‘Sinking’ Pacific island is actually getting bigger, study finds

9 Feb 2018

Beach on one of the atolls of Tuvalu. Image: mbrand85/Shutterstock

While climate change continues to threaten many Pacific islands, the one considered most under threat is actually growing.

Many regions of the world are under threat from regular or permanent flooding as a result of rising sea levels caused by climate change. Particularly, the island nation of Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean.

Previous research has indicated that if sea levels rise at predicted rates, Tuvalu would be one of the first to disappear completely beneath the ocean.

However, new research published in Nature Communications, which was conducted by a team from the University of Auckland, presents evidence that the island nation is growing.

According to AFP (via Phys.org), the team analysed the changes in geography of the nine atolls of Tuvalu between 1971 and 2014 from a combination of satellite and aerial imagery.

During this time, the researchers found that eight of the atolls actually grew, lifting the country’s land area by 2.9pc despite its surrounding sea levels rising at twice the global average.

The study’s co-author Paul Kench now believes he and his team’s findings challenge the assumption that Tuvalu will actually be lost to the Pacific Ocean.

“We tend to think of Pacific atolls as static landforms that will simply be inundated as sea levels rise, but there is growing evidence these islands are geologically dynamic and are constantly changing,” Kench said.

“The study findings may seem counter-intuitive, given that [the] sea level has been rising in the region over the past half-century, but the dominant mode of change over that time on Tuvalu has been expansion, not erosion.”

Possible solutions

Offsetting the erosion, the study found, are the violent storms that hit the atolls regularly, depositing sediment.

While not dismissing the effects of climate change, the researchers argue that the countries in the firing line of rising sea levels should focus less on possibly leaving their land and more on finding creative solutions to allow the islands adapt to change.

This could include being more selective in where populations are and moving people to larger islands and atolls.

“Embracing such new adaptation pathways will present considerable national scale challenges to planning, development goals and land tenure systems,” the paper said.

“However, as the data on island change shows there is time (decades) to confront these challenges.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic