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by Paul Kench, Professor, School of Environment at University of Auckland
Auckland, New Zealand (SPX) Apr 19, 2014
It is widely predicted that low-lying coral reef islands will drown as a result of sea-level rise, leaving their populations as environmental refugees. But new evidence now suggests that these small islands will be more resilient to sea-level rise than we thought.
That is not to say that these tiny nations won't face significant environmental challenges. Built of sand and shingle and lying just 1-3m above the current sea level, coral reef islands in the central Pacific and Indian Oceans are considered among the most vulnerable places on Earth.
The new findings suggest that, rather than being passive lumps of rock that will be swamped by rising seas and eroded by storms, the islands are dynamic structures that can move and even grow in response to changing seas.
But although the islands may survive into the future, the changes could still affect issues like fresh water and agriculture, potentially making life on these islands much more difficult than it is today.
Long-term island formation
Since that time, sea levels have fallen once more, leaving the island much higher relative to the current sea level. Over the coming century, future sea-level rise will simply reoccupy the levels under which the island formed. This finding is consistent with our case studies in the Great Barrier Reef and the Maldives, which show that islands can form under a range of sea-level conditions including rising, falling, and stable.
Together, these studies show that sea level alone is not the main factor that controls the formation and subsequent change of reef islands. These processes also depend on the surrounding coral reef generating sufficient sand and shingle to build islands.
Changes over the past century
Using comparisons of historical maps, aerial photographs and satellite images, we have been able to test the hypothesis that central Pacific Islands have begun to erode away in response to this sea-level rise.
One example is the reef islands in Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu, in the central Pacific. Our study found that most of these islands either remained stable in size or grew larger over the past few decades, in spite of rising sea levels.
Another of our studies found that islands in Nadikdik Atoll, Marshall Islands, have been rebuilt over the past century despite being destroyed by a typhoon in 1905. All of this shows that reef islands are able to grow under current climate conditions.
We are now aiming to work out the scale and speed of these changes - which will be crucial for helping island communities to adapt to the rising seas. One question is whether islands can build vertically to keep pace with rising sea levels.
Our results suggest that islands can grow upwards when waves wash over them during storms or tsunami, depositing sand in the process. This suggests that islands may be able to withstand rising sea levels and increased storminess - although life on those islands may be very different to today.
What does this mean for small island nations?
But our findings also suggest that although the islands may not be swamped by rising seas, they are likely to change in size and shift their position on the surface of reefs. The rate of these changes may also increase as sea level rises.
This raises questions for their ongoing habitation. How will physical changes to the islands affect drinking water supplies, and how will communities need to adapt their farming practices? Questions about island change must be addressed urgently in order to inform decision making and secure the future of Pacific nations.
Source: The Conversation
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