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Photoshop drowned my island

19 Jun 2019 | Science Notes

Time magazine recently showed UN chief Antonio Guterres on Tuvalu with the water photoshopped rising up to his shoulders to show how the island is sinking due to rising seas due to climate change even though it’s, um, not. The undoctored data says: "Over the past decades, atoll islands exhibited no widespread sign of physical destabilization in the face of sea-level rise. A reanalysis of available data, which cover 30 Pacific and Indian Ocean atolls including 709 islands, reveals that … 88.6% of islands were either stable or increased in area, while only 11.4% contracted." And there's more where that came from.

That quotation is from a 2018 survey of available evidence on Pacific atolls by French oceanographer Virginie Duvat. And she describes similar findings in a 2015 review by two of her colleagues: “McLean and Kench (2015) completed the first review on atoll island planform change, based on a 244-island sample from 12 Central and Western Pacific atolls distributed among six atoll countries and territories, that is, Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia and Papua New Guinea. Using available quantitative data for 146 islands, they showed that despite the high rate of sea-level rise observed in this area of the Pacific (up to 5.1 mm/yr in Tuvalu over the 1950–2009 period), all of the sample islands had persisted, with, respectively, 72.6%, 19.2%, and 8.2% of islands exhibiting areal stability, expansion, and contraction. They concluded that climate-ocean variability, sediment production, and human activities were the major controls on island change, and stressed that the maintenance of an adequate sediment supply, of unobstructed sediment transport pathways and of sufficient accommodation space at the coast were the conditions required for island persistence over the 21st century.”

That same year a major study was completed of 29 islands in the Funafuti Atoll. It concluded: "We analyzed six time slices of shoreline position over the past 118 yr at 29 islands of Funafuti Atoll to determine their physical response to recent sea-level rise. Despite the magnitude of this rise, no islands have been lost, the majority have enlarged, and there has been a 7.3% increase in net island area over the past century (A.D. 1897–2013)."

Prior to that finding, an earlier study used historical aerial and satellite photography to study atoll size and found that 86% of islands had been stable or were growing. And prior to that one, another study looked at Tuvalu specifically and found that flooding of a settled area in the middle of Fongafale Islet was attributable to the fact that the region was an inland swamp below the Spring high tide level, on which a settlement had been built. When an economic downturn in nearby islands led to an influx of population after the mid-1970s many new houses were built on the floodplain, creating the problem of flood risk being experienced today.

The narrative of South Pacific and Indian Ocean atolls disappearing under the rising seas makes for compelling hype. But it's no accident that the UN chief needed Photoshop to make it look like the island is going under, because the scientific data show it's just not happening.

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