Warming may not swamp islands
by Christopher Pala Science 1 August 2014: Vol. 345 no. 6196 pp. 496-497 DOI: 10.1126/science.345.6196.496
In an interview with CNN last month, Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati, insisted that rising sea levels due to global warming will mean “total annihilation” for this nation of 33 coral islands in the Central Pacific and for other atoll island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives.
In May, Kiribati bought 22 square kilometers of land in Fiji as a haven for displaced citizens, cementing Kiribati’s reputation as an early victim of climate change. No doubt, the sea is coming: Global sea levels are expected to rise up to 1 meter by 2100. But recent geologic studies suggest that the coral reefs supporting sandy atoll islands will grow and rise in tandem with the sea. The only Pacific atoll islanders who will have to move must do so for the same reason as millions of people on the continents: because they live too close to shore.
h/t Paul Ostergaard
Unfortunately, the article is paywalled, if anyone has access drop me a note please. See update below.
Besides the posts from Willis and Andy above on how atolls like Kiribati float and move (unless you kill all the coral, Alling et al. 2007 shows Kirbati is ground zero for El Nino warming, plus there’s contributing environmental mis-management), the biggest fly in the ointment for the claim made by the current president of Kiribati is the fact that the Maldives (which is also mostly atolls and also claims to be threatened by sea level rise, but it isn’t true) are building new airports for tourism.
One, Kooddoo, is already open for business.
The main airport is adding a new modern passenger terminal, seen in this concept video:
And then there’s this from Wikipedia about the Male airport:
The agreement signed between the Maldives government and GMR Group included the upgrading and renovation of the airport up to the standard of a global airport by the year 2014. GMIAL announced that the development plans included reclaiming more land at the eastern end of the runway; where a new terminal is to be built. This terminal will consist of 3 separate bridged buildings. Plans for a separate cargo terminal was also announced.
The Maldives, for all its troubles and supposed climate worries, doesn’t seem to get the fact that the last thing you do is spend money on new airports, passenger terminals, and cargo terminals on the islands you are supposedly going to have to eventually abandon.
Having your hand out for “climate change trust money” while building new airports to handle increased tourism doesn’t wash. “Scam” is too nice of a word to use here.
UPDATE: The article has been made available to me, thanks Joel O’Bryan. Excerpts below.
Studies suggest that atoll islands will rise in step with a rising sea
By Christopher Pala, on South Tarawa
As the minibus wobbles over the dusty, pothole-filled road that runs the length of South Tarawa island, a song blasting over Kiribati’s state radio envisions an apocalypse for this fishhook-shaped atoll halfway between Honolulu and Fiji: “The angry sea will kill us all.” The song, which won a competition organized by Kiribati’s government, reflects the views of President Anote Tong, who has been warning for years of a knockout punch from climate change.
No doubt, the sea is coming: In a 2013 report, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that global sea levels will rise up to 1 meter by 2100. But recent geologic studies suggest that the coral reefs supporting sandy atoll islands will grow and rise in tandem with the sea. The only islanders who will have to move must do so for the same reason as millions of people on the continents: because they live too close to shore.
Paul Kench, a geomorphologist who now heads the University of Auckland’s School of Environment in New Zealand, was the first to question the dire forecasts for Kiribati and similar island nations. In 1999, the World Bank asked him to evaluate the economic costs of sea-level rise and climate change to Pacific island nations. Kench, who had been studying how atoll islands evolve over time, says he had assumed that a rising ocean would engulf the islands, which consist of sand perched on reefs. “That’s what everyone thought, and nobody questioned it,” he says. But when he scoured the literature, he could not find a single study to support that scenario.
So Kench teamed up with Peter Cowell, a geomorphologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, to model what might happen. They found that during episodes of high seas—at high tide during El Niño events, which raise sea level in the Central Pacific, for example—storm waves would wash over higher and higher sections of atoll islands. But instead of eroding land, the waves would raise island elevation by depositing sand produced from broken coral, coralline algae, mollusks, and foraminifera.
Kench notes that reefs can grow 10 to 15 mill imeters a year—faster than the sea-level rise expected to occur later this century. “As long as the reef is healthy and generates an abundant supply of sand, there’s no reason a reef island can’t grow and keep up,” he argues. This equilibrium may not mean that all areas of atolls will remain habitable, says Scott Smithers, a geomorphologist at James Cook University, Townsville, in Australia. “The changes might happen at a rate that exceeds the recovery,” he says. But the geologic record is reassuring, Kench and others found when they drilled deep cores into reef islands to probe how they responded to past sea-level changes. In a February report in Geophysical Research Letters, the researchers found that the island of Jabat in the Marshall Islands emerged on a reef 4800 to 4000 years ago, when sea levels were rising as fast as they are expected to rise over the next century. Other support for the model has come from monitoring how shorelines respond to seasonal
Vanua Levu in Fiji is a less appealing refuge. The purchase was “a publicity stunt,” scoffs Teburoro Tito, a former president of Kiribati and member of the opposition party Protect the Maneaba. Already home to 270 farmers from the Solomon Islands, the steep, hilly tract may accommodate only a few hundred more people. If the optimists are right, no one from Kiribati will have to leave their country anyway.
■ Christopher Pala is a writer in Washington, D.C