Media exaggerated the role of climate change in the disappearance of five reef islands detailed in a scientific paper published last week, according to the study’s author.
The paper, published on Friday (6 May 2016), reports on the loss of five vegetated reef islands and changes to other reef island shorelines in the Solomon Islands. News stories subsequently appeared in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Washington Post and other media outlets implying that the study linked the disappearance of the islands to climate change.
But lead author Simon Albert, from the University of Queensland, has complained that the media headlines have misinterpreted the science by confusing sea level rise with climate change and implying the islands were lost due to climate change. The Guardian has run a second story reporting on Albert’s concerns: ““All these headlines are certainly pushing things a bit towards the ‘climate change has made islands vanish’ angle. I would prefer slightly more moderate titles that focus on sea-level rise being the driver rather than simply ‘climate change’,” Albert told The Guardian.
The paper, published in Environmental Research Letters, concludes: “This study represents the first assessment of shoreline change from the Solomon Islands, a global sea-level rise hotspot. We have documented five vegetated reef islands (1–5 ha in size) that have recently vanished and a further six islands experiencing severe shoreline recession. Shoreline recession at two sites has destroyed villages that have existed since at least 1935, leading to community relocations. The large range of erosion severity on the islands in this study highlights the critical need to understand the complex interplay between the projected accelerating sea-level rise, other changes in global climate such as winds and waves, and local tectonics, to guide future adaptation planning and minimise social impacts.”
Low-lying reef islands in the Solomon Islands provide a valuable window into the future impacts of global sea-level rise. Sea-level rise has been predicted to cause widespread erosion and inundation of low-lying atolls in the central Pacific. However, the limited research on reef islands in the western Pacific indicates the majority of shoreline changes and inundation to date result from extreme events, seawalls and inappropriate development rather than sea-level rise alone. Here, we present the first analysis of coastal dynamics from a sea-level rise hotspot in the Solomon Islands. Using time series aerial and satellite imagery from 1947 to 2014 of 33 islands, along with historical insight from local knowledge, we have identified five vegetated reef islands that have vanished over this time period and a further six islands experiencing severe shoreline recession. Shoreline recession at two sites has destroyed villages that have existed since at least 1935, leading to community relocations. Rates of shoreline recession are substantially higher in areas exposed to high wave energy, indicating a synergistic interaction between sea-level rise and waves. Understanding these local factors that increase the susceptibility of islands to coastal erosion is critical to guide adaptation responses for these remote Pacific communities.
Simon Albert, Javier X Leon, Alistair R Grinham, John A Church, Badin R Gibbes and Colin D Woodroffe; Interactions between sea-level rise and wave exposure on reef island dynamics in the Solomon Islands; , , doi:10.1088/17489326/11/5/054011.