The Media Hype
Five Pacific islands lost to rising seas as climate change hits
“Five tiny Pacific islands have disappeared due to rising seas and erosion, a discovery thought to be the first scientific confirmation of the impact of climate change on coastlines in the Pacific, according to Australian researchers.”
Five Solomon Islands Disappear Into the Pacific Ocean as a Result of Climate Change
Climate change: Five Islands in the South Pacific ‘completely lost to rising seas’
Google News contains numerous links to news articles claiming that 5 Solomon Islands have disappeared beneath the waves because of climate change™. So have they? No is the short answer. The slightly longer answer is they have been destroyed by a combination of rising sea levels (a large part of which has been regional and therefore due to natural variability) and coastal erosion precipitated by a host of other factors (none of which are directly related to climate change).
But let’s not let facts get in the way of a good climate change catastrophism story at the Guardian, or all of those other media outlets similarly promoting alarmist hype. But this is where it gets even more interesting, as Barry Woods pointed out to me on Twitter. Some of the authors of the paper (which the Guardian notably fails to link to) which has spawned this climate change alarmist media feeding frenzy have written a piece on it over at The Conversation. I must admit, upon first impressions, it appeared that they were directly lying about their own research findings by claiming that climate change™ was solely responsible for the five lost Solomon Islands. This sentence gives that impression;
“This is the first scientific evidence, published in Environmental Research Letters, that confirms the numerous anecdotal accounts from across the Pacific of the dramatic impacts of climate change on coastlines and people.”
But then come the weasely get out clauses:
“For the past 20 years, the Solomon Islands have been a hotspot for sea-level rise. Here the sea has risen at almost three times the global average, around 7-10 mm per year since 1993. This higher local rate is partly the result of natural climate variability.
“These higher rates are in line with what we can expect across much of the Pacific in the second half of this century as a result of human-induced sea-level rise. Many areas will experience long-term rates of sea-level rise similar to that already experienced in Solomon Islands in all but the very lowest-emission scenarios.
“Natural variations and geological movements will be superimposed on these higher rates of global average sea level rise, resulting in periods when local rates of rise will be substantially larger than that recently observed in Solomon Islands. We can therefore see the current conditions in Solomon Islands as an insight into the future impacts of accelerated sea-level rise.”
So it’s not the first scientific evidence of the impact of climate change on disappearing low lying coral islands, it’s the first scientific evidence that rising sea levels (largely naturally caused) in conjunction with enhanced erosion and a host of other factors can cause vulnerable low-lying islands to disappear. Wow! Who’d have thunk it?
More stunning revelations are to come as the authors reveal:
“Wave energy appears to play an important role in the dramatic coastal erosion observed in Solomon Islands. Islands exposed to higher wave energy in addition to sea-level rise experienced greatly accelerated loss compared with more sheltered islands.”
Hands up people. Who would have guessed that the energy of waves would have contributed to coastal erosion of low lying islands, hastening their demise? We are truly blessed with the accumulated wisdom of these climate change advocate/researchers.
The rest of the piece goes on to expand on the real human misery of the displaced climate refugees and adds, with a note of optimism:
“Last month, the Solomon Islands government joined 11 other small Pacific Island nations in signing the Paris climate agreement in New York. There is a sense of optimism among these nations that this signifies a turning point in global efforts.”
So that’s OK then, as long as we all follow the planet saving prescription as set out in COP21 and swallow what might be to some the bitterest pill of massive reductions in CO2 emissions, the Solomon Islanders need worry no more.
The Actual Paper
So that’s that. But what did the authors of the paper who also wrote the Conversation piece leave out in their obvious enthusiasm to promote climate change™ as the principal cause of the destruction of low lying Pacific Islands now and into the future? Quite a lot as it happens.
The authors clearly state in their actual study that ENSO/PDO has had a significant effect on local sea level rise around the Pacific Islands in the decades 1994-2014.
“El Niño/Southern Oscillation events result in significant
interannual variations in sea level in the western
equatorial Pacific (Barnard et al 2015) (including
the Solomon Islands, figure 6) superimposed on the
longer term (multi-decadal) sea-level trends of up to
3mmyr−1 (Church et al 2006, Becker et al 2012). Merrifield
et al (2012) used tide gauge data to demonstrate
that the rate of western equatorial Pacific sea-level rise
increased significantly from relatively low values over
the 1950–1990 period to much larger values since
1990. While there is significant interannual variability,
the tide gauge and altimeter data indicate a rapid rise
in sea levels in the Solomon Islands between 1994 and
2014 of about 15 cm (average of 7mmyr−1).”
So the local rate of SLR is more than twice the global average. Moreover, it is by no means certain that the estimated global average SLR of 3mm/yr (which some claim is an overestimate) over that period is due entirely to anthropogenic CO2 emissions. So, rather less than half (maybe much less) of the SLR which has occurred in the Solomon Islands in the last two decades is attributable directly to man-made global warming. The authors of the paper make it clear that what has happened in the Solomons is a realistic projection of what might happen in the future if global mean sea level continues to rise due to CO2 emissions:
“Therefore, we see the current conditions in the
Solomon Islands as providing insight into the future
impacts of accelerated sea-level rise.”
So the above severely dents the credibility of any headline or article which maintains that the Solomon Islands’ erosion and disappearance since 1947 – and especially since 1994 – is due to climate change. But this isn’t all. The authors state:
“The limited research that has been conducted
to date on the responses of reef islands in the
western Pacific indicates that islands are highly
dynamic, with coastal erosion and inundation threatening
infrastructure, resulting generally from
extreme events, human armouring of shorelines (e.g.
seawalls) or inappropriate planning and development
rather than sea-level rise alone.”
“Relative sea-level rise can also be the result of tectonics,
the Solomon Islands are in a particularly tectonically
active part of the globe with the convergence of
the Pacific Plate, Solomon Arc block and Australian
Plate causing localised crustal deformations (Tregoning
et al 1998) manifesting as either island subsidence
or uplift (Taylor et al 2008). Whilst the Isabel study site
is considered to be in a more tectonically benign area,
without active volcanoes, the Roviana site experienced
an 8.1 megathrust earthquake in 2007 which led to the
reef islands of Roviana subsiding by up to 60 cm (Taylor
et al 2008). Island subsidence can compound sealevel
rise rates and make these tectonically active
islands particularly vulnerable under accelerated sealevel
The Mea Culpa
The alarmist bubble is truly burst. One would not think that this study was a particularly fruitful one with regards to demonstrating the actual impacts of climate change as distinct from the projected ones. So why such an outpouring of alarmist hype? A clue to this comes in a fascinating development today where one author of the paper in question has gone on record in the Guardian as stating that the “links between climate change and the sinking of five islands in the Pacific Ocean have been exaggerated”. The author of the Guardian retraction piece tweets here. Remarkable!
But the plot thickens. Who was really responsible for the media hype? Most of them seem to have taken their cue from the Conversation piece which was supposedly written by the authors themselves and which, as we have seen, does give the impression that climate change has at least contributed significantly to the destruction of those five Solomon Islands in recent decades – and that we should be doing something about it, urgently. It’s doubtful whether any of those numerous media outlets who hyped this paper actually even bothered to read it, relying second hand upon the authors’ Conversation piece. Did the Conversation over-egg what the authors had to say? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
For now, we sceptics can be content that media climate change/sea level rise alarmist hype has been so quickly and prominently rebuffed in one of the newspapers which was instrumental in promoting it in the first place! Sometimes, if you over-egg the message, you end up with a lot of that egg on your face.