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The threat remains

Suva, Fiji : The Fiji-based Secretariat for the Pacific Islands Geoscience Commission (SOPAC) has clarified claims made in a recent scientific publication that three island nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia were ‘growing and not sinking.’

SOPAC director Russell Howorth convened a special media briefing to explain what the real sciences on the ground say about the vulnerability of these low island atoll islands. Howorth strongly argued that the article published in the journal Global and Planetary Change “does not make sweeping conclusions that the vulnerability of our islands is reducing, particularly with regard to the future impacts of sea level change.”

The article, peer reviewed by Arthur Webb of SOPAC said the study did not measure the vertical growth of the island surface nor does it suggest that there is any change in the height of the islands. Since land height has not changed the vulnerability of each island to submergence due to sea-level rise is also unchanged and these low-lying atolls remain immediately and extremely vulnerable to inundation or sea water flooding, Webb argued in his peer review article. Webb said that while the shoreline of these atolls appear to have responded well to sea level rise, it is not known how long this trend  will continue or if this pattern is similar across the whole Pacific region. He added that urban impacts such as beach mining or inappropriate coastal engineering can also cause intense erosion or disturbance.

His argument was supported by Howorth who said experiences have shown that traditional capacity has helped islands cope with their natural vulnerability. He used the example of the Nan Madol on the southeast corner of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia. “Over 200 acres of mangrove on the coastal reef fringe was reclaimed and was evidently well managed. Canals were left for access and drainage; local materials were used for pathways and wall infilling. Today, a thousand years later the only poor management aspect manifests itself in the collapse of some walls presumably due to compaction.”

“Today, the reality is that capacity to cope is much reduced for many as the island vulnerability has increased and continues to increase not the least due to exposure to the adverse impacts of climate change.” The SOPAC director said revelations in the science journal publication undermine the urgent need to strengthen the science policy linkages.

“In particular, the negative press on this article works to jeopardise the efforts of Pacific Island governments in their preparations and negotiations leading to the UNFCCC Meeting in Cancun Mexico late this year. However, Howorth admits that the journal report is part and parcel of a larger jigsaw puzzle of the knowledge base, ‘which is still at best still in minimal.’ “The reality is we need to understand fully all the pieces in the jigsaw, and then we may develop an understanding of how they fit together to complete the picture.

Last month, a BBC report quoting an article from the New Scientist said the islands of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia will remain 100 years time but not sure whether they will be inhabitable. The study of 27 islands over the last 60 years, the report said, suggests that most have remained stable while some have actually grown.

The research paper had described the results of investigation into historical trends of atoll island shoreline change using historical aerial photography compared over time – not predicting future response of shorelines and only documenting past response. The historical photos were compared using highly accurate satellite images which when processed and combined in computer mapping systems (GIS), allowed measurement of change in shoreline position with accuracy and confidence.

Source: Our Correspondent