Study: Reef Islands Defy Global Warming And Grow

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Scientists have warned that rising sea levels pose a threat to low-lying island nations across the globe. But a recent study found that one South Pacific atoll is defying dire predictions of being swallowed up by the ocean.

Scientists from Australia and New Zealand have found that despite the Funafuti Atoll seeing “some of the highest rates of sea-level rise… over the past 60 [years]” the island chain has actually enlarged.

“Despite the magnitude of this rise, no islands have been lost, the majority have enlarged, and there has been a 7.3% increase in net island area over the past century (A.D. 1897–2013),” according to the study published in the journal Geology. “There is no evidence of heightened erosion over the past half-century as sea-level rise accelerated.”

Scientists with the universities of Auckland and New South Wales analyzed six slices of time over the past 118 years at 29 islands in the Funafuti Atoll to see how sea level rise was impacting the islands. Their study’s results “suggest a more optimistic prognosis for the habitability of atoll nations and demonstrate the importance of resolving recent rates and styles of island change to inform adaptation strategies.”

The Funafuti Atoll is a small reef island that has about 6,000 people and encircles an 11-mile long and 9-mile wide lagoon. The atoll is a narrow strip of land that can be anywhere from 66 feet to 1,300 feet wide. The total land area of the 33-island atoll is only 0.9 square miles.

For years, scientists and environmental activists have warned that low-lying island nations stand to lose the most due to rising sea levels, especially due to increased storm surge from cyclones and other storms. But increasingly, evidence suggests that reef islands are defying sea level rises.

University of Auckland’s Paul Kench, lead author of the Funafuti study, has previously found that reef islands are actually growing in the face of rising sea levels. Kench found that islands, including Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia have grown due to “coral debris, land reclamation and sediment,” according to ABC Australia.

“Eighty percent of the islands we’ve looked at have either remained about the same or, in fact, gotten larger,” Kench told ABC in 2010. “Some of those islands have gotten dramatically larger, by 20 or 30 percent.

“The reason for this is these islands are so low lying that in extreme events waves crash straight over the top of them,” Kench added. “In doing that they transport sediment from the beach or adjacent reef platform and they throw it onto the top of the island.”

Kench does warn that while coral reef islands may be growing, it’s unclear if they will be habitable by humans if global temperatures continue to rise.

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