News reports on new scientific study of Pacific atolls “spin” out of control

This is a refreshing piece from FSM’s Kaselehile Press

It seems not everyone
into the drivel

It is great to see a journalist who looks beyond the headlines. 

News reports on new scientific study of

Pacific atolls “spin” out of control

Written by Bill Jaynes  

Pohnpei, FSM—If Internet news stories and blog postings are
at all

accurate, doubters seem to be convinced that a recently

peer reviewed study has fully and completely debunked the

of Pacific Island Nations that many of their islands will be

as a result of climate change caused sea level rise.

The thirteen page report encapsulates years of scientific study by

Paul S. Kench of the University
of Auckland in New Zealand

Arthur P. Webb of the
South Pacific Applied Geosciences Commission
in Fiji.  The report is entitled,
“The dynamic response of reef islands to s
ea-level rise: Evidence from
multi-decadal analysis of island change in the
Central Pacific.”

Their study concluded that 60 years of evidence proves that the shores of
atoll islands in the Pacific are broadening rather than narrowing as had
previously assumed.

“How are global warming believers going to spin this one,” one responder
in a comment on an internet blog posting based on news stories about
report.  The blogger didn’t appear to have read the thirteen page
report nor had that person bothered to interview the scientists who
wrote it.

According to Dr. Webb, who was one of the two authors of the report, the only

“spin” so far has been from “less than honest reports (that) are indicating
islands are ‘growing not sinking,’” he wrote in an email.  “This is
categorically wrong! 
Our paper says that the outer edges—i.e. the
shorelines have, over the last 50 years
or so, responded to sea-level rise (of
about 120mm over that time) and in many cases
the area of islands has
increased—not decreased as so commonly thought.”

Of course “area” only takes into account two dimensions.  It doesn’t
include the third
dimension of height.

“The critical point here,” wrote Dr. Webb, “is that the land area within (the
atoll islands)
is not building vertically and thus, even if the shores are
accreting (building) this will
ultimately not prevent the greater land area
from becoming submerged as sea level rises.”

“The overall vulnerability of the atoll communities has not changed, the land
is extremely l
ow lying and sea level rates are increasing,” he wrote.

Dr. Kench responded to our email from the Maldives where he and Dr. Webb were
press time, attending a meeting.  Though Dr. Kench didn’t specifically
answer our
questions regarding the fuller context of his reported quotes, he
did say, “The results
suggest that Pacific
Island communities will
face major environmental challenges over the
coming century. Our work has begun
to identify the way islands will change. The challenge
for island communities
is how they can adapt to the changes expected over the coming years.”

While Dr. Kench’s email response was short and poignant, Dr. Webb had much more
to say. 
His response was equally poignant, “The positive shoreline
response is encouraging, however,
given sea level rise rates are increasing and
other climate change stressors such as bleaching
and acidification are less
likely to have been a major issue 50 years ago, this resilience may
not last –
we just don’t know and there’s so little research in these environments that we
very limited information to guide us with regards to what future response
may be.

“What is for sure,” Dr. Webb continued, “is that the island’s natural
sedimentary systems will
not just sit and be unresponsive.  This study
shows that they are responsive and as my colleague
Paul Kench has noted ‘It has
long been thought that as the sea level goes up, islands will sit there.’
reported quote by Dr. Kench included the words, ‘and drown. But they won’t.’)
The islands
will respond but we must be very careful to point out that
‘response’ does not necessarily mean
that the islands will be maintained in the
form we recognise today, that is, we do not know how
long an island with soils
for agriculture, complex vegetation, good fresh groundwater reserves, etc.
be maintained.  Indeed, given what we understand of increasing rates of
sea level rise we may
be talking about relatively inhospitable gravel banks as
the ‘response’ to the next 100 years of sea l
evel rise.  The point is we
do not know at this time, and guessing does us all no favours – we need

sustained, good quality research to bring improved answers to atoll communities
who deserve to
have the best facts possible.”

On the question of vertical growth measurement of the islands the two
scientists studied,
Dr. Webb said, “This study did not measure vertical change
nor does it suggest that whole
island vertical growth has occurred. 
Whilst I was compiling this present research on
historic shoreline response I
found that the results fit my field observations well, in that many
shorelines in rural areas appeared to be ‘healthy’ or functional, that is, they
to build and provide protection to the land behind. What concerns me
deeply however is the
 very limited evidence I have seen of any vertical
building in these central Pacific atoll islands.

“It is important to note (that) I have not at this time seen evidence which
suggests widespread
deposition of sand or gravel which could build the entire
island vertically.  I have seen isolated
cases in the immediate vicinity
of the beach system but not of widespread deposition over the
larger land
surface of the islands. Given the importance of this question, it again
appropriate and dedicated research. Until we see evidence which
suggests otherwise, we
assume island wide vertical building is not occurring,
so even if shorelines remain resilient for
the immediate future it would seem
the greater land mass of the islands will remain very low lying
often less than 1m above the high tide mark) and ultimately this land will
subject to more and more frequent flooding.

“This phenomenon can be seen in Fongafale the
main settlement on Funafuti,

Here the shoreline berm (highest part of the beach) is well above sea level,
however the interior
of the island is very low lying and this area floods with
seawater every high spring tide. 
It follows that as sea levels continue
to increase this flooding will obviously become more frequent
and deeper,
gradually rendering more and more land useless.”

As to what should be done next, Dr. Webb said, “Until a few weeks ago a great
many people
thought that all atoll shores were uniformly erosive and this has
been rather unhelpful for those
who work in the field of shoreline processes.
The research presented in our paper changes our
understanding of this aspect of
climate change impacts in these pacific island atolls.  It does not

suggest that these environments are not profoundly challenged by the myriad of
other climate
change impacts, but it does bring new important information on
shoreline processes. This evidence
of shoreline resilience is welcome news for
those who at this time are still dependant on functional
shorelines for

“It is particularly important for those involved in climate change adaptation
projects in the shoreline
zone. Understanding that shores can still be
naturally resilient changes the way we approach coastal
adaptation and will
assist us to make better decisions about adaptation in the coastal zone. It
means that addressing existing poor management practices in shoreline
zones is an excellent ‘no regrets’
approach to climate change adaptation. In
other words, we can view shorelines in the same way we
are now managing
tropical coral reef areas, by removing stress on the reef system through
catchment management, reduced fishing pressure, etc. we hope to
bolster the natural resilience of the
reef system to climate change
stress.  Likewise, if we maintain shoreline processes and remove stress

such as beach mining, inappropriate engineering etc. we can reasonably hope to
bolster the natural
resilience of the shoreline to climate change stress.”

Dr. Kench read all of his colleague’s quotes before our newspaper went to
press.  Apparently the two
scientists are in agreement.   “Well
done,” he exclaimed!

Some skeptical bloggers say that Pacific Island Nations have been capitalizing
on the climate change
phenomenon of sea level rise in order to mobilize massive
amounts of financial aid but that as a result of
Kench and Webb’s new report,
all of that funding should stop.

“I have heard over and over again also that the developed countries have
‘pledged’ billions of dollars f
or climate change ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’
works but we have seen little of this yet,” wrote
Marion Henry, Acting
Secretary for the Department of Resources and Development for the
States of Micronesia. 

Henry said that he has told many of his international colleagues, “No amount of
funding is going to
raise my atoll island above sea level after sinking due to
sea level rise.”

“We should be celebrating the fact that the Pacific Islands
are producing world class science and
take very seriously the need for greater
understanding as we face climate change stress – wouldn’t
that have been a nice
positive spin,” Dr. Webb asked?

“How are global warming believers going to spin this one?” 

Perhaps accurately reported authoritative sources will do


About Alan

Settling into my 7th decade and still determined not to grow up too soon.
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