Disaster Risk Reduction Satellite image of the Maldives © NASA

Published on December 8th, 2010 | by Freelance

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The Complicated Truth About Climate Change and Sea Level Rise

By Eilif Ursin Reed

Just like the swimming polar bears have become symbols for disappearing sea ice in the Arctic, the remote atolls of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean have become emblematic for the consequences of sea level rise.

It just makes plain sense that islands on which the highest elevation is sometimes less than two meters, the IPCC’s predicted sea level rise of up to 58 cm by 2100 will cause devastation.

Or does it? Things that seem obvious at first glance, usually turn out to be more complicated if you look closer. So too with climate change.

In spite of the attention devoted to tropical islands over the last few years, with stories about “climate refugees” and whole nations being forced to move off their islands because of sea level rise, research on the subject has been scarce.

There is little doubt that climate change is happening. It is highly probable that we will experience sea level rise this century and with it an increase in severe flooding events. However, how and to what extent this will affect the islanders of the world is a different story. Not necessarily a happier one, but it could at least be one about capabilities, adaptation, knowledge and resilience; rather than the one-sided doomsday narratives we have come to know too well.

New information for old assumptions

The project Many Strong Voices (MSV) is a constellation of researchers and organizations aiming to communicate the complexities of climate change, and to gather information that makes islanders capable of making knowledge-based decisions.

Earlier this year, Arthur P. Webb from MSV partner, the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC), and Paul S. Kench from the University of Auckland contributed to shedding new light on one of the most persistent narratives of them all, that of “the sinking islands”. This has been a popular story among activists, journalists and politicians.

One year ago, leading up to the climate change conference in Copenhagen, Maldivian president Mohammed Nasheed arranged a cabinet meeting under the rolling waves of the Indian Ocean. The aim of the publicity stunt was to communicate that sea level rise due to climate change threatens to submerge the Maldives and other islands with it. Already then Paul S. Kench told Associated Press that the outlook for the Maldives is “not all doom and gloom”.

“The islands won’t be the same, but they will still be there”, he said, pointing out that his studies of the Maldives showed that the islands can adjust their shape in response to environmental changes.

But there is still much uncertainty to how islands react to rising sea levels. Even though there has been considerable scientific effort towards reconstructing the past and present sea level behavior, research on atoll island change has been scarce. While there is a good system for gathering data on sea-level trends on a global scale, there is no systematic monitoring programme to document reef island change. The researchers note that this “seems a gross oversight given the international concern over small island stability and pressing concerns of island communities to manage island landscapes.”

Webb and Kench decided to study island change on a relatively short time scale.

By meticulously examining satellite and aerial photos of 27 atoll islands in the Central Pacific from the last 19-61 years, the researchers found that 86% of the islands in their selection (which did not include the Maldives) either had grown in size  or remained stable. Even severe flooding events, such as the tsunami in 2004 had added to some of the island’s size.

Encouraging the discouraged

This was welcome news to those already skeptical about climate change.The Washington Times said that this was yet another piece of news that exposed “Al Gore’s fairy tales”, while the British magazine Spectator urged the Maldivian president to sell his snorkel.

The researchers involved in the study later told German magazine Der Spiegel that they found this polarization unfortunate, as they take global warming very seriously. They were after all not saying that islands are unaffected by climate change, just that in the case of sea level rise things are more complicated than many people seem to think. It is also important to remember that their article solely dealt with sea level rise, which is only one of many effects of climate change, and selected islands in the Pacific.

So how does climate change affect the islands of the world? To this question there are as many answers as there are islands. There are 52 small island developing states (SIDS) recognized by the UN. These face similar challenges concerning freshwater supply, limited land-based resources, remoteness and vulnerability to disasters, including climate change.

Yet there are great differences between them: Some have a few thousand inhabitants, such as Tuvalu, while others, such as Papua New Guinea, have millions. An island state like The Maldives are mainly coral islands, while Montserrat is volcanic; Tokelau is low lying while Cape Verde is mountainous; some are stable democracies while others are struggling with internal conflict. Some of the small island developing states, like Belize and Guyana, aren’t even islands, but they are coastal states sharing many of the characteristics and challenges as island states.

Also, you need more than just firm ground under your feet to live on an island. Though some islands are growing, the shorelines may be growing faster than the island’s interior. This could leave both arable land and important fresh water supplies below sea level, rendering them susceptible to contamination by salt water.

Know the whole story

It is apparent that many circumstances need to be factored in when assessing an island’s vulnerability to climate change. The consequences of climate change on small island states can be compared to those of an earthquake. An earthquake of the same magnitude and depth may cause different degrees of damage, depending on where it strikes, as we saw in Haiti and Chile. One killed hundreds, the other hundreds of thousands. Population density, governance structures and whether the infrastructure is built to withstand earthquakes help to decide the severity of the disaster.

As with earthquakes, a lot can be done to minimize the impacts of climate change and rising sea levels. And as with earthquakes, how well prepared a community is for an event determines the severity of the outcome. Consider a situation where a flooding event damages important infrastructure. Is it fair to blame climate change if the damages could have been avoided with proper funding for adaptation?

Adaptation can be physical measures such as constructing flood barriers, moving habitation inland or to higher ground. But it can also be to provide education and training to fishermen and farmers that could help them reduce their vulnerability to climate change. Poor sanitation is another example that leads to shortages in limited fresh water supplies. Knowledge on how to manage fresh water supplies can thus reduce a community’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change.

Which measures are most suitable depend on the specific challenges posed to the different islands. They also depend on what local knowledge already exists on the island in question. Consequently, finding suitable measures requires a combination of local traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge. As in Samoa, where the government spoke to and consulted local villages and people when designing and implementing coastal management plans. In Tuvalu on the other hand, researchers found that local inhabitants are skeptical of climate change and are not involved in discussions concerning potential adaptation options. The Tuvalu example points to a need to strengthen information efforts in order to increase local knowledge on climate change and to involve Tuvalu’s inhabitants in their own future.

Understanding how climate change affects small island states is a laborious affair, which involves a plethora of voices, needs and solutions. Listening to one message is more convenient than relating to a cacophony of voices telling different stories. Yet, in the case of climate change, and how it affects the lives of people all over the world, we don’t have a choice. All voices must be heard.

Feature Photo © NASA

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One Response to The Complicated Truth About Climate Change and Sea Level Rise

  1. Jennifer Doherty says:

    While the Earth has always endured natural climate change variability, we are now facing the possibility of irreversible climate change in the near future. The increase of greenhouse gases in the Earth?s atmosphere from industrial processes has enhanced the natural greenhouse effect. This in turn has accentuated the greenhouse ?trap? effect, causing greenhouse gases to form a blanket around the Earth, inhibiting the sun?s heat from leaving the outer atmosphere. This increase of greenhouse gases is causing an additional warming of the Earth?s surface and atmosphere. A direct consequence of this is sea-level rise expansion, which is primarily due to the thermal expansion of oceans (water expands when heated), inducing the melting of ice sheets as global surface temperature increases.
    Forecasts for climate change by the 2,000 scientists on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) project a rise in the global average surface temperature by 1.4 to 5.8°C from 1990 to 2100. This will result in a global mean sea level rise by an average of 5 mm per year over the next 100 years. Consequently, human-induced climate change will have ?deleterious effects? on ecosystems, socio-economic systems and human welfare.At the moment, especially high risks associated with the rise of the oceans are having a particular impact on the two archipelagic states of Western Polynesia: Tuvalu and Kiribati. According to UN forecasts, they may be completely inundated by the rising waters of the Pacific by 2050.According to the vast majority of scientific investigations, warming waters and the melting of polar and high-elevation ice worldwide will steadily raise sea levels. This will likely drive people off islands first by spoiling the fresh groundwater, which will kill most land plants and leave no potable water for humans and their livestock. Low-lying island states like Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives are the most prominent nations threatened in this way.“The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from Geneva. The best solution is continue to recognize deterritorialized states as a normal states in public international law. The case of Kiribati and other small island states is a particularly clear call to action for more secure countries to respond to the situations facing these ‘most vulnerable nations’, as climate change increasingly impacts upon their lives.

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