Anote Tong, President of Kiribati. Photo: Queen Anne County Public Schools

By Christopher Pala
21 August 2014

(The Atlantic) – Mikarite Temari, the mayor of Christmas Island, Kiribati’s largest atoll, rolled his eyes and shook his head as I read off my laptop in his office what his president, Anote Tong, had said during a visit to New York.

“According to the science and the projections,” Tong, a slim 62-year-old with a trimmed mustache, a gray crew-cut and a talent for metaphor, told Fareed Zakaria on CNN, “it is already too late for us.” For Kiribati and other nations made up of low-lying atolls, Tong added, “The impact of climate change is about total annihilation.” An interviewer in The New Yorker wrote, “Kiribati’s fate is settled; Tong gives it twenty years.”

“This is not true,” Temari said with visible dismay. “None of it.” Scientists who analyze atoll island dynamics agree that any notion of existential threat for atoll nations is unfounded. Indeed, several studies have shown that the six inches the central Pacific has risen since 1950 has had no measurable effect on any island. The scientists say that the tropical white-sand islands languidly draped around aquamarine lagoons are actually sitting on live coral reefs that will grow as the Pacific rises two to four feet by the end of the century, as the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change predicts.

“The reefs will maintain equilibrium with sea-level rise,” said Scott Smithers of James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. “Waves are what will allow them to keep their head above water.”

“During big storms, the waves wash over the beaches and deposit sand inland,” explained Paul Kench, head of the University of Auckland’s School of Environment, who like Smithers is a coastal geo-morphologist. “That’s how the islands rose above the reef thousands of years ago and that’s what they’ll keep on doing as long as their reefs produce sand.” Atoll sand is made of broken bits of coral and coralline algae and of the skeletons of mollusks and tiny creatures called foraminifera. Noting that ocean acidification and a warming ocean will be increasing their mortality, he added, “That’s not significant in geological time, because a reef can produce sand for centuries after it dies.”

But no one is saying that the expected growth spurt will be as pleasant for the people living on atolls as life has been for the last 3,000 years, which were marked by sea-level stability. Even if islands aren’t submerged, scientists agree that climate change will create major problems—at the very least the same ones that coastal residents will face everywhere. “The low-lying areas will go under water more frequently as the sea level rises,” said Colin Woodroffe of the University of Wollongong in Australia. “And the narrower parts of the islands will be washed over more often.” What makes the process hard to predict is that there are no topographic maps of most atolls because the higher parts are usually covered in vegetation—trees, bushes or grasses—so satellites can’t measure just how high they are above the water. On most islands, people, like vegetation, stick to the higher, less exposed parts. [more]

The Island Nation That Bought a Back-Up Property


  1. Anonymous said...

    I've puzzled over this article a few times, because it appears to refute the now common knowledge that sea level rise will have terrifying impacts for low-lying islands and coastal regions.

    This is true - dozens of articles on this site and mine and many others have well demonstrated the fact that sea level rise is a serious threat to low-lying areas.

    Here are a few more probably not mentioned yet:

    Yet the article in question more then suggests this will not be a problem. This is disengious to the non-critical observer. It is already a problem as documented by various islanders and coastal dwellers. If it were not a problem, they would not already be moving away from low-lying areas as sea levels rise. But they are.

    The time scale for the coral reefs to "redeposit sand" as suggested in the article in no way will replace what is being deluged.

    Read the data:

    27 islands were analysed. 6 islands remained unchanged in 19 years. 7 islands increased in area by 3%. "Area" does not mean "elevation", which would be a requirement for islands to stay above rising seas.

    4 islands decreased in area by 3%. One lost 14% in area.

    Depending on infrastructure, docks, roads, housing, airports and so forth, and the proximity to the rising sea (of which there is zero doubt), a loss of "area" may or may not be significant (and is factually misleading). Many low-lying human coastal / island habitations however, are so close to the rising oceans, that they ARE being impacted as eyewitnesses will attest.

    And this is terribly misleading (read carefully):

    "As illustrated by Mulitefala, erosion of the ocean shoreline and expansion of lagoon shorelines results in net displacement of the island in a lagoonward direction across the reef. However, on the leewardreef, islands exhibit lagoonal erosion and either expansion or stability of oceanside coastlines".

    One side loses land to the rising ocean, the other "gains" - except nobody can live on these "gains". It's still low lying "area" extremely close to the still-rising water (as in mere inches).

    The conclusions this reports reaches is dubious at best - and misleading at worst. Human habitations tend to live on the highest points of an island - particularly where there are issues with storm surge and now, sea level rise. The "expansion of island footprint" (area) is factually meaningless in the time scales of sea level rise and the efficacy of human habitation.

    Islanders will continue to scramble for higher elevations - if they can. They won't be building airstrips or houses on the new "shorelines" being deposited on the leeward side and the infrastructure they do have on low-lying areas will continue to be abandoned.

    57% of the islands were reported as "unstable" - but you have do the math, since the author refused to publish this fact (page 8). The low-lying "area" (sand) growth reported is actually meaningless to existing islanders.

    This is a classic example of science refusing to see the forest for the trees. They have not "raised any questions" as the title implies, they've simply muddled the issue rather badly. ~Survival Acres~  

  2. Anonymous said...

    I forgot to include this (Blogger restricts comment size - a real problem).

    From the paper itself -

    "This study did not measure vertical growth of the island surface nor does it suggest there is any change in the height of the islands. Since land height has not changed the vulnerability of the greater part of the land area of each island to submergence due to sea level rise is also unchanged and these low-lying atolls remain immediately and extremely vulnerable to inundation or sea water flooding. "

    So the title of the articles is worse then misleading, it's a downright lie.  


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