Women of Tuvalu protest inaction on climate change.

Craig Kelly and “the great sinking islands scam”

The claim

Craig Kelly says the increase in area of Jih Island in the Pacific shows that climate change is not happening. Seeing this information, he says, could prevent “children from being brainwashed into the climate cult by fraudsters & socialists peddling the ‘great sinking islands scam’”.

Verdict

This claim misrepresents the whole of the data. Some Pacific islands are growing in size, but others are being washed away. Many are so far resisting erosion more than expected.

But ocean levels are rising measurably, flooding many Pacific island states, making their groundwater saline and threatening to make them unliveable. Mr Kelly’s unrepresentative claims about land area are diverting attention away from the more serious and substantial effects of climate change in the Pacific.


The claim in detail

In a Facebook post on 3 December, Craig Kelly posted two photos of Jih Island in the Marshall Islands, which are located several thousand km northeast of Australia. The photos show that this small island (about 2 km2) has increased in size by 13% over 77 years.

Mr Kelly then says this shows that “those brainwashed into the climate cult …. have been praying to the wrong god”. He concludes his post:

“These images need to be urgently blown up into large posters and sent to every school in the nation, to try and save children from being brainwashed into the climate cult by fraudsters & socialists peddling the ‘great sinking islands scam’.

But sadly, for many, once brainwashed into the quasi-religious cult of Climatism, facts like this no longer matter.”

Quick assessment

Mr Kelly’s post misrepresents the facts, which are:

  1. Some Pacific islands are increasing in size, others are eroding away, most are staying much the same. More erosion was once predicted, but the processes involved are more complex than just climate change. Increasing erosion is likely in the future as water levels rise.
  2. The land area of an island is NOT an indicator of whether sea level is rising, or not, as he seems to think. Direct measurements show that sea level is rising, as predicted by climate change. But through natural sedimentation and coral reef processes many islands adjust to sea level rise and are not losing land at present.
  3. The main adverse effects on Pacific populations are not loss of land, but flooding, salinisation and storm damage. All these processes are made worse by climate change.

So Mr Kelly’s “fact” is selective and irrelevant. The data shows climate change is raising sea levels and having a detrimental effect on many Pacific islands, regardless of whether they are growing or diminishing in size. He ignores these facts.

Explanation

Sediment movement in the Pacific

In the ocean, sediment moves about all the time. Many Pacific Islands in Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia are low-lying sandy and coral reef islands and atolls. They can be subject to erosion and deposition, so that their shorelines can easily change.

The processes affecting these islands include:

  • sediment movement according to the prevailing ocean currents, which may erode or deposit sediment;
  • the impact of storm waves that will generally cause erosion and sometimes flooding;
  • the presence of coral reefs can protect islands from erosion, and even generate new sediment;

Each island will respond individually to the interplay of these different processes, according to the size of the island, its height, vegetation and location.

How climate change impacts

Climate change makes many of these process more damaging, and so affects the islands in several ways.

Water levels around the world are rising at a rate of about 3.5 cm per decade, because (1) polar ice melting increases the volume of water, and (2) as the ocean warms it expands. In the Pacific, the levels have risen a little faster than average, especially in the western Pacific (e.g. in the vicinity of the Solomon Islands) where the rate of rise can be up to three times the global average.

Warmer weather gives storms greater energy, so that storm waves are more destructive than before. This can increase shoreline erosion in islands not protected by coral reefs. If a wave can wash across a low-lying island, it can erode the land well away from the shoreline and cut the island in two, leaving it more susceptible to future erosion.

Rising sea levels and increased storm energy is causing increased flooding in many islands. This can make settlements unhealthy or unviable, and can lead to salinisation of soil (inhibiting plant growth) and making groundwater undrinkable.

Sea level rise may be faster than coral atolls can grow. Ocean acidification can destroy coral. If reefs cease to provide effective shelter against erosion, shoreline erosion may become severe.

Climate change can also change the direction of prevailing winds and ocean currents, changing the conditions that cause sediment movement.

Most islands are affected in some way

Erosion
  • Some islands are eroding and likely to disappear, or have already gone (note 1). Other islands increase in size with deposition (note 2). Overall, most islands appear to be staying about the same size.
  • Smaller islands are most likely to erode first, while larger islands and those with protective reefs are less likely to erode. This is the case, for example, in Tuvalu, where about a quarter of the hundred islands are eroding.
  • Islands in the western Pacific, especially the Solomon Islands, are worst effected because wind patterns tend to push up the water and raise water levels more quickly in this area. Eleven islands in the Solomons have disappeared or been much reduced in recent years.

It is true that less erosion is occurring in many nations than was once predicted. But this isn’t because climate change isn’t happening, but because other processes are compensating for water level rise in some cases.

It isn’t clear what will happen as ocean levels continue to rise. Some experts believe the present processes will not threaten many islands for at least a century, but others are more pessimistic.

Flooding, salinisation and storm damage

These are the more pressing problems for many communities.

  • Significant flooding has occurred in the Marshall Islands, and the groundwater is becoming saline.
  • Rising water levels threaten to cover Kiribati.
  • Tuvalu‘s urban areas are being flooded more often. Salinisation of groundwater has made wells unusable for drinking water and is destroying deep rooted food crops such as coconut, pulaka, and taro.
  • In Fiji saltwater intrusion into groundwater is costing an estimated $52m each year.

The human cost

Many communities in these small, and often poor, island nations are already suffering. The World Bank rates these nations as among the most vulnerable globally to climate change. The future looks bleak for many islands, and island states.

  • In the Solomon Islands, many island villages have experienced erosion and have had to be relocated. Many more are under threat. Livelihoods are also under threat as ecosystems change and reduce fish catches.
  • One village in Fiji has been relocated, and the government has identified 830 vulnerable communities, with more than 40 likely to require relocation in the near future.
  • Kiribati is looking to use large-scale dredging to raise some of its islands at least a metre. But this is an expensive option for a small, poor nation and its effectiveness is uncertain.
  • The government of Tuvalu has been especially vocal in pleading for the world to take action on climate change and so allow the islands to remain liveable, but this is uncertain. Fiji has apparently offered to allow the residents of Tuvalu to relocate to Fiji, but, understandably, this is seen as a last resort.

Conclusion

Mr Kelly has highlighted an island that is atypical in its response to the changing conditions, and an issue (land area) which doesn’t reflect climate change. He has ignored the very obvious facts that ocean levels are rising measurably, islands are flooding, land and groundwater are becoming salty and storm damage is increasing, all of which are clear signs of climate change.

It is true that the erosion of land is less that expected in many locations, but (1) it is uncertain how these islands will respond as water levels continue to rise, and (2) flooding is increasing.

His claims are diverting attention away from the main problems.


Note 1.

Here is a list of almost 30 islands I was able to identify in a few minutes on Google as eroding or disappearing:

  • Abalang and Tebunginako Islands in Kiribati.
  • East Island in Hawaii.
  • In the Solomon Islands, out of 33 islands studied, 5 have completely disappeared and 6 others have been significantly reduced in area – names include Sogomou, Heta Heta, Kale, Rapita, Kakatina and Nuatambu. Many villages have had to be relocated.
  • Kepidau en Pehleng, Nahlapenlohd and six very small islands in Micronesia.
  • Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea.
  • An uninhabited islet off the coast of Japan.
  • The village of Vunidogoloa in Fiji has had to be relocated.
  • Most shorelines of the Marshall Islands are eroding, contrary to the island highlighted by Mr Kelly.

Note 2.

Islands that are increasing in size include Jih in the Marshall Islands (the island mentioned by Mr Kelly), and many islands in Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia.

References

Climate change and the Pacific region
Erosion, deposition and land area

Photo: Tuvalu climate change protesters (350.org on flickr).

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