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Pacific islands are actually growing

When the Maldives staged an underwater cabinet meeting last year to highlight the country’s vulnerability to sea-level rise, climate change activists looked on with a mixture of hope that the stunt would spur others to action and fear that an entire country might simply disappear beneath the waves. If you thought rising tides spelled certain ...

350.org / http://www.flickr.com/photos/350org/4034921059/
350.org / http://www.flickr.com/photos/350org/4034921059/

When the Maldives staged an underwater cabinet meeting last year to highlight the country’s vulnerability to sea-level rise, climate change activists looked on with a mixture of hope that the stunt would spur others to action and fear that an entire country might simply disappear beneath the waves.

If you thought rising tides spelled certain doom for islanders across the globe, though, think again. A new study by the University of Auckland finds that over the course of 60 years, 80 percent of tracked Pacific islands actually stayed the same size — or even grew — despite an average annual sea-level rise of two millimeters. Out of the 27 islands the researchers examined, only four showed signs of shrinkage. How have these islands adapted to sea-level changes? With coral:

Unlike the sandbars of the eastern US coast, low-lying Pacific islands are made of coral debris. This is eroded from the reefs that typically circle the islands and pushed up onto the islands by winds, waves and currents. Because the corals are alive, they provide a continuous supply of material. […]

Kench says that while the 27 islands in his study are just a small portion of the thousands of low-lying Pacific islands, it shows that they are naturally resilient to rising sea levels. "It has been thought that as the sea level goes up, islands will sit there and drown," he says. "But they won’t. The sea level will go up and the island will start responding."

The findings probably offer little comfort to Pacific islanders themselves; the New Zealand-based study acknowledges that accelerated sea-level rise could well overwhelm the islands’ natural capacity to adapt. All the same, it’s nice to think that Fiji might still be around when I hit retirement age.

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