Taking sea level rise in Kiribati for granted

This week I read a story about a Kiribati man that seeks asylum because of sea level rise. This is how it goes: a man from Kiribati came to New Zealand in 2007, had 3 children born there and asked asylum. He was fleeing “rising seas and environmental risks caused by global warming”. There was no land he could safely return to because of the sea level rise. Asylum was refused on the grounds his claim fell short of the legal criteria, such as fear of persecution or threats to his life. He then appealed the decision.

What struck me in the article was the obviousness with which sea level rise in Kiribati was taken for granted. A lawyer said that what’s happening to Kiribati in the next 30 years is a catastrophe. Does he have some kind of crystal ball? Also the “New Zealand’s Immigration and Protection Tribunal accepted the genuineness of Ioane Teitiota’s [the asylum seeker] claims”. Sure, but did they check the background of this claim somehow? Neither of them considered doing a basic check to find how much the sea level actually had risen in Kiribati. They just took it for granted that it increased, even dangerously increased.

Luckily, sea level data is available online. When looking for Kiribati, I found four sets with recent data:

Source: psmsl

Source: psmsl

Sea level stayed basically the same in all four data sets. In one of these, the sea level was somewhat higher at the end, in another somewhat lower. Compared to European or American sea level rise, all these Kiribati graphs are remarkably stable. Is this a surprise? Well, yes … and no, depending how deep I think about it.

Yes, because this is not what the mainstream media is telling us for many years now. They are telling us that Kiribati (and also the more known Tuvalu) are a bunch of “islands” that are under threat of being flooded by the sea because of the rising sea level caused by global warming/climate change. This is even how their president stated it:

More recently, President Tong has spoken of climate-change induced sea level rise as “inevitable”. “For our people to survive, then they will have to migrate. Either we can wait for the time when we have to move people en masse or we can prepare them-beginning from now …”

All quite dramatic. If you only listen to what the media tells us about it, you would think this is a island group that is going to be flooded soon. Until one looks at the data. But very few do.

But in a way it shouldn’t be a surprise because these are not “islands”, but atolls. There is a huge difference between the two, both have different properties. An island is a static piece of land in a sea or an ocean. When sea level rises the island will be flooded.

An atoll is of a different kind. They are not made of solid material, but of sand and coral rubble. There is an interaction between building up sand and removing it by the tides. This means there is a dynamics going on: atolls rise and fall with it. When the sea level falls, more of the atoll is exposed to wind. Because of the erosion the atoll lowers. When sea level rises, the flow of sandy material will increase and the atoll will grow.

In the last decades Kiribati indeed grew. Even according to the Kiribati wiki:

However, sea-level rise may not necessarily inundate Kiribati. Paul Kench at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and Arthur Webb at the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission in Fiji released a study in 2010 on the dynamic response of reef islands to sea level rise in the central Pacific. Kiribati was mentioned in the study, and Webb and Kench found that the three major urbanized islands in Kiribati -Betio, Bairiki and Nanikai- increased by 30% (36 hectares), 16.3% (5.8 hectares) and 12.5% (0.8 hectares), respectively

But if the sea level is not rising, how come they have these problems with contaminated fresh water, lost crops and floodings? The ability to grow and fall according to sea level is not unlimited. The problem arises when the natural dynamics get disturbed. An atoll is a delicate ecosystem that can not sustain an unlimited population. Increasing population and tourism will put more stress on the the fresh water lenses and these will be contaminated with salt water. Also, paving a part of the atoll will end up with rainwater not flowing into the soil and the fresh water lens.

Using coral as a local building material is a nice thing, but with a larger population this could mean a breach in the natural protection of the atoll. With flooding of those areas as a result. Both are definitely caused by humans, but they have nothing to do with “global warming” or “climate change”. Fighting global warming/climate change will not help with any of these.
But it can help if you are hoping for money from the Western countries that are admitting being the cause of “global warming” and are very eager to pay for it. Or when applying for asylum due to global warming…

This is how the momentum is kept being build. The mainstream media only one-sidedly reports that Pacific “islands” are in danger of flooding by global warming and subsequent sea level rise because that is the most dramatic story. People read it and without checking pass the message. More of it will be communicated in flyers, magazines, newspapers, TV,… unchecked. People will start to believe that this is true, because the message is being repeated…one-sided and unchecked…over and over again.


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