Fiji’s ‘sinking’ Vunidogoloa Village – Victim of AGW or opportunistic at #COP23 ?

Guest essay by Barry Brill

The popular press has dubbed this remote Fijian settlement as the world’s first community to be forced to migrate by climate-caused rising seas. But is it true?

Sign erected by OCHA in the new location of Vunidogoloa village. Credit: OCHA

Natewa Bay, the largest bay in the South Pacific, is to be found in Cacaudrove province on Vanua Levu, the second largest of Fiji’s 106 habitable islands. This long and narrow inlet funnels the ocean westwards to Vunidogoloa village, which has long been sited on the estuary of a large river at the end of the bay. The prevailing winds are easterlies.

There was a time when the villagers lived comfortably here, drawing fish from both the sea and river and tending to their plantations.

Then, about 70 years ago, the elders became concerned at the continual erosion of the foreshore, the widening of the river’s mouth, the salinisation of the soil and the surges that swept seawater through their fields during king tides. The problems became so acute that they began discussions about relocating the village to another site. But, as the Fiji Sun reports, there was just no money to begin the work at that time.

Gradual erosion

After 1956, the Vunidogoloans became resigned to living with inundation as best they could. They built a seawall, which helped for a while but then gradually sank into the encroaching sea. They moved their homes within the site and, around 1990, built a second seawall, 80 metres closer.

In 2006, the villagers finally decided they had no choice but to relocate. They petitioned the Government for assistance, and this was forthcoming a few years later. During 2010-14, all the 156 villagers were transplanted to a sheltered site some two kilometres inland.

Is Natewa Bay sinking?

It seems likely that the shores of Natewa Bay are within a subduction zone. Fiji lies in a complex tectonic setting along the boundary between the Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate. The Fiji Fracture Zone runs through Vanua Levu, which has volcanic origins and is still the site of geothermal activity.

Since 1991, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) has operated the SEAFRAME project in the South Pacific. As set out in the project’s report for 2010-11:

“The SPSLCMP was originally developed as an Australian response to concerns raised by the member countries of the South Pacific Forum over the potential impacts of global warming on climate and sea levels in the Pacific with the principal objective of ‘the provision of an accurate long term record of sea level in the South Pacific for partner countries and the international scientific community which enables them to respond to and manage related impacts’.

 

The project’s sea level monitoring network consists of 12 SEAFRAME stations providing wide coverage across the Pacific Islands Forum region (Figure 1). The SEAFRAME stations not only measure sea level, but also observe a number of “ancillary” variables – air and water temperatures, wind speed, wind direction and atmospheric pressure.

 

An associated geodetic measurement program, implemented by Geosciences Australia, supports levelling surveys to first order, to determine shifts in the vertical of the sea level sensors due to local land movement, as well as continuous Global Positioning System (CGPS) stations to determine the vertical movement of the land with respect to the International Terrestrial Reference Frame.”

“Vertical movements” are an issue in the Pacific because the sites of many tide gauges are either rising or sinking. The BoM report (p29) sets out the “Trends in the vertical movement of the tide gauge and/or supporting structure” . Of the 12 islands, the greatest movement is in Fiji, where the trend of the long term movement is 0.6mm per year.

There is no tide gauge in or near Natewa Bay, and the SEAFRAME installation at Lautoka is the best available proxy. As it reveals upward movement on the western shore of Viti Levu, one would expect the eastern side of the island to be tilting downwards; and that view is supported by readings from the (sinking) local tide gauge in Suva. It seems very likely that this tilt is mirrored in Vanua Levu and Natewa Bay is also sinking.

Climate Change refugees?

Google “Vunidogoloa” and the 32,900 hits are mainly a cascade of newspaper, magazine and blog articles about the relocation of this village being the result of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The Fijian Government has enthusiastically taken up this accusation and will use the village as a poster child as it chairs the COP23 in Bonn – with ambition to be the lead claimant for the $100 billion per year of climate ‘reparations’ that developed countries have promised in the Paris Agreement.

But is this just a cynical and opportunistic ploy by an activist media, and others who stand to benefit from falsely accusing AGW?

The first thing to note is that the Google search discloses no peer-reviewed papers or data or other geological evidence regarding the Vunidogoloa site. None are mentioned in the media articles. This is a political story, not a scientific one.

There was no such thing as AGW when the village elders began planning the relocation back in 1956. That was mid-way through a long cooling period, which continued until 1979, amidst scientific concerns regarding an approaching ice age. The IPCC says AGW was not even detectable until 1958.

All the salinisation and inundation that was continuously worsening throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s could only have been caused by the forces of nature and the geology of the village site. Those causes would have continued to operate until the present day. There is no need to look elsewhere.

Sea level rise

Global mean sea levels (GMSL) have risen about 18cm (7 ins) over the past century, continuing a 10,000-year trend. Satellite measurement, which has been available since 1993, puts the rate at 3.2mm (0.13 in) per year. While this underlying rate owes nothing to AGW, there are concerns that it will accelerate as the planet continues to warm.

The SEAFRAME tide gauge on Lautoka wharf tells us the annual average Fiji rise in relative sea level has been a steady 3.9mm (0.15 in) over the past 25 years. At that rate, the coastal seas have risen only 9.75cm (3.8ins) during the past quarter-century.

That microscopic change in the tide certainly hasn’t driven Vunidogoloa from its long-term home. But, conspiring with all the other forces at work, it would have contributed.

However, this particular sea level rise has been ticking away for centuries and has nothing whatever to do with AGW. The SEAFRAME data below makes it quite clear that there has been no acceleration all in the rate of rise during the period since 1992[1].clip_image002

 

Fame and fortune

The only available data strongly suggests that the AGW or ‘climate change’ had nothing to do with the geological and oceanographic factors that progressively degraded the Vunidogoloa site. The village’s worldwide fame is founded on a political lie.

And famous it is. As a UK church bulletin reported:

“Every day we share our story, over and over again to people who are keen to learn about our relocation”, says village elder, Manoa Rokotovitovi. “It can be stressful to be interviewed all the time, even secondary school children come to observe the village for their school projects. But we always welcome people and want to be generous. Just as we have been blessed and give thanks to God, in turn we wish to share our blessings with others”. At this point, Manoa’s earnest expression breaks into a broad smile and he jokes that perhaps the village will soon be listed as the newest tourist attraction in Fiji.”

Fiji’s Prime Minister no doubt feels the end justifies the means. Most of us can sympathise with that, and few will begrudge a few of their tax dollars being applied to the relocation of other rural villages that sit on eroding sites. But the funding flows should be transparently named as ‘Aid’ and not as ’Reparations’. It’s just the deception that sticks in my craw.


[1] Despite the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases increasing by 20% during that 25-year period.

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76 thoughts on “Fiji’s ‘sinking’ Vunidogoloa Village – Victim of AGW or opportunistic at #COP23 ?

  1. If the best chance of getting free money was in a program for high speed rail they would be making a case for that instead.

  2. Interesting photo. It would appear to show that the village is built on the side of a hill, with a roughly 3-1 slope. The elevation change from the 1st house in the foreground, to the last at the top of the hill, is about 12-20 meters.

    Be a heck of SLR to engulf even the lower house, as the photo is taken downhill of the house, and the elevation would be another 10 or so meters.

    • That is not the origunal site of the village. It was on flat ground. The picture shows the relocated village.

      • Cut and fill costs money, so the down hill side of houses are on stilts, which is cheaper. Also, with tropical rains, and just bugs like termites, you want your house off the ground. I saw houses on the big island of Hawaii, all on two foot stilts as well.

      • The’ve built houses on short piers in eastern North Carolina coastal plain for years. Really not for water intrusion but to get the houses away from termites and keep the snakes out of the house. Also a great place for the dog to spend a hot summer afternoon.

    • Look at Vanua Levu with Google Earth. Note that the elevation rises sharply from the water all along Natewa Bay.
      ‘This long and narrow inlet funnels the ocean westwards to Vunidogoloa village, which has long been sited on the estuary of a large river at the end of the bay.’
      Google Earth shows numerous buildings at the end of the bay, all at 20′ or higher elevation. And no river.
      BWTM: If my house is eaten by the bay, it’s my tough luck. Why is government moving a village? Hoping to get me to pay for it?

      • Gamecock,

        Go North a little bit from the exact end of the bay and look between Nabua and Kenani – that area seems to fit the description.

      • It’s not quite at the Western extremity of the bay. Bit further north and east, amongst the mangroves.

        Government logic is that your SUV caused the ice to melt, which caused the Fiji tides to rise, which caused the village to need relocation. Therefore, you should pay.

      • The Fiji Sun (reference in a post below) quotes a villager:
        “Our village is situated on Natewa Bay, only a few metres away from the seashore and right beside it runs a big river. So when the sea level rises the river level also rises causing the village to flood often,” he said.
        That describes the issue perfectly – nothing to do with global sea level changes and all about local effects. No doubt landuse change in the catchment area has contributed. I’ve seen land elsewhere in Fiji where inappropriate cultivation methods have resulted in complete loss of soil cover, exposing rock.

      • “Our village is situated on Natewa Bay, only a few metres away from the seashore and right beside it runs a big river. So when the sea level rises the river level also rises causing the village to flood often,” he said.

        You call the United Nations because you built your village too close to the water?

  3. It’s amazing how AGW induced sea level rise can target one specific village. Please UN, take my money and make me feel safe again!

    • WR

      Give my government money to make me feel safe again. So they can spend it on everything other than climate change, like p*ss up’s for climate change conventions.

    • California states that sea level rise will be “lumpy”. It will also be divided into two types of sea level rise. One kind is the regular kind you can measure with tide gauges. The other kind is “latent” sea level rise that lurks down there in the abyss where the sun doesn’t shine, down there with Bathybius haecklii, Polywater, and the Missing Heat.

      • Sea lever rise is also known to the State of California to cause cancer — I know this because I read it on a package in the grocery store the other day. It was a package of salt water taffy!

      • “The other kind is “latent” sea level rise that lurks down there in the abyss where the sun doesn’t shine, down there with Bathybius haecklii, Polywater, and the Missing Heat.”

        I have no idea what the Californians are thinking. Probably something bizarre. But there actually is some reality behind this. If the folks in Fiji are dealing with a subduction zone, it’s very likely storing energy that will be released in a huge (Magnitude 9 — give or take) earthquake and a pretty much instantaneous altitude (and local sea level) readjustment of a meter or three. Presumably upward since the place has been sinking. I think that’s pretty much textbook geology nowadays.

  4. Questions: Is the original village built on sand? Do the villagers extract fresh water by pumping from a bore? Does the bore exploit a fresh water lens perched on salt water saturated sand like many sandy atolls in the Pacific? If the answer to the last question is yes then that may lead to an answer. If the fresh water lens is not topping up to keep in pace with the rate of extraction then the land surface level may be dropping.

    • John… they moved the entire village for only $500K. Over here $500K wouldn’t even amount to a down payment on a geologic study on the old site, an environmental study on the new site or the bloody legal expenses required to request a quote on either.
      This is actually a huge victory for common sense regardless of the fact that most of that $500K probably ended up lining Bananarama’s pockets.
      Like George Daddis I applaud their foresight in setting the buildings on stilts in order to protect the structures from further sea level rise. To make them tsunami proof however they will still need an extra $500K to equip each shack with 4 bolt on wheels and a wood saw.

      • The houses are not on stilts for sea level rise. The houses in Hawaii from Hilo to the Nat Park to the south are all on stilts. I think it is an insect pest problem mainly, but also rains. It may also aide in cooling the houses. In the pic, only the downhill sides are on stilts. 8 poles for a house or bring in earth movers for $50 k a house is not a long economic discussion.

    • No fresh water lenses in Fiji. Vanua Levu is a 3500 foot high volcanic complex. Topography is generally fairly steep. It was probably difficult to find even a single village with erosion problems.

      • River mouth sediments compact as they dewater. If flooding is prevented with levees, then this continues unabated. Coastal groundwater extraction causes subsidence and salt water intrusion. Subsidence is probably coincident with the installation of pump well systems in the 50’s, instead of just canals off the river.

      • Mate, the village was built on a river delta at sea level. That is why I asked the questions I did about a slight drop in the land surface if too much fresh water is extracted by pumping from saturated sand. It has happens elsewhere and is a serious consideration. Thanks for the information about Vanua Levu. I know about the volcanics and steepness. I’ve worked there.

  5. Islands at the mouths of rivers tend to move, or subside, or grow, depending on the river sediments and the ocean effects. Such islands might be a nice place to live, but more than a bit unstable.
    I wonder just how much is due to the normal effects on barrier islands and peninsulas, and how much is due to geologic subduction.

    • The subduction zone is a red herring. This is all about natural processes as you suggest. Homes built just above sea level are vulnerable to storm surges which can pile water up several metres above the high tide level. The alarmists will say that sea level rise just makes this effect worse, but sea level rise over the past 50 years just adds the equivalent of a ripple to the top of the water.

  6. Opportunistic is a very polite term in this context. Voreqe Bainimarama is the person who led a very opportunistic coup against a legally elected government in December 2006. Also a very opportunistic event.

    Fiji is sending about 50 people to COP 23 and they would be far better occupied dealing with more pressing environmental problems at home – the plastic rubbish on Fiji’s beautiful beaches for example. For the record Vunidogoloa means spirit of the black mangrove which, I think says everything about this site. Barry’s excellent essay says everything about this situation.

  7. These fake stories in which some erosion, subsidence or notable king tides are shown as a proof-positive of the dangerous effects of anthropogenic global warming seem to be all that the MSM or the U.N. have to offer on the subject.
    That should be reassuring.
    If there was a real story – then they’d surely be focusing on that.
    Clearly there is no real story. Seemingly not anywhere. Cause for rejoicing, then.

  8. Just goes to show that dealing with effects of climate change will be cheaper than trying to prevent it.

    Also what happened to the sea level in 97?

  9. In 1968 I overnighted once in a native village on Bougainville Island … my sak sak (hut) was on 3-metre stilts, on a gorgeous beach, mid-way between high-water and low-water marks.

  10. So one side of the island is sinking and the other side is rising? Then is it like Guam – about to tip over?

    • The thing is do these whackos actually think that the people living in developed nations are going to be willing to have everything they and their forebears have worked and died for over the centuries simply redistributed around the globe on the basis of idiotic naked lies about the climate? It’s like we are now all living inside some Liberal Hieronymus Bosch-eque hellscape painting.

  11. I travel to Fiji several times a year. I stay in hotels at the lower end of the scale where often I meet and interact with representatives of small island nations who are either going to or on their way back from climate junkets(Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga, Samoa, Wallis and Futuna, Tokelau, etc.).
    After a few hours of interaction they usually admit that it is all about the money. If there wasn’t a pot of gold at the end of the climate rainbow they would not be much worried about it at all.
    Yes the landscape changes and people have to move. The Science of Archaeology would not exist in its current form if nature did not “move people on”.

  12. So, the additional CO2 in the atmosphere makes the air heavier, pushing the land down. We must have more conferences to discuss this new human-caused development.

    • Next it will be the mobile phone use causing it. All that Radio wave energy being attenuated by the atmosphere will definitely adding to the energy in the atmosphere. So the next call will be for a mobile phone tax that should get the right group for the greens.

  13. how is it that this population originally arrived in paradise? Flip and flop out of the ocean and morph into homo sapiens, or maybe, just maybe, they rowed their boats across the ocean from some other inhospitable place?

  14. Off the subject, but interesting short movie on the plate reconstruction of the SW Pacific may be found here:
    http://imina.soest.hawaii.edu/GG/MGG/HotPlateRec.html
    Fiji, as well as being of volcanic origin, is in a highly dynamic part of the SW Pacific, where the sea level history would not be representative of changes due to “Climate Change”.
    For those interested in the Geology of the Pacific Islands, an overview may be found through the link below.
    “The age and origin of the Pacific islands: a geological overview”:
    http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/363/1508/3293

  15. Fiji is at the northern end of the old New Zealandia plate. It is moving north overriding the Pacific plate.

    The whole area was well above sea level let’s say 25 million years ago but the plate slowly subsided into the mantle about that time. Smaller continents tend to do that when they move over top a oceanic plate.. It would sink below sea level for the next 24 million years but has risen recently as it is pushed on top of the Pacific plate.

    It will continue rising until the whole New Zealandia plate is once again a continent about sea level lets say 10 million years from now. It will be a much larger area than appears now. Fiji. Does not have to worry about sea level.

  16. Sounds like the Fijians must have read Tom Sawyers exploits whitewashing fences!
    A modern day ‘sea levels rising’ whitewash – gotta love it!

  17. We also lost the Town of Dunwich, and the Goodwin Sands, though nobody had invented sea level rise then to account for the tragedies. In regard to the Goodwin Sands, I quote from “British History on Line”:
    “There is a noted saying, that Tenterden steeple was the cause of the Goodwin Sands—which is thus accounted for: Goodwin, earl of Kent, in the time of king Edward the Confessor, was owner of much flat land in the eastern part of it, near the isle of Thanet, which was desended from the sea by a great wall, which lands afterwards became part of the possessions of the abbot of St. Augustine’s, near Canterbury still retaining the name of Goodwin, their former owner; and the abbot being at the same time owner of the rectory of Tenterden, the steeple of which church he had then began building, had employed during the course of it so much of his care and attention to the finishing of that work, that he neglected the care and preservation of that wall, insomuch, that on Nov. 3, 1099, the sea broke over and ruined it, drowning the lands within it, and overwhelming it with a light sand, still remaining on them, the place retaining to this time the name of the Goodwin Sands, and becoming dreadful and dangerous to navigators. Thus this steeple is said to be the cause of the Goodwin Sands. This is the common tradition; how far consistent with truth, so far as relates to these sands, will be taken notice of in its proper place.”

    Alas, even Wikipaedia does not believe this story! So perhaps it must have been sea level rise after all?

  18. There is more solid ground in the arctic. The land is still in rebound from the last glaciation.

    Therefore, the most sustainable and durable solution is to relocate the most alarmed tropical paradise island individuals there. It’s nice with $100B cash to spend.

    Good fishing too, whatever the season.

  19. They should all move to Colorado, USA, where problems caused by rising sea levels is not likely to happen for quite some time.

  20. Nice how the UN have selected the Fijian Prime Minister, to lead the conference. An ex Military Officer who overthrew a democratic govt, arrested and shut down the press. Fiji was thrown out of the Commonwealth for their abuses. Lives on foreign aid like all South Pacific Islands. That $100 Billion must be so enticing to make up stories for.

    The other poster child drowning islands are interesting too:
    Kiribati http://www.bom.gov.au/ntc/IDO70060/IDO70060SLI.shtml
    Tuvalu http://www.bom.gov.au/ntc/IDO70056/IDO70056SLI.shtml

  21. Talk to any well informed archeologist about the many ancient cities that have sunk beneath the waves, many of which disappeared with an attendant earthquake as faults ruptured due to plate movements…. what is new?

    • who’s going to recompense
      those property owners who
      are inudundated…. taxpayers.
      florida alone will
      require a trillion dollars
      at least
      nyc? boston?
      norfolk? open
      your wallet. and
      those of your
      grandchildren.
      quite a proud legacy to leave
      them

  22. Regarding the Suva sea level gauge the PSMSL site:(http://www.psmsl.org/data/obtaining/stations/1327.php ) explicitly warns about “a slow positive sea level trend.”

    FOLLOWING PSMSL DOCUMENTATION ADDED 28-SEP-95 :
    Data 1975-1991 received from Toga office
    =========================== FOLLOWING PSMSL DOCUMENTATION ADDED 28-SEP-95 :
    1975-5/1989:Fischer and Porter Analog-to-Digital Recorder 6/1989-1990: Leupold and Stevens ADR gauge Aquatrak acoustic gauge, NOAA Next Generation Water Level Measuring System (NGWLMS) (1991-)March 1989: site moved from 18 07.9S 178 25.6E to 18 08.2S 178 25.6E
    =========================== FOLLOWING PSMSL DOCUMENTATION ADDED 2000Apr10 :
    For Information: A gauge was maintained on behalf of the TOGA Sea Lvel Center until it was withdrawn in May 1989. A gauge at Kings Wharf was destroyed in November 1983 and was re-located to Walu Bay Naval Facility (operated by University of Hawaii)There was a 3 month overlap between the new NOAA gauge and the Walu gauge.
    From November 1997 the responsibility for the station in Suva was taken over by the Australian National Tidal Facility from the US NOAA. Comparison of daily means for Suva with those for Lautoka and satellite altimetry suggest there could be land subsidence at the Suva station equating to a slow positive sea level trend.

  23. “There was no such thing as AGW when the village elders began planning the relocation back in 1956”

    by 1956 warming from
    pre-industrial was 0.3 C
    (HadCRUT). not
    small

    • It was Guam that a congresscritter speculated about tipping over, and it was expanding an existing base. Fiji is not a US possession.

  24. I am asking because I do not know. Is there ANY quality check for non sea volume change effects like tectonics, isostasy, dewatering, collapse due to groundwater extraction in the system when using tidal guages as a source of data?

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