EOS Article On Sea Level Rise “Sea Level Rise And The Ongoing Battle Of Tarawa” By S. Donner 2012

The issue of sea level rise is not an area I have completed original research on.  Nonetheless, I was intrigued by an article in the April 24 issue of EOS since it provides an example of the multi-dimensional bottom-up assessments that are needed to robustly assess risk to key societal resources (in this case coastal vulnerability to sea level changes).  We discuss this bottom-up approach is our paper

Pielke Sr., R.A., R. Wilby, D. Niyogi, F. Hossain, K. Dairuku, J. Adegoke, G. Kallos, T. Seastedt, and K. Suding, 2012: Dealing  with complexity and extreme events using a bottom-up, resource-based  vulnerability perspective. AGU Monograph on Complexity and  Extreme Events in Geosciences, in press.  http://pielkeclimatesci.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/r-365.pdf

The EOS article is

S. Donner, 2012: Sea level rise and the ongoing Battle of Tarawa. EOS Volume 93, Number 17, 24 April 2012

The article contains insightful text in a section titled “Communicating About Sea Level Rise” including [highlight added]

The failure to consider the contribution of natural variability and direct human modifications can lead to misattribution of flooding events or shoreline changes to sea level rise. Tarawa, the most easily accessible atoll in Kiribati, is a popular destination for journalists and activists interested in observing and communicating the impacts of sea level rise on a low- lying nation. For example, a Greenpeace slide show within an explanation of what sea level rise means that depicts the 2005 flooding remains among the top responses to an Internet query of “Kiribati” and “sea level rise.” These common images of flooded homes and waves crashing across the causeways—collected during an anomalous event on islets susceptible to flooding due in part to local modifications to the environment—can provide the false impression that Tarawa is subject to constant flooding because of sea level rise……Many individual observations of erosion, flooding, or groundwater salinization, recorded in community consultations for internationally funded climate change adaptation programs, are thus attributed to climate change without scientific analysis [e.g., Mackenzie, 2004]……These events are presented as examples of climate change impacts in promotional materials and at international events (e.g., “Our Road to Copenhagen,” a Kiribati side event at COP15 in Copenhagen), without any mention of ENSO- driven natural variability or local shoreline modification.

Such unverified attribution can inflame or invite skepticism of the scientific evidence for a human- caused increase in the global sea level. Such unverified attribution can inflame or invite skepticism of the scientific evidence for a human- caused increase in the global sea level. After Webb and Kench [2010] reported that the area of 23 atoll islets in Kiribati and neighboring countries had remained stable or increased over the past 20–60 years, some of the international news media reported that the effects of sea level rise on atoll nations were exaggerated and that Kiribati is not threatened by future sea level rise (e.g., R. Callick, Coral islands left high and dry, The Australian, 2010……). Though the study did show evidence that atoll islets were dynamic and do not necessarily decrease in area in response to sea level rise, the islets in question remain vulnerable to inundation from global mean sea level rise in the future, as the authors stressed in a subsequent briefing note….

The article concludes with the text

Instead of incorrectly attributing individual flood events or shoreline changes to global sea level rise, scientists and climate communicators can use such occurrences to educate the public about the various natural and human processes that affect sea level, the shoreline, and the shape of islands. This would better prepare the public and policy makers for the changes that societies are likely to experience as global sea level rises in the coming decades.

Regardless of whether the author is correct that global sea level will continue to rise in the coming decades, this article is a refreshing presentation on the need to provide an assessment of the entire spectrum of risks that exist.

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