Islands Not Sinking: Climate Change Demonstrated to Be a Hoax

February 22, 2018

Have you ever wondered how it is possible that coral islands lie flat just a little above the sea level? It is not a coincidence, the coral reef that forms the islands is alive and it can adapt to variations of the sea level. According to some people, that demonstrates that climate change is a hoax (??).

Do you remember when there was a “debate” about climate change? Yes, there was such a thing. Someone would set up a panel where there would be a scientist arguing for the current interpretation of anthropogenic global warming and someone who at least pretended to be a scientist who would argue for the opposite interpretation. It was supposed to be a civil debate, all based on science.

I don’t have to tell you that such debates have disappeared, you don’t see them anymore just as you don’t see quiet and civilized debates between Trump supporters and members of the Antifa movement. In recent times, the closest thing to a public debate on climate was the proposal by Scott Pruitt, EPA’s chief, of a “Red Team” and a “Blue Team” of scientists who should discuss climate matters. The fact that Pruitt chose terms commonly used in military exercises says a lot about what kind of “debate” this was supposed to be. Perhaps it is a good thing that the idea seems to have died out.

Today, we have no debate anymore. We only have two sides shooting slogans against each other. Each side is ready to exploit every perceived weakness in the other to discharge a volley of posts and tweets aimed at gaining a few political points. A snowstorm demonstrates that AGW doesn’t exist while a hurricane that we are all going to die soon. The latest example of this attitude is the news arriving from the Tuvalu Islands. An article by Kench et al.,  published on Nature, reports that, over the past 40 years, the 101 Tuvalu Islands had gained some area – on the average a little less than 3% – despite the sea level rise that took place during that period.

Of course, that generated the usual blast of attacks against “alarmists”, for instance by James Delingpole and Anthony WattsHow come that the islands are not sinking?“Global Warming” (written in quotes) must be a hoax.

Neither of the two factions involved in the climate debate (so to say) seem to have shown any interest in why the islands are not shrinking while the sea is actually rising. The anti-science faction only used the news as a PR tool, the pro-science faction just ignored the story.

But if we go beyond the noise of propaganda, the story of the coral islands is fascinating and complex. That these islands are not shrinking has been known for at least ten years.The reason is that the islands, or at least the reef barriers around them, are alive. They are not just chunks of rock emerging out of the ocean surface. They are the result of the mineral excreta of tiny creatures that create the hard part of the coral barrier with their exoskeleton.

Being alive, corals can grow and follow the vagaries of the sea level – within some limits. They position themselves to stay just below the water surface. If they can’t manage that, they can “drown” at depths too high for sunlight to arrive, while they die and are eroded away if they are exposed to air. Some coral reefs survived the great sea level rise (some 120 meters!) that took place at the end of the last ice age. Not a small feat, but it was possible over a few thousands of years.

So, there is nothing special in the modern coral reefs having survived the sea level rise of a few centimeters of the past decades. As long as the sea level rise is not too fast the islands can probably stay above water – perhaps they can even cope better with climate change than some low elevation continental lands.

But it is a precarious survival. Even for the modest sea level rise of the past decades, the Maldives experienced some 30 severe floods during the past 50 years, including several which affected the capital city of Malé. In 2007, a series of swells forced the evacuation of more than 1,600 people from their homes and damaged more than 500 housing units.

Periodic flooding is a problem for Maldivians, but the real problem is that, unlike the population of continents or of large islands, they have no place to escape. The islands are uniformly flat, there is no high ground to retreat to. If there comes a true big flooding, the inhabitants will be swept away.

That could happen: the current temperature increase is so fast that the sea level rise may well reach rates beyond anything that the coral reefs can cope with. To say nothing of the threats to the reef coming from seawater acidification and of human destruction for fishing or because of pollution. If the corals die, the islands are lost. And the corals are already dying. Nobody can bet that the Maldives – and many other coral islands – will still exist by the end of the century.

Up until a few years ago, the governments of the coral islands seemed to be determined to make an effort to attract the world’s attention to their situation. In 2009, the Maldivian government held an underwater meeting just for this purpose.

Today, the situation seems to have changed. The new Maldivian government has shifted emphasis from fighting climate change to economic development on the tune that “Development must go on, jobs are needed.” I argued that this policy switch may well be the result of the Maldivian elites having discovered that it is too late to stop global warming and that nobody from the mainland will help them. I wrote in my post that:

Imagine that you are part of the elite of the Maldives. And imagine that you are smart enough to understand what’s going on with the Earth’s climate. As things stand today, it is clear that it is too late to stop a burst of global warming that will push temperatures so high that nothing will save the Maldives islands. Maybe not next year but in a few decades, it is nearly certain. So, given the situation, what is the rational thing for you to do? Of course, it is to sell what you can sell as long as you can find a sucker who will buy it. Then you can say good riddance to those who remain.

Translate that to the whole world and you have one of the reasons why there is no debate anymore on climate change.

Ugo Bardi

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. He is member of the scientific committee of ASPO (Association for the study of peak oil) and regular contributor of "The Oil Drum" and "Resilience.org". His blog in English is called "Cassandra's legacy". His most recent book in English Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green”, 2014. He is also the author of The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer 2011).

Tags: environmental effects of climate change, sea level rise