Five Islands Have Been Swallowed by the Pacific Ocean Due to Rising Sea Levels

May 11, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Isla de Matema, Reef Islands, Temotu Province, Solomon Islands
Photo credit: ravilacoya/flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

And more are on the brink.

Climate change is happening all across the world. Unfortunately, many people don’t understand the magnitude of these changes because they don’t see it first hand. Rather, we are often told our likely fate, and what we need to do to stop or mitigate the effects, through the use of climate simulations.

But that has all changed — now we can really see it. Five islands have succumbed to the sea, and climate change is to blame.

Researchers from Australia recently announced that five of the Solomon Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean, have disappeared due to rising sea levels.

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According to the study, which was led by researchers from the University of Queensland, climate change has caused five vegetated reef islands to sink beneath the waves while another six have had their coasts almost completely eroded. What’s more, one of these six islands has had 10 houses swept away into the sea.

"At least 11 islands across the northern Solomon Islands have either totally disappeared over recent decades or are currently experiencing severe erosion," the research team told the Associated Free Press (AFP). "Shoreline recession at two sites has destroyed villages that have existed since at least 1935, leading to community relocations."

The team was able to determine how much sea levels have risen in the Solomon Islands by analyzing both aerial and satellite imagery, along with knowledge from locals, between the years 1947 and 2014.

Aerial map of the disappearing Solomon islands

Coastal erosion of the (a) Sogomou Island and (c) Kale Island between 1947 and 2014, and (b) view from the eroding eastern side of Sogomou looking back towards to rest of the island. Note: Kale is completely submerged by 2014. Photo credit: Albert et. al/Environmental Research Letters (CC BY 3.0)

Over this period, the team monitored 33 islands and found that the area is a sea-level hotspot that rises almost three times higher (about 7 millimeters per year) than the global average. The region is also affected by high waves, which can quickly erode and destroy coastlines.

So far, the rising tides have only caused a small amount of destruction in the local communities, but relocation may be in the near future. However, this erosion is causing threats to many endangered sea turtles and birds that use these islands for nesting habitats.

Most major cities around the world are situated near the water so what’s happening on these islands could act as a guide for future adaptation planning to minimise social impacts.

Are the Solomon Islands the planet’s canary in the coal mine, sending an ominous message about the effects of rising sea levels and what’s to come? Let’s hope not.

The team’s report was published in Environmental Research Letters.

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