Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Is 'Time running out' for Kiribati as 'seas rise'?

I'm sure I've had this feeling of deja vu before.
The low-lying Pacific nation of Kiribati is running out of time on climate change as seas rise, and is drafting plans including mass relocation of its people while the world procrastinates on the issue, the country's leader says.
President Anote Tong said areas of Kiribati -- consisting of more than 30 coral atolls, most only a few metres (feet) above sea level -- had already been swamped by the rising ocean.
I'll ignore the obvious howler about metres and feet and concentrate on the rest of this article on TerraDaily, particularly the "rising ocean". The South Pacific Sea Level & Climate Monitoring Project managed by Australia's BOM has been recording sea level and climate data in the central and south-west Pacific for almost two decades. Their data to end 2011 provides the content of my South Pacific Sea Level reference page. the latest updates to October 2012 were released just over a week ago. Here's the updated chart for Kiribati.

Source: Bureau of Meteorology
The red 3-year (37 month centred) average line shows that current levels have risen to what they were 10-11 years ago. I'm not saying that in general sea levels aren't rising worldwide - clearly they are. I'm not saying that in general sea levels in the pacific aren't rising - my reference page shows they are, but the data for Kiribati shows no increase over the last decade.

The threat to the atolls of Kiribati and other low-lying Pacific islands comes not from rising sea-levels, but from rapidly rising sea-levels. Coral atolls grow upwards as sea-level rises. The surface that islanders live and farm on wasn't there a few thousand years ago. There's a threat only if the corals can't migrate upwards at a sufficient rate, and if insufficient coral debris accumulates at the land surface to maintain the atoll area. A survey done a couple of years ago showed that most Pacific atolls were growing in area rather than shrinking. However the growth was net growth; some land was eroded away, and new land created as waves accumulated coral debris in other places. In the short term that doesn't help the islanders much. I've no doubt that on the main atoll Tarawa and others in the Kiribati group, some areas had "already been swamped by the rising ocean" as Mr. Tong is quoted as saying.

Mr. Tong seems to me to have moderated his language and curbed his use of hyperbole recently, indeed in an article of similar tone on NBC News "As sea levels rise, Kiribati eyes 6,000 acres in Fiji as new home for 103,000 islanders" he says "changing rainfall, tidal and storm patterns pose as least as much threat as ocean levels, which so far have risen only slightly". However, NBC News manages to get something wrong, as usual (yes, I'm a cynic). They show a picture of the largest atoll Tarawa captioned "Kiribati, seen here in an aerial photo taken in 2004". For Kiribati to be shown in a photograph would require it to be taken from a satellite. The TerraDaily writers point out that it consists of "more than 30 coral atolls and the NBC page itself has a map showing the group extends for something akin to the E-W width of Australia.

The NBC article ends with something interesting, and which i wasn't aware of:
Although like much of the Pacific, Kiribati is poor — its annual GDP per person is just $1,600 — Tong said the country has plenty of foreign reserves to draw from for the land purchase. The money, he said, comes from phosphate mining on the archipelago in the 1970s.
Now call me a cynic (darn - I've already admitted that), but doesn't allowing large chunks of your valuable real-estate which rises no more than a few metres above sea-level to be carted away by ship seem rather short-sighted to you?

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