Coral scientists say atoll islands will not sink with climate change
Roger Mclean and Paul Kench, two well known world researchers on the impact of sea level rise on atoll states have concluded from their studies carried out on 200 reefs on 12 atolls, including among others Tarawa atoll in Kiribati, that the future of these low lying atolls is not as bleak as often reported. Following is an extract from the report of the two scientists on the research that they carried out in this area and what they say about the future of coral atolls in this part of the world.
“Sequential island area and shoreline position changes over the last few decades have been analyzed on over 200 reef islands on 12 atolls in the western and central Pacific. During that time, sea level has risen in the region at rates three to four times greater than the global average. Contrary to expectations, this has not resulted in widespread erosion or the disappearance of atoll islands. Indeed, islands have persisted in the face of this sea-level rise, and many have increased in surface area and elevation by natural processes. But the persistence of islands does not mean that they are not changing their size, shape, and position. Instead, island margins are continually adjusting to normal seasonal erosion and accretion processes, to episodic extreme events and to variations in sediment supply. To date the impact of this normal range of environmental conditions appears to predominate over any long-term morphological trend or signal related to sea-level rise. Indeed, it can be argued that those conditions are necessary for the ongoing sustainability of atoll island morphology. The results of our analysis are also encourag- ing. They demonstrate that atoll islands are not the fragile landforms that are sinking or eroding away, but instead they are rather robust features that have responded to large increases in sea level and a whole range of climate–ocean and human forces with little net loss of island area over the last several decades. Our analysis also suggests that the challenge for atoll nations into the future is to develop flexible adaptation strategies that: accept the likely persistence of their islands over the next century; acknowledge that sea-level rise is just one of a series of multiple stressors; recognize the different island types that make up the country; accommodate the ongoing dynamism of island margins; and, affirm the importance of the rural and outer islands as a major potential resource.”
In other words, the islands are not sinking nor decreasing in size but continually changing their shapes, size and margins with the constant movements of the surrounding sand and sea.
The above conclusion is not far off from the experience and observations of Kiribati elders in their 60s, 70s or older, who had seen their atolls persist through the many past extreme events they had eye witnessed, some more extreme than the recent ones, and who are not happy with any one who dares to tell them that their islands are on the verge of disappearing under water. It also coincides with the position taken by the new President of Kiribati, H.E. President Taneti Maamau, who has decided to do away with the favourite catch phrases of his predecessor, Anote Tong, like “sinking islands” and “migration with dignity” and to focus more on the contrary. “We are not leaving”, and “we must adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change” are becoming key phrases of the new political leadership. What was the defeatist stand of Tong, telling people living in eroded coastal areas like Tebunginako village on Abaiang island and Golden Beach (Tebikenikora) at Eita Village on Tarawa atoll, often displayed around the globe by Tong as evidence of a sinking atoll, to leave has now been substituted by a strong message from President Maamau encouraging his people not to surrender easily to the threats of climate change but to stand strong against it and to work harder for a brighter future for our islands.
Mr. Chris Pala, a free lance journalist form Washington who broke away from the Tong circle of international admirers some years ago upon realising that the then President Tong was not telling the truth about the 2008 closure to commercial fishing of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), is visiting Tarawa again this time to find out on the new direction that Kiribati has taken under the new leadership. He will be interviewing the new President and a number of his Cabinet Ministers and other key figures in the country to get a feel of how well Kiribati is coping with the challenges of sea level rise and climate change.