STUDY: Pacific Islands Getting Bigger, Despite Rising Seas

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Most of the islands of Tuvalu are growing, according to a new study, defying expectations that rising seas would soon force islanders to flee their homes.

New Zealand researchers examined aerial photos and satellite images of islands in Tuvalu’s nine atolls and 101 reef islands over the last four decades. Eight of the atolls and three-quarters of the reef islands grew during that time, according to the University of Auckland study.

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

“While we recognise that habitability rests on a number of factors, loss of land is unlikely to be a factor in forcing depopulation of Tuvalu,” Kench said.

In total, Tuvalu’s total land area grew nearly 3 percent from 1971 to 2014, despite rising sea levels. Kench’s study contradicts predictions by scientific bodies and activists that Tuvalu, and other Pacific islands, would be swallowed up by the rising sea, spurred by manmade global warming.


This is not the first time Kench and his colleagues have discovered results that fly in the face of global warming expectations. Kench found in 2016 that low-lying Pacific islands, including Tuvalu and Kiribati, have grown due to “coral debris, land reclamation and sediment,” according to ABC Australia.

Kench was also the lead author of a 2015 study that found the Pacific’s 29-island Funafuti Atoll had also grown in size.

Kench found that despite “some of the highest rates of sea-level rise… over the past 60 [years] … no islands have been lost, the majority have enlarged, and there has been a 7.3 percent increase in net island area over the past century.”

“There is no evidence of heightened erosion over the past half-century as sea-level rise accelerated,” Kench’s 2015 study found.

Kench’s research portrays a very different outlook for Pacific islands than what’s commonly reported in the news.

Back in 2004, Smithsonian magazine wondered if Tuvalu would “disappear beneath the sea” due to global warming. In the years since, Tuvalu and other island nations have become the models for tackling global warming.

The U.N. has warned that Pacific islanders could become “climate refugees” forced to leave their homes as sea levels rise. Tuvalu has even pushed for international laws to protect such refugees.

Kench’s work shows that manmade efforts, like seawalls and shore reclamation, have stemmed some coastal erosion, but he also pointed out that wave patterns and sediment from storms can also play a role.

“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.

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