Villages erased: Islands wiped off the face of the Earth

By AFP, Debra Killalea of news.com.au

The Solomon Islands are fast disappearing. Photo / iStock
The Solomon Islands are fast disappearing. Photo / iStock

They are the tiny islands that have literally disappeared.

Five islands in the Pacific Ocean existed as late as 2014; fast forward two years and they are nowhere to be seen.

A further six reef islands are also facing the same fate, in a disturbing warning to the world's scientists and other low-lying nations.

An alarming new study, published in Environmental Research Letters,reveals rising sea levels and coastal erosion are to blame for the predicament.

Scientists warn the findings could provide valuable insights for future research.

"At least 11 islands across the northern Solomon Islands have either totally disappeared over recent decades or are currently experiencing severe erosion," the study confirms.

"Shoreline recession at two sites has destroyed villages that have existed since at least 1935, leading to community relocations."

Study lead author Simon Albert said one island had lost 10 houses to the sea between 2011 and 2014.

Dr Albert, a senior research fellow at the University of Queensland, said the Solomons was considered a sea-level hotspot because rises there are almost three times higher than the global average.

Now you see them, now you don't ... The satellite images which reveal how five islands have literally disappeared. Photo / Supplied
Now you see them, now you don't ... The satellite images which reveal how five islands have literally disappeared. Photo / Supplied

According to the study, the five that had vanished were all vegetated reef islands up to five hectares (12 acres) that were occasionally used by fishermen but not populated.

"They were not just little sand islands," Dr Albert said.

It is feared that the rise in sea levels will cause widespread erosion and inundation of low-lying atolls in the Pacific.

The researchers looked at 33 islands using aerial and satellite imagery from 1947 to 2014, combined with historical insight from local knowledge.

They found that rates of shoreline recession were substantially higher in areas exposed to high wave energy, indicating a "synergistic interaction" between sea-level rise and waves, which Dr Albert said could prove useful for future study.

Those islands which were exposed to higher wave energy - in addition to sea-level rise - were found to have a greatly accelerated loss compared with the more sheltered islands.

"This provides a bit of an insight into the future," he said.

"There's these global trends that are happening but the local responses can be very, very localised."

For now, some communities in the Solomons are already adapting to the changed conditions.

"In addition to these village relocations, Taro, the capital of Choiseul Province is set to become the first provincial capital globally to relocate residents and services due to the threat of sea-level rise," the study said.

The research, conducted from 2012-2015, was based on historical imagery dating back to 1947.

Recently at least 5 reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands have been lost completely to sea-level rise and coastal erosion, and a further six have been severely eroded. Photo / Simon Albert
Recently at least 5 reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands have been lost completely to sea-level rise and coastal erosion, and a further six have been severely eroded. Photo / Simon Albert

Led by The University of Queensland with support from CSIRO, University of Wollongong and Solomon Islands Government, researchers also relied on traditional knowledge of the local community members in Solomon Islands.

Dr Albert said the community was not only extremely knowledgeable about water levels but also coastal erosion.

He told news.com.au the study was alarming for several reasons.

"There are numerous reef islands in Solomon Islands that are eroding away rapidly," he said.

"In some cases, like Nuatambu Island, these are places where people live so it is a very pressing issue for them."

Dr Albert said the unique aspect of this study was that it was conducted in a part of the world that has experienced sea-level rise rates three times the global average over the past 20 years.

"These are the magnitude of sea-level rise rates we can expect in the second half of this century so it gives us some insight into responses of islands and coastlines under extreme sea-level rise," he said.

Sea levels have been rising by an average of 7mm per year over the last 20 years, due to global warning and stronger trade winds, New Scientist has revealed.

Dr Albert said it was a perfect storm.

"There's the background level of global sea-level rise, and then the added pressure of a natural trade wind cycle that has been physically pushing water into the Western Pacific," he said.

While global sea levels are rising by an average of 3mm a year, Dr Albert warned this could rise to 7mm by the end of this century with rising temperatures causing ice sheets to melt, which then leads to thermal expansion of the oceans.

He warned the rest of the world would face the same predicament as the Solomon Islands by 2100.

- news.com.au

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