At a U.N. Conference of world leaders in September, representatives of the Alliance of Small Island States and the Least Developed Countries Group said, “In another 75 years, many ... members may no longer hold seats at the United Nations if the world continues on its present course,” the Associated Press (AP) reports.
At the same meeting, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said, “We are already seeing a version of environmental Armageddon.”
The problem, according to the island nations represented at the U.N. meeting, is that low-lying islands such as Tuvalu will completely disappear within 75 years, covered by rising seas. Fortunately, scientific evidence demolishes such claims.
Current sea-level rise is not at all unusual historically. Also, several peer-reviewed studies in recent years demonstrate that, even as the world has warmed modestly, many island nations are seeing their land masses increase, not shrink.
As detailed in Climate at a Glance: Sea Level Rise, sea level has been rising at a relatively steady pace of approximately one foot per century since the mid-1800s, long before humans started emitting significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms there has been no significant recent acceleration.
Some low-lying islands are likely threatened by relentless but entirely natural sea-level rise. However, as NASA reports, sea level always rises between ice ages as ice sheets retreat. Also, many islands and island nations, perhaps a majority in many locations, are actually seeing their land masses increase.
The island of Hawaii, for example, added 543 acres of new land due to lava flows between January 1983 and September 2002. In 2018 alone, Popular Mechanics reports, volcanic activity added 875 acres to Hawaii Island. Volcanic activity is creating a new Hawaiian coastline and adding height to the island, both of which diminish any threat to the island’s inhabitants from rising seas.
As early as 2010, many small island nations were actually growing, not being submerged beneath the seas, research shows. A study that examined 27 islands spanning Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Federated States of Micronesia found 80 percent of the islands either maintained their size or grew over the last 60 years, with some growing dramatically.
The 2010 study’s findings were confirmed and expanded in 2015 when the same group of researchers published a peer-reviewed study of 600 coral reef islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The researchers found approximately 40 percent of those islands remained stable, and 40 percent increased in size. As National Geographic reported at the time, “Some islands grew by as much as 14 acres (5.6 hectares) in a single decade, and Tuvalu’s main atoll, Funafuti—33 islands distributed around the rim of a large lagoon—has gained 75 acres (32 hectares) of land during the past 115 years.”
Despite political gimmicks designed to induce climate “reparations” from Western democracies, Tuvalu’s government has felt confident enough in its long-term future to build brand-new government buildings since 2015. In addition, there is no evidence Tuvalu is experiencing a forced migration of its population to other countries due to rising seas. The population on Fongafale, Tuvalu’s largest island, has increased by 33 percent.
Recent research published in 2018 by GIScience & Remote Sensing found 15 of the 28 uninhabited islands on Tuvalu’s Funafuti Atoll saw their shorelines increase in recent years.
In the peer-reviewed journal Geology in 2019, the same group of researchers explained the islands’ growth as resulting from strong wave action washing sand and gravel inland so the atolls and islands are “continually replenished by sediment from the surrounding reef.” In other words, the natural interaction of land and sea protect islands from sea-level rise. Even on islands where some shoreline is lost to the seas, the researchers found storms and wave action carrying sand and gravel inland are adding to the height of such islands, making them more resistant to rising seas.
Seas are rising slowly and will continue to rise as they have, without any help by humankind, for millennia. Even so, the evidence shows many island nations are gaining acreage, gaining height, and supporting growing populations.
SOURCES: Associated Press; Climate at a Glance: Sea Level Rise; NASA; Popular Mechanics; BBC; National Geographic; GIScience & Remote Sensing; Geology
Dr H. Sterling Burnett is a Heartland senior fellow on environmental policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.