Official complaint regarding inaccuracy
(Sent to the Herald today)
The Herald yesterday carried an article on sea level rise in the Solomon Islands. Villages have been abandoned and whole islands lost beneath the waves. Climate change is forcing people from their homes. Catastrophic sea level rise is already on us and we’re causing it.
This is incorrect. It is another attempt to mislead us into believing our emissions of carbon dioxide are causing sea level rise.
The article leaves a bad taste in the mouth, for the journalist misrepresents the scientific paper it’s based on, claiming that it proves that villages and houses have been lost to anthropogenic climate change, though the paper says nothing of the sort.
The story was written by Ben Guarino at the Washington Post and cites a newly-released paper, Interactions between sea-level rise and wave exposure on reef island dynamics in the Solomon Islands (2016, Environmental Research Letters). Guarino’s description of the paper is grossly misleading:
In a recent paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the scientists link the destructive sea level rise to anthropogenic – that is, human-caused – climate change. The study is the first time anyone has concretely analysed the loss of Solomon Island shoreline in the context of global warming, they say.
Global story change
Minutes before posting this, I discovered that numerous papers, magazines and web sites are pushing the story that the new paper proves climate change is to blame for drowning houses and five whole islands. Though I focus on the Washington Post, dozens of outlets have distorted the paper’s results in the same way.
The scientists do not link any shoreline changes to man-made climate change. The Herald should be deeply ashamed to publish this blatantly incorrect statement.
The scientists didn’t study the Solomon Islands to assess the effects of climate change. They thought the Solomons might show them what could happen to Pacific atolls in the future. All the way through, the study is interested only in future climate change and its effects. Perhaps that’s an oddly limited goal, but it’s announced in the first sentence:
Low-lying reef islands in the Solomon Islands provide a valuable window into the future impacts of global sea-level rise.
They specifically state that no link has previously been shown between shoreline recession on reef islands and climate change.
Whilst shoreline recession has been documented on atolls over past decades, the majority of studies have not specifically demonstrated evidence linking shoreline recession to recent sea-level rise (Webb and Kench 2010, Le Cozannet et al 2014). 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 (Bayliss-Smith 1988, Merrifield and Maltrud 2011, Ford 2012, Biribo and Woodroffe 2013, Hoeke et al 2013, Mann and Westphal 2014).
This position is adhered to throughout the paper and into the conclusion. Nowhere do the authors say climate change is now causing coastal erosion or inundation, they only say it is predicted, and they do not say the five drowned islands were lost to climate change. They constantly remind us of substantial rises predicted for later this century.
They acknowledge tectonic movements causing land to sink in the Solomon Islands. Guarino, on the other hand (echoed uncritically by the Herald), dramatically announces:
As the ocean rose, they had to flee.
Which is true enough, but leaves out the vital fact that sea level rise (which everybody thinks we cause) was greatly assisted by sinking land (which everybody knows we don’t cause). The lead author, Simon Albert, appears to foster the impression that the paper shows climate change caused the loss of houses and land, but is that actually Guarino again distorting Albert’s emailed comments?
When it comes to island erosion, several factors can mask or overpower the effects of climate change; Albert mentioned plate tectonics, hurricanes, waves, and human disturbances like seawalls or reclamation projects. In the new paper, the researchers attempted to home in on the effects of climate change as much as possible. – emphasis added
So says the scientist—or was it the journalist—and is he referring to present or future climate change? All we can confirm right now is that the paper does not attempt to say what caused coastal erosion, inundation or sea level rise. Instead, it says:
This study represents the first assessment of shoreline change from the Solomon Islands, a global sea-level rise hotspot. We have documented five vegetated reef islands (1–5 ha in size) that have recently vanished and a further six islands experiencing severe shoreline recession. Shoreline recession at two sites has destroyed villages that have existed since at least 1935, leading to community relocations. The large range of erosion severity on the islands in this study highlights the critical need to understand the complex interplay between the projected accelerating sea-level rise, other changes in global climate such as winds and waves, and local tectonics, to guide future adaptation planning and minimise social impacts.
That tells us it was the journalist who inserted comments about “homing in” on the effects of climate change, for the lead author would hardly forget what he had written. But, what was inexcusable, he put the words in the scientist’s mouth. An utterly disgraceful thing to publish — and just to raise false alarm.
SEAFRAME monitoring stations
The paper mentions several studies that use tide gauge data. The March 2016 Monthly Data Report (at right) from the long-standing Australian project, the Pacific Sea Level Monitoring Project (PSLMP), shows that over the last 22 years, sea level in the Solomon Islands has risen at an average 4.6 mm per year, for a total rise of 101 mm (four inches), though since 2011 it has been falling. The report advises readers: “Please exercise caution in interpreting the overall rates of movement of sea level — the records are too short to be inferring long-term trends.”
One is hard-pressed to believe houses have disappeared beneath only 100 mm of water. In truth, the only conceivable way that happened was for the land to sink under tectonic movement. Same with the five vanishing islands. Scientists in touch with complex marine and geophysical realities understand this; for some reason this team either don’t understand it or failed to be open about it.
But this whole article is full of hand-waving and hot air; the Herald (and the Washington Post) hoping to sell more shocking newspapers and the scientists hoping for more funding. It seems nobody cares about presenting the truth.
This is an official complaint about inaccuracy
- The headline says the paper blames climate change but it actually assigns no cause at all.
- Statements in the article that climate change is causing coastal recession do not occur in the paper.
- Statements in the article that houses and five islands have drowned because of climate change do not occur in the paper.