that I was clearly wrong, that it was patently obvious that rising sea levels would inevitably drown the atolls, duh, so there.

OK, enough history. I got a pre-publication copy of the current paper under discussion from one of my secret underground (underwater?) sources, my thanks to WS. The abstract of the paper says (emphasis mine):


Low-lying atoll islands are widely perceived to erode in response to measured and future sea level rise. Using historical aerial photography and satellite images this study presents the first quantitative analysis of physical changes in 27 atoll islands in the central Pacific over a 19 to 61 year period. This period of analysis corresponds with instrumental records that show a rate of sea level rise of 2.0 mm.y-1 in the Pacific.

Results show that 86% of islands remained stable (43%) or increased in area (43%) over the timeframe of analysis. Largest decadal rates of increase in island area range between 0.1 to 5.6 hectares. Only 14% of study islands exhibited a net reduction in island area. Despite small net changes in area, islands exhibited larger gross changes. This was expressed as changes in the planform configuration and position of islands on reef platforms. Modes of island change included: ocean shoreline displacement toward the lagoon; lagoon shoreline progradation; and, extension of the ends of elongate islands. Collectively these adjustments represent net lagoonward migration of islands in 65% of cases.

Results contradict existing paradigms of island response and have significant implications for the consideration of island stability under ongoing sea level rise in the central Pacific. First, islands are geomorphologically persistent features on atoll reef platforms and can increase in island area despite sea level change. Second; islands are dynamic landforms that undergo a range of physical adjustments in responses to changing boundary conditions, of which sea level is just one factor. Third, erosion of island shorelines must be reconsidered in the context of physical adjustments of the entire island shoreline as erosion may be balanced by progradation on other sectors of shorelines. Results indicate that the style and magnitude of geomorphic change will vary between islands. Therefore, Island nations must place a high priority on resolving the precise styles and rates of change that will occur over the next century and reconsider the implications for adaption.

Ahhh, vindication is sweet. The authors agreed totally with what I had written in 2004. Rising sea levels don’t destroy atolls, and their shape is always changing. Exactly what I had taken so much heat for saying.

In addition to the Abstract, the Conclusions of the paper are quite interesting. Here are some extracts (emphasis mine):


The future persistence of low-lying reef islands has been the subject of considerable international concern and scientific debate. Current rates of sea level rise are widely believed to have destabilised islands promoting widespread erosion and threatening the existence of atoll nations. This study presents analysis of the physical change in 27 atoll islands located in the central Pacific Ocean over the past 20 to 60 years, a period over which instrumental records indicate an increase in sea level of the order of 2.0 mm y-1.

The results show that island area has remained largely stable or increased over the timeframe of analysis. Forty-three percent of islands increased in area by more than 3% with the largest increases of 30% on Betio (Tarawa atoll) and 28.3% on Funamanu (Funafuti atoll [the main atoll in Tuvalu – w.]). There is no evidence of large scale reduction in island area despite the upward trend in sea level. Consequently, islands have predominantly been persistent or expanded in area on atoll rims for the past 20 to 60 years.

… Results of this study contradict widespread perceptions that all reef islands are eroding in response to recent sea level rise. Importantly, the results suggest that reef islands are geomorphically resilient landforms that thus far have predominantly remained static or grown in area over the last 20 – 60 years. Given this positive trend, reef islands may not disappear from atoll rims and other coral reefs in the near-future as speculated. However, islands will undergo continued geomorphic change. Based on the evidence presented in this study it can be expected that the pace of geomorphic change may increase with future accelerated sea level rise. Results do not suggest that erosion will not occur. Indeed, as found in 15% of the islands in this study, erosion may occur on some islands. Rather, island erosion should be considered as one of a spectrum of geomorphic changes that have been highlighted in this study and which also include: lagoon shoreline progradation; island migration on reef platforms; island expansion and island extension. The specific mode and magnitude of geomorphic change is likely to vary between islands. Therefore, island nations must better understand the pace and diversity of island morphological change and consider the implications of island persistence and morphodynamics for future adaptation.

Couldn’t say it better myself … and oh, yeah, what about the irony?

Well, Amatuku, the poster child of disappearing atolls, the threatened “real-life Atlantis”, home of the disappearing missionaries’ cabin, happened to be one of the atolls considered in the study. The authors found that despite the loss of the missionaries’ cabin, Amatuku increased in area by about 5% over the nineteen year period during which it was studied … ah, the irony, it burns.


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Nice post Willis. It seems that New scientist’s error in linking to the wrong paper is creating its own urban legend. …

Yup, the NS linked to the wrong paper all right, that’s what I get for rushing. I was late for an appointment but wanted to get the post up. Thanks for showing the right paper.
And I commend you for resisting baser urges in commentary. 😉


Getting attention from the press too. From Lawrence Solomon of the National Post:
“Call off the evacuation: Pacific Islands are expanding”

James Sexton

Very nice! Enjoy your vindication, you deserve it! ……”anatomically implausible acts of sexual auto-congress,”…………that’s a hoot!! Can I use that?


And sometimes flogging the global warming story is a cover up to the fact that since WW2 Islanders have used western technologies, including dynamite and poisons to greatly over harvest their reef’s fish populations and when there are few fish, there is little coral turned into fish poop, or as it is otherwise referred to as island building sand.
Better to blame Westerners than look in the mirror . . . just lay some guilt on them and they’ll ship you truckloads of money to assuage the social injustice they believe they inflict on humanity.

el gordo

In reality, most of the Pacific islands are growing.

Ian L. McQueen

But, but, but…..what about that cabin? Had it sunk, or what?


Thanks Willis for a great post!
This is another good example of the rubbish science being pushed by the IPCC cabal.
Sea-watergate anyone?


“el gordo says:
June 3, 2010 at 2:15 pm
In reality, most of the Pacific islands are growing.

ABC???? I thought they were the australian BBC! What happened?

Steve Keohane

This is too rich Willis, I think I hear the bursting of another cataclysmic bubble.

D Caldwell

It really bites when facts get in the way of a good story!
Having to evacuate low-lying islands due to sea level rise is a great piece of propaganda.
Don’t expect the alarmists to surrender this territory easily.

Willis Eschenbach

James Sexton says:
June 3, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Very nice! Enjoy your vindication, you deserve it! ……”anatomically implausible acts of sexual auto-congress,”…………that’s a hoot!! Can I use that?

Yeah, I was kinda proud of that one. As to its use, I toss my thoughts and words onto the electronic winds, in the hope that they will find fertile ground and flourish, so you are free to use any and all.

Hu McCulloch

So how did the cabin sink? Was it undermined by the erosion? Wouldn’t such erosion destroy the cabin? (Unless, as seems unlikely, it was built on a concrete slab)


I also enjoyed reading that “nobody knows” what sea level increase rate coral can keep up with. Actually, it’s well known that the reef building corals (genera Acropora, Montipora, etc) grow at 6″/year, i.e 150+mm/year vs recently measured seal level increase rates of 3mm/year. Even the slowest growing stony corals grow at 50mm/year. Reefs are in no danger of drowning; in fact they sort of “press up” against the sea surface as they grow.

Steve from Rockwood

“anatomically implausible acts of sexual auto-congress”
Makes me wonder what is going on over at the Senate.

I knew it – global warming leads to anatomically implausible acts of sexual auto-congress … Rush this peer-reviewed verdict into the next IPCC report – even the denialists will fall silent … The tone of such scholars really carries the ring of truth doesn’t it. Willis, all you can do is get a certificate from your doctor verifying that you are not a hermaphrodite.

John W. Garrett

Congratulations ( but don’t let it go to your head! ) I am not alone in enjoying and relying on your work.
“One horse laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.”
-H. L. Mencken
( who knew something about the ‘tyranny of the majority’ )


”anatomically implausible acts of sexual auto-congress,”
Jeez stop giving Pachauri ideas for his next novel he’s been blowing his own horn long enough.

Retired Engineer

I thought coral reefs grew over time, as long as you don’t mess with the Parrot fish …


OK, OK, we get the joke. You toss your thoughts in the hope that they will find fertile ground and flourish. Whereas Onan spilled his seed on the ground etc. If you keep working this theme, you’ll sound like a bit of a tosser …


Thank you, Dr. Nils Axel Mørner, for standing tall against the IPCC;

Steve Fitzpatrick

I think you can count on one or more rushed-to-print studies that are poorly done and weakly reviewed, designed only to cast doubt on these results. I expect things like…. the results don’t apply to “most atolls”, poor study methodology, funding of the study by “vested interests”, the authors are “closet flat-earthers”,”have conflicts of interest”, or are “not respected in their field”, etc, etc….. any kind of drivel that could be used to cast even a tiny shred of doubt, so that Real Climate and their ilk can loudly dismiss the study as “discredited”. We’ve all seen this movie before.

Richard G

Way to go Willis! As Gordo says, the tropical islands are growing. Why? They are alive with reef building organisms. Darwin’s theory of atoll creation was that as sea level rises or land forms (volcanoes) subside, corals grow upwards to maintain their height relative to sea level, resulting in the formation of lagoons surrounded by barrier reefs. The biosphere rocks.

Mr. Alex

Forgive me, OT but the Hathaway Prediction graph has been updated for June 2010. Rmax prediction has dropped (once again) to around 65 in 2013.
Judging by how these sunspot counts have been inflated, a Layman’s Rmax may be around 40! Exciting times!

Gary Hladik

More irony: So-called “environmentalists” have incorrectly blamed Easter Island’s inhabitants for self-inflicted “ecocide”; they were in fact victims of visitors more technologically advanced.
Today, in our more “enlightened” age, certain islands are threatened by mostly home-grown problems such as overpopulation, overfishing, and development; “environmentalists”, however, blame outsiders more technologically advanced.
I’d claim you can’t make this stuff up, but someone obviously has.


Living on a bed of calcium carbonate, they should worry more about the acidification of waste water by the pollutants that get washed up with the rain. Used motor oil is very acidic and will dissolve calcium carbonate. What a crazy idea to live on a bed of dead plants & animals!

From the pdf link in the article:
Forty-three percent of islands increased in area by more than 3% with the largest increases of 30% on Betio…
Good thing, because the population density of Betio is over 8,300 per square kilometer. Think about that. World population density is under 46/sq km, and the U.S. is in the 70’s.
So Betio has over eight thousand people per sq km; their fresh water lens is turning to salt from overuse, and their birth rate is among the highest in the world.
A sea level rise of a millimeter or two is the least of their problems.

Willis Eschenbach

Pytlozvejk says:
June 3, 2010 at 3:28 pm

OK, OK, we get the joke. You toss your thoughts in the hope that they will find fertile ground and flourish. Whereas Onan spilled his seed on the ground etc. If you keep working this theme, you’ll sound like a bit of a tosser …

Actually, I hadn’t thought of that interpretation at all. Instead, despite being a Shamanist and not a Christian of any type, I was riffing off of:

3 Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow:
4 And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up.
5 And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth:
6 But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.
7 And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit.
8 And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred.
9 And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Derek B

I’d just be a bit careful about confusing the rash claims of some alarmists with the more sober positions of most scientists. 2mm/y might not sound much, but it’s pretty close to the steady 3mm/y general sea level rise observed, and still spells trouble over 100 years. As it’s not clear what may have caused the areas of the islands to have increased, it is unsafe to assume that mechanism will continue to cope.

Jim Macdonald

I also enjoyed your talk at the climate change conference in Chicago. Thunderstorms and clouds cause cooling, especially in the ITCZ.

Baa Humbug

“Like sands of the drowning atolls, so are the days of our lives.”


I hope you saved all those emails, Willis, and are forwarding a link to this page to all of them with a sweet note. Really sweet. Sickly sweet. Cheshire Cat kinda grinning. There is no greater revenge on people who are nearly blind mad at you for something they shouldn’t be than to let them see you are utterly unaffected by their scorn.

Your “urban legend detector” is indeed finely tuned!
In fact, back in early 2002, we explicitly delineated how the plight of Tuvalu fell into the category of “urban legend.”
Unfortunately, much of the work we did for is no longer readily available on the web, but thanks to the magic of the wayback machine, it is still possible to get to some of it, like the aforementioned Tuvalu article .
Keep that detector in fine order!

Jim Macdonald

Derek B.
Sea level expert Nils-Axel-Morner says that there has been almost no rise in 30 years. He claims that after 2003 the IPCC’s graph of sea level which had been a straight line, suddenly tilted upward. He thinks that they adjusted the readings by adding a factor gotten from a tide gage in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, by the way is subsiding! So, it’s a falsificationof the data set. Imagine that! What else is new?
Many other studies peg the global sea level rise at 0.7 mm/yr, not 2 or 3.


It’s so nice to get some truth about reality every now and then!


“Derek B says:
2mm/y might not sound much, but it’s pretty close to the steady 3mm/y general sea level rise observed, and still spells trouble over 100 years.”
Derek, convert that to inches, then think 100 years.
Land masses go up and down faster than that, and there’s nothing we can do about that one.
Nothing to worry about at all……

Willis Eschenbach

Derek B says:
June 3, 2010 at 4:31 pm (Edit)

I’d just be a bit careful about confusing the rash claims of some alarmists with the more sober positions of most scientists. 2mm/y might not sound much, but it’s pretty close to the steady 3mm/y general sea level rise observed, and still spells trouble over 100 years.

Sorry, Derek, but I can’t say that 3mm/yr “spells trouble” over 100 years. First, there is still the long term disagreement between the tide gauges (which say ~ 2mm/yr) and the satellite data you reference. At present, there is no explanation for that discrepancy.
Second, it takes about 50 years to go through the major tidal cycle, and we have only about 18 years of satellite data.
Most important, however, is that the sea level rose about 8″ (200 mm) over the last century. I don’t recall any headlines about any big “trouble” from that, and I lived through more than half of that century. As a result, an unverified prediction of a sea level rise of 12″ (300 mm) this century doesn’t make me breathe hard. This is particularly true since there is no sign of any acceleration in the sea level record.

As it’s not clear what may have caused the areas of the islands to have increased, it is unsafe to assume that mechanism will continue to cope.

Actually, it is quite clear what caused the areas of the islands to increase. This is not a new discovery. Curiously, the mechanism was discovered by none other than Charles Darwin:

“No other work of mine was begun in so deductive a spirit as this; for the whole theory was thought out on the west coast of S. America before I had seen a true coral reef. I had therefore only to verify and extend my views by a careful examination of living reefs. But it should be observed that I had during the two previous years been incessantly attending to the effects on the shores of S. America of the intermittent elevation of the land, together with the denudation and deposition of sediment. This necessarily led me to reflect much on the effects of subsidence, and it was easy to replace in imagination the continued deposition of sediment by the upward growth of coral. To do this was to form my theory of the formation of barrier-reefs and atolls.” (Darwin, 1887, p. 98, 99)

Since that same phenomenon has been operating for millions of years, it is safe to assume that it will continue to operate.


The real irony is around the fact that it was Darwin who did the seminal thinking on atoll growth and behaviour and the idea of atolls drowning due to sea level was in direct contradiction to his work. Isn’t it fascinating that in order to perpetuate the AGW scare, these alarmists have had to state (effectively) that Darwin was wrong.
Darwin, C., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882, 1887 p. 98,99
Of all the people to ahve to contradict .. Darwin !! Now that’s irony.

Robert of Ottawa

It’s all for naught. Obama says CO2 is suffocating the planet. We are all DOOMED, I tell ya, DOOMED!
Sorry, night off from deep thought; just silliness tonight 🙂

Willis Eschenbach

Jim Macdonald says:
June 3, 2010 at 4:41 pm

I also enjoyed your talk at the climate change conference in Chicago. Thunderstorms and clouds cause cooling, especially in the ITCZ.

Thanks for the kind words, Jim. I’d like to take this chance to remind folks that videos of all of the presentations at the Chicago International Conference on Climate Change are available here. Lots of good stuff, including Anthony’s presentation on the results of the SurfaceStations project.

el gordo

DirkH said: ‘ABC???? I thought they were the australian BBC! What happened?’
A gradual sea change to save face, in tandem with the British Brainwashing Corporation.


Yeah…. But that’s only because you do science Willis……. It’s not fair on th’ others. 😉

Paul Jackson

After all of the times I’ve been told that being skeptical was the same as being a “Flat Earther” or a “Creationist”, it turns out that it’s the AGW camp that’s anti-Darwinian!


carbon cowboy:
4 June: UK Financial Times: Probe as carbon deal hit by bribe accusations
By Michael Peel and Fiona Harvey
Police are probing a planned deal for a British company to rent one-fifth of Liberia’s forests, in a striking example of possible criminal activity around the expanding business of carbon emission trading.
The City of London police yesterday arrested the director of a Merseyside-based business in connection with an alleged plan to pay Liberian officials $2.5m (£1.7m) in connection with land concessions the company hoped would earn it more than $2bn, people familiar with the matter said….
People familiar with the matter said the man arrested was Mike Foster, director of Carbon Harvesting Corporation, a one-time internet payment software business that is overdue on filing its accounts to Companies House. Mr Foster could not be contacted. He was later released without charge on police bail….


You could not have been correct, since your paper was not peer reviewed.

Anthony Scalzi

Forty-three percent of islands increased in area by more than 3% with the largest increases of 30% on Betio (Tarawa atoll) and 28.3% on Funamanu (Funafuti atoll [the main atoll in Tuvalu – w.]).
I have a bit bit to comment on for these two islands. The drastic increase in the area of Betio is clearly due to landfilling material dredged from within the atoll.
Compare this WWII map with the current view of the island and note the landfilled area on the north side of the island, along with 2 dredging pits.,+Gilbert+Islands,+Kiribati&mrt=all&sll=1.131518,173.583984&sspn=6.871979,11.634521&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Betio+Island,+Kiribati&ll=1.355226,172.935619&spn=0.026857,0.045447&t=h&z=15
On the other hand, the growth of Funamanu appears to have been entirely natural, with growth occurring on the ends of the island as described by the paper.,+Funafuti,+Tuvalu&sll=40.961234,-73.306274&sspn=1.298374,2.90863&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Funamanu,+Funafuti,+Tuvalu&ll=-8.565214,179.133571&spn=0.006641,0.011362&t=h&z=17


The Islands of Kauai and Oahu have minutely risen out of the sea over the last few thousand years, Maui is stable and Hawaii is minutely but measurably sinking. Of course the latter because it is so heavy it is deforming the Pacific Plate.

A very interesting piece Mr E, thank you. Made all the more interesting by today’s new word – “progradation”, it’s a corker.
I don’t pop in with comments very often these days because there tend to be hundreds by the time I read an article. Not only does this mean that any salient point I might have made has already been expressed more clearly than I could have managed, but I am also deprived of the ego-massage resulting from getting in early with a new observation. I still read the posts, though, and enjoy the sound of drip-drip-drip as the calming waters of common sense slowly erode the granite skulls of irrational doom-mongers.
Keep up the good work chaps.

Guess what! Research going back to the 19th century shows that corall atolls respond to sea level changes through the addition of more sedimentary material dreived from the coral itself. The sounds that you are hearing now are that of the wheel being reinvented. Dust off the old geological textbooks so that you can inticipate more breathtaking discoveries that are going to be announced.