14 Apr 2018

Climate change in the Pacific – what's really going on?

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 14 April 2018

The effects of climate change on the lands of the Pacific are more complicated than tiny islands disappearing into the sea, says Auckland University professor Paul Kench.

His team have discovered atolls like Tuvalu are actually growing in size.

New Funafuti waterfront recreation are, Queen Elizabeth II Park

Photo: Supplied

The common belief is that smaller Pacific Island nations like Tuvalu will one day vanish as global warming increases sea levels.

But a recent Auckland University study found Tuvalu's land area has, in fact, expanded by almost 3 percent over the last four decades.

Even though the researchers name climate change as one of the single greatest environmental threats to the livelihood and well-being of Pacific peoples, the study's findings have been seized on by climate change sceptics and angered some Pacific Island leaders.

Professor Paul Kench

Professor Paul Kench Photo: Supplied

Kench's research team studied more than 600 coral reef islands in the Maldives, Fiji, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands and the Great Barrier Reef.

Using aerial photos and satellite images, they found 40 percent had grown, 40 percent had stayed stable and 20 percent had shrunk.

Kench says he’s not suggesting some islands aren’t shrinking – “indeed, one island has been lost” – but the broader challenge is that climate change is causing land in the Pacific to move around.

Coral reef islands are dynamic systems, and the action of waves and storms can either erode them or, by dumping sand and gravel on their surfaces, expand them, Kench says.

While most land is stable and many islands have expanded, some land is “changing the position on its reef platforms”.

Climate change is increasing the pace of change.

“Our work highlights some very severe constraints that the Pacific communities need to deal with over the next 20 or 30 years.

“How do you live on this island that starts to move around you?

“The island will still be there, but it’s changing.”

Kench’s team has previously published similar findings.

While his work confronts the “ingrained” view that islands will be lost, Kench says he’s disappointed it has been used to fuel the arguments of climate change deniers.

“We can’t see, really, if people read what we write, how people can take that message.

“What we believe our work shows is a more nuanced understanding of what is actually happening in the islands.”

Kench's concern is that countries in the Pacific and Indian Oceans don’t have a complete understanding of what type of changes are in store – and money donated to help tackle the changes could go to waste.

 “Without that [understanding], we’ll make a lot of mistakes around how islands will adapt to these changes.”