The Nation of Kiribati is Growing, Not Sinking
Journalists are traveling to the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, because they believe that global warming is causing it to sink into the ocean, and it will soon be gone. However, the people of Kiribati are telling reporters this is not the case. A newsman has chalked this up to a “mental block” that makes the locals unwilling to face the truth. Yet, the facts of the matter prove that the people of Kiribati are correct, and the journalists are disconnected from reality.
The nation of Kiribati is comprised almost entirely of coral reef islands. These are typically found in the Pacific Ocean and are primarily made of gravel, silt and sand that has accumulated on coral reefs. Because these islands are only slightly above sea level and are made of loosely bound sediments, they are considered to be among the most vulnerable places on Earth to rising sea levels.
In a recent Washington Post feature entitled “The Sinking State,” Joshua Keating, a staff writer and editor at Slate, claims that “not that long from now” rising seas caused by global warming will “probably” destroy Kiribati. He also says:
- it may be “one of the first” nations “wiped out by the effects of climate change.”
- the entire nation could become little more than “a reinforced platform with a flag perched in the open ocean.”
- its capital city of “Tarawa, where nearly half the country’s 110,000 residents live, could soon be substantially underwater.”
To support these predictions, Keating quotes a 2015 report that the administration of Kiribati’s former president sent to the United Nations. It says that “within a century” the nation’s farmland “will be largely submerged, while other islands and atolls will … disappear altogether.” This report contains no citations or links to document these allegations. It also repeatedly mentions the financial resources that Kiribati wants from others to mitigate these catastrophes.
Kiribati Has Actually Grown
In contrast to those claims, the authors of a 2010 paper in the journal Global and Planetary Change used aerial and satellite photographs to conduct “the first quantitative analysis of physical changes” in 27 central Pacific coral reef islands. This included those in Kiribati.
The study examined four islands in Tarawa over periods of 31–65 years and found that:
all four islands exhibited an increase in island area. Notably the three urbanized islands of Betio, Bairiki and Nanikai increased in area by 30, 16.3 and 12.5% respectively. Buariki in the north of the atoll exhibited an increase of 2%.
The study also found that these circumstances are not unique to Kiribati, and among the 43 islands surveyed:
- 43% remained stable.
- 15% decreased in area, with changes ranging from 3% to 14%.
- 43% increased in area, with changes ranging from 3% to 30%.
In the words of the paper, the “results of this study contradict widespread perceptions that all reef islands are eroding in response to recent sea level rise.”
Likewise, the authors of a 2013 paper in the journal Sustainability Science used aerial and satellite photographs to examine “changes in shoreline position on the majority of reef islands” in Tarawa from 1943 to 2007. They found that these islands “substantially increased in size” and:
Despite the widely held perception that reef islands around the perimeter of coral atolls are eroding and will disappear as a consequence of sea-level rise resulting from global warming, this study shows that the total area of reef islands on Tarawa Atoll has increased over recent decades.
The study determined that the vast majority of this increase was from human activities. For example, people have filled in marine areas with materials from nearby beaches and shore areas to create new land. Yet, even in rural areas where natural processes dominate, the study found that “most reef islands show stability” and have had “modest natural rates” of growth.
The same paper notes that some individuals observe “evidence of erosion of reef islands” and “infer” that they “are threatened by sea-level rise” from global warming. “However,” as the authors explain, “these trends have often been shown to be cyclic” natural changes that have nothing to do with global warming.
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Journalists and activists frequently point to short-term or local trends as proof that humans are causing harmful changes in the earth’s climate, but long-term, inclusive data often shows that these changes are well within the bounds of natural variation. Beyond coral reef islands, they have done this with diverse subjects like hurricanes, temperature changes, famines, rainfall, and ice conditions.
Since long before humans began using fossil fuels, the earth and its climate have been changing. As stated in the college textbook Evolution of Sedimentary Rocks, “Every area of the continents has been at one time covered by the sea, and there are some places that show clear record of being submerged at least 20 separate times.”
Global Versus Local Trends
Data from tide gauges show that the average global sea level has been generally rising since 1860 or earlier. Since 1993, instruments on satellites have also shown a rise in the average global sea level.
That does not mean that sea level has risen everywhere. The ocean’s vast waters are not evenly distributed like they are in small bodies like lakes. For instance, the sea level in the Indian Ocean is about 330 feet below the worldwide average, while the sea level in Ireland is about 200 feet above average. Even though all the oceans are connected, such variations are caused by gravity, winds, and currents.
Also, the practical effects of these phenomena are dynamic. For example, between 1992 and 2010, sea level rose by about 6 inches in the tropical Western Pacific while falling by about the same amount in San Francisco.
In other words, local sea level trends commonly differ from global ones. Hence, it is a mistake to assume that the average global trend applies to everywhere on earth.
It is also a mistake to assume that a rise in the average global sea level translates to a net loss in coastal land. Per a 2016 study published in the journal Nature, the earth gained a net total of 5,000 square miles of coastal land area from 1985 to 2015.
Near the end of his piece, Keating frets that the citizens of Kiribati “seem no more troubled about the issue” of climate change “than people in the United States are.” Reporting on his visit to Kiribati and interviews with the locals, he writes:
- “Most people I met weren’t making plans to relocate anytime soon.”
- “Instead, I heard a lot of frustration that the rest of the world seems to take notice of the I-Kiribati only to tell them they’re doomed.”
- “Several people I spoke with had already given interviews about climate change to foreign reporters. ‘In my case, you are the fifth person,’ remarked Teewata Aromata…. ‘People come and ask us the same questions. They see pictures of us and think we are drowning in the ocean.’ ”
Instead of considering the possibility that these people are correct, Keating evaluates the situation and psychoanalyzes them as follows:
Yet the stubborn facts remain. Countries like the Maldives and Kiribati are probably disappearing — and not that long from now. I came to Kiribati expecting to find a place planning for its own destruction, but instead I found something more dispiriting: a place that, with a few exceptions, wasn’t even contemplating that destruction. …
The mental block that prohibits thinking about what will happen when the islands are no longer inhabitable seems to be a major impediment to planning for that eventuality. In this regard, too, Kiribati is a microcosm of the world’s unwillingness to face the reality of the future.
This episode highlights the media’s propensity to embrace false narratives and look down their noses at others who don’t. Given the effects of media on the public and governments, this can waste enormous resources on fake problems, while diverting them from real ones.
James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts, a think tank dedicated to publishing rigorously documented facts about public policy issues.