Island expansion cannot mask climate change: conservationist

A Samoa-based conservationist says reports of Pacific islands growing in size are interesting but do not change the plain facts about climate change and its impacts.

Samoa Conservation Society President, James Atherton, told the Samoa Observer that reports of Pacific islands growing in size despite fears of them sinking is interesting but the discovery doesn’t change the facts on the impact of climate change in the region.

Australia’s state broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, recently reported that scientists at the University of Auckland discovered atolls in the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean that grew up to 8 per cent in size over the last 60 years despite sea level rise.

But in an interview with this newspaper, Mr Atherton said that he found the findings of the scientists interesting, though he wanted to know if the islands in the study were inhabited and how they were selected to be included in the study.

“We know that the sea levels are rising, it's probably gonna rise half a meter in the Pacific this century," he said.

Mr Atherton added that sea level rise in the Pacific is leading to islands becoming inhabitable, though he said the Auckland University study represents a dynamic situation, where the islands’ land mass is increasing in size or their shorelines are getting extended with the ocean depositing sand on their shores.

Expressing surprise at the ABC report’s reference to hundreds of islands, the conservationist estimates there are probably 30,000 islands in the Pacific, and there are some where natural processes are being superseded or the impact of climate change is greater than natural accretion. 

Most islands in the region are volcanic with Mr. Atherton explaining that natural dynamism can occur which can result in an island changing its land formation.

He added that climate change not only results in sea level rise but also contributes to the death of reefs as temperature rises lead to coral bleaching and ultimately the death of reefs. These could have implications for sand production and the islands could disappear in a decade.

“And one of the messages I think for me would be keep your reefs healthy because they are the source (of sand) for your beaches,” he said.

Asked how Samoa can keep its reefs healthy, he recommended the setting up of marine protected areas where the reef is left alone and not damaged by fishing and there is limited impact on marine resources that help the reef become more resilient. 

Mr Atherton added that in the past there were issues relating to dynamite use and poisoning but he explained that it is basically managing all those threats to the reef.

With an increase in Samoa’s population, Mr Atherton made a public appeal for people to manage their waste and plastic use, as they end up in rivers and get washed out to sea to impact the marine ecosystem.

He said Samoa’s influence in terms of climate change is limited but as a small island nation the country can influence bigger states.

Managing the threat to our reefs and the sea is possible and the work of groups such as the one at Matareva on the south coast of Upolu shows that it can be done.

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