Sinking Solomon Islands and climate link ‘exaggerated’, admits study’s author

solomon island - TetepareA new study published in Environmental Research Letters shows that some low-lying reef islands in the Solomon Islands are being gobbled up by “extreme events, seawalls and inappropriate development, rather than sea level rise alone.” Despite headlines claiming that man-made climate change has caused five Islands (out of nearly a thousand) to disappear from rising sea levels, a closer inspection of the study reveals the true cause is natural, and the report’s lead author says many of the headlines have been ‘exaggerated’ to ill-effect.

Dr. Simon Albert, the report’s co-author told the Guardian today that numerous media outlets, like the Washington Post and NY Times and Think Progress, have misinterpreted their work by trying to link sea level rise with climate change. According to Albert, the researchers did not study climate change and how it influences shoreline erosion and submersion of certain low-lying islands.

That didn’t stop numerous mainstream media outlets from jumping to the erroneous conclusion that these five sunken islands were further proof of climate change. This completely misconstrues the actual science and what the study really says, Albert said. “The links between climate change and the sinking of five islands in the Pacific Ocean have been exaggerated,” he says.

“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, which also ran catastrophic headlines about the report when it first came out on Friday.

Indeed, the authors even write in the study’s abstract there is “limited research” and that the majority of shoreline changes and submersion events occurred over extended periods of time. The islands affected were primarily caused from natural weather events (storms, typhoons), building villages a foot or two above sea level, and poorly constructed sea walls. Globally, sea level rise has remained consistent at roughly 2-3 millimeters per year since leaving the last glaciation, and has actually slowed down in the last twenty years.

Sea level rise is also different depending on where you are on the planet. That has to do with thermal expansion (as the ocean warms up, it expands), sea floor ‘buildings’ that stretch hundreds of miles and actually push up the overlying water near the surface, and high-energy wave action from trade winds and storms in the Pacific.

In the Solomon Islands, sea level rise has been rising at roughly 7 mm per year. Some, Albert says, may be from climate change and the rest by natural climatic cycles. They only studied the latter, so he was surprised to read all the headlines linking climate change, which wasn’t studied.

One such natural climate cycle is the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which “involves changing sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the North Pacific Ocean.” Well-established research has shown that “decadal-scale variations in climate result from interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere.” PDO variations alternate between two phases: a cool phase and a warm phase. Depending on which phase the northern Pacific is in will strongly affect “precipitation patterns along the Pacific Coast of North America.”

The higher-than-normal sea level rise in the Solomon Islands chain is driven, Albert says, in large part by intense trade winds pushing water up into the western Pacific. He notes these trade winds are a “natural cycle but also the recent intensification is related to atmospheric warming.” The so-called extra sea level rise may be driven by climate change, but it is poorly understood, and was not included in the study.

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