Article misrepresents science on Pacific islands climate threat

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An article shared online says Pacific islands are growing and are therefore not threatened by climate change. The claim misrepresents scientific research: one of the studies cited said the expansion was mostly due to construction, while scientists agree that rising seas and stronger storms threaten such islands.

"The doomsday scenario for Pacific atoll nations has nothing to do with the climate," said the article published on Facebook by the conservative lobby group Advance Australia on July 18. It cited studies by geomorphologists -- experts who study landforms.

"The Pacific Islands are NOT sinking, and fear mongering about climate change by the Pacific Islander leaders is most likely a guise to demand more foreign aid," the article said.

A screen shot taken on July 20 of a July 18 article on the Facebook page of Avance Australia

Advance Australia, also known as 'Advance’, launched in 2018 to counter left-wing political activist group GetUp. Advance has faced scrutiny from media and authorities over misinformation and its advertising practices.

Scientists told AFP the article was misusing the findings in the studies.

"At no point do we suggest that climate change is not happening or that small islands will not be impacted by climate change," said one of them, geomorphologist Paul Kench of Simon Fraser University in Canada.

In another study cited by the article, the area growth "is largely the product of engineering on islands for tourism or military purposes," said one of its co-authors, Murray Ford of Auckland University.

Science misrepresented

The article referred to two sources: a 2015 report in National Geographic citing research by Kench and colleagues, and a study by scientists at the University of Auckland published in 2021.

Neither text says that the findings are evidence against the threat from climate change.

Kench's team's analysis of more than 600 coral reef islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans indicated that about 80 percent of the islands had remained stable or grown.

Pacific atolls shift in size with the movement of sediment form coral reefs ( AFP / GREGORY BOISSY)

The Advance Australia article "does misrepresent our work," Kench told AFP.

"Indeed our work shows that island communities face challenging times as they adjust to the ever-changing position of the islands on reef surfaces. Such change is likely to become more rapid as a consequence of sea level rise and increased wave activity," he said.

"Our research showed that the majority of islands we examined (now more than 1000) have either remained stable (~30%) or expanded in size (~40%). The remainder (~30%) have become smaller in size. We also showed that the islands are mobile and are constantly changing their position on reef surfaces."

Rising seas

The Auckland study cited in the article found that the total land area on 221 atolls in the Indian and Pacific Oceans increased by 61.74 sq km or 6.1 percent between 2000 and 2017.

It said the increase in overall area was driven by humans building new ground to hold tourist resorts and military infrastructure in islands peripheral to or outside the Pacific.

"Most of the change in land area resulted from island building within the Maldives (in the Indian Ocean) and on atolls in the South China Sea," the study said.

"The long-term persistence of atoll islands is under threat due to continued sea level rise driven by anthropogenic climate change," it stated.

Co-author Ford said that the two issues of flooding due to rising seas and erosion of the islands' area were "often conflated". There is no strong evidence of islands eroding, he said, but Pacific sea rise is documented.

"I think it is unwise to say that since islands have persisted without widespread erosion since the mid-20th century that this will continue in the future as sea-level rise rates accelerate," he told AFP.

Shifting coral sediment

As the studies explained, reef islands grow and change shape as sediment from coral reefs shifts around.

"By definition, atolls are coral reefs growing on volcanic islands that are sinking. As the volcanic rock cools over time, it becomes more dense, causing the island to gradually subside," said Andrea Dutton, a professor in the Department of Geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"Whether the top surface of the atoll remains above sea level is a balance between the rate of sea level rise, the ability of the coral reef to grow and 'keep up' with sea level rise, and... factors such as wave height and energy that affect erosion of the reef and redistribution of sediment," she added.

Dutton sent the comments in an email to AFP and the Climate Science Desk of specialist fact-check platform Climate Feedback. The site published a detailed response from scientists to similar claims about Pacific islands in 2016.

Officials in the Marshall Islands have blamed climate change for storm surges which have caused widespread flooding, damaging homes. ( AFP / GIFF JOHNSON)

Even in cases where shifting sediment adds to the area of islands, it does not protect them from damage aggravated by climate change.

"The area of an island is not an effective measure of whether or not the island is sinking or if the island is habitable, which ultimately is the concern of the island residents and politicians. The area of an island can change independently from sea level," said Dutton.

"Sea level rise, in concert with changes in ocean swell, is expected to increase the frequency of overtopping and inundation of islands, resulting in damage to infrastructure and the intrusion of saltwater into groundwater reserves," Dutton said.

Another National Geographic article reported from the island nation of Tuvalu how wells and crops there had been tainted by salt water from rising seas.

Climate science consensus

Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that carbon emissions from humans burning fossil fuels are heating the planet, raising the risk and severity of extreme weather events and causing the seas to warm and rise.

"It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land," the IPCC said in its main 2021 climate science report, compiled by more than 200 scientists in 66 countries.

In July 2022, Pacific islands called for the International Court of Justice to rule on countries' legal duties to stop climate change.

Map showing the member nations of the Pacific Islands Forum. ( AFP / STAFF)

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summed up the threat to small islands in a landmark report in 2021. It further detailed its review of findings in a special report on oceans.

"Sea levels will very likely continue to rise around small islands, more so with higher emissions and over longer time periods," it said.

It went on to say warming seas will drive more intense storms and cyclones, like the deadly ones that hit Fiji, Vanuatu and other islands in 2020.

AFP has published other fact checks about climate change here.

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