Tuvalu’s problems not caused by CO2

It’s been a busy day and it’s close to its end. I check out the NZ Herald for the first time and see a headline: “Tiny Tuvalu outgunned by oil giant”. Curious, I click on it. Now I’m furious. That was yesterday, it’s taken until now to finish researching and writing this damned rebuttal and adjust the images and I’m still furious.

There is no justification for a high level of alarm over future sea level rise and no reason to blame human emissions of carbon dioxide.

The “oil giant” is Saudi Arabia, apparently anxious not to have its oil exports reduced too much. “Outgunned” means opposing votes squash Tuvalu’s motion for developed nations to more aggressively curb their emissions. So Tuvalu’s leaders are distressed, thinking their island nation will soon disappear beneath the waves.


Activists claim that sea level rise is already making life difficult for islanders on Tuvalu and on Kiribati, another set of low-lying Pacific islands to the north-east of Australia.

They quote damaging effects such as fortnightly “king tides” attacking the coastline, wells contaminated with sea water—even one village in Kiribati abandoned to “waist-high water”. It is very distressing.

The Herald/AP article goes on:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN-sponsored scientific network, says seas are rising by about 3mm a year.

That rise is a little more than it’s been for the last several thousand years. It’s equivalent to 300 mm per century. But the IPCC, it seems, considers that:

Its worst-case scenario sees the oceans rising by at least 60cm by 2100, from heat expansion and runoff of melted land ice.

That’s quite surprising, as it’s twice the recent rise, and about six times the rate maintained since the ice age, which means the rate of rise will have to either double almost immediately, or soon triple or more, or there won’t be time to achieve that rise by the end of the century (which is now only 90 years away).

So the current rate of sea level rise is inadequate to fulfil the IPCC’s prediction, but perhaps there’s a sign of accelerating rise? Let’s have a look at the latest report from the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project, sponsored by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and managed by the Bureau of Meteorology.

No acceleration of sea level rise recorded

The Sea Level Project was a response to concerns raised by member countries of the South Pacific Forum over the potential impacts of global warming on climate and sea levels in the Pacific. The Australians installed the first tide gauges in 1992 and also collect data on air temperature, barometric pressure and wind. The monthly reports contain a warning to be cautious interpreting the trends in the data, saying they will continue to change over the coming years as the data sets increase in length.

The most recent report on their web site is for October 2009. It tells us there has been no acceleration in the rate of sea level rise over the last few years. In fact, there’s not even much fluctuation in the rate.

Here, from the report, is Figure 11, page 25 (on the left), showing sea levels at the 12 sites they monitor, and (on the right) Figure 13, page 27, showing the sea level trends.

South Pacific sea levels thumbnail

South Pacific sea level trends thumbnail

Figure 11 shows natural fluctuations in sea level, but little trend is apparent. In the last few months, for the two islands we’re concerned with here, Tuvalu and Kiribati, the level rises, although that is not reflected in the other sites. It is unlikely to be a global effect.

Figure 13 shows quite stable sea level since about 2001 for all the stations. Kiribati actually shows a slight decline for the last three or four years, and Tuvalu shows particular stability over the last seven years.

Whatever influences affect sea level at these two island groups, including ice melting, ocean temperatures, barometric pressure and tectonic movement, the net effect is extremely small and displays almost no trend.

Blatant misdirection

So the difficulties described on these islands of sea water encroachment and erosion are not being caused by an increasing rate of sea level rise. If the rate of rise in sea level is not increasing (and it is very small to begin with—possibly smaller even than the IPCC’s estimate quoted in the article), then the so-called anthropogenic global warming is not affecting it—it’s irrelevant. Therefore the islands’ problems will not be solved by a reduction in our use of coal-fired power stations or any other emission sources.


The Herald article went on:

British scientists note that current emissions are matching the IPCC’s worst case scenario.

But this is blatant misdirection. The statement could well be true (although I haven’t checked) but it is entirely irrelevant, because they have not stated any connection between “current emissions” and the level of the sea.

The simple reason for that is there is no connection, though in the mind of the reader there now is, without the scientist or the reporter actually saying so. But this is untrue, it is shoddy journalism, it is unworthy of our largest and most prestigious daily newspaper and it is misleading thousands of our fellow citizens.

The press must stop misleading us

High and low, rich and poor, well-educated and ignorant: all are forming opinions based on untruths, unsubstantiated hearsay and the rantings of activists. This is not news, it is a paralysing poison. Why is it fed to us? Does it pave the way for a major raid on our purse and further pressure on our freedoms? Is it written just to sell newspapers? Is it put about just to obtain further research funding?

The reason doesn’t really matter, the dissembling just needs to stop. Why can’t the Herald check the most basic of facts? It took me all of a few minutes to do so on the Internet.

The article quotes Australian coastal management expert Robert Kay: “Sixty centimetres can make a really, really big difference in a place like Kiribati.”

That’s true. The picture above shows how low the islands are to the surface of the sea. There’s no question they’re vulnerable to sea level rise, as they have been for several hundreds or thousands of years, since their ancestors arrived there. But what does the Australian “expert” not tell us? He doesn’t say that it will take 200 to 600 years for the sea to rise another 600 mm, during which time the coral will grow and push the islands higher. That’s why coral atolls are still at the sea surface, even though the sea level has gone up about 130 metres (426 ft) since the last ice age.

Not many people know that.

A final note on the “king tides” mentioned in the AP article: the report from the Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project contains this statement, while discussing the observed sea levels: “The greatest variations are called spring tides and tend to occur close to the full and new moon.” Spring tides are higher and lower than normal tides.

You will note that the full and new moons occur about a fortnight apart, so that there are about two per month. That is the source of the king tides—it’s nothing to do with global warming.

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4 Thoughts on “Tuvalu’s problems not caused by CO2

  1. Pingback: Climate Conversation Group » Kiribati sinking beneath waves again

  2. Clarence on 14/11/2010 at 1:35 am said:

    “Its worst-case scenario sees the oceans rising by at least 60cm by 2100”

    Why should anybody (let alone anxious islanders) take a blind bit of notice of the IPCC’s worst scenario? For starters, their scenarios are mere “story-lines” and are almost guaranteed to bear no resemblance whatever to what actually happens in future. The IPCC sets out to cover every conceivable outcome, giving all scenarios equal weight, (including those verging on the impossible) and then divorces its models from all current real-world data. Their predictive value of the worst scenario is zero. Tarot cards offer a far better success rate.

  3. Richard C (NZ) on 14/11/2010 at 9:17 am said:

    The article “Tiny Tuvalu outgunned by oil giant” has been withdrawn from the NZ Herald website and I did a search in Google News that didn’t turn up anything either.

    Maybe some editorial objectivity after all (or nagging guilt).

  4. Richard C (NZ) on 20/10/2011 at 7:27 am said:

    “Tuvalu feels it when the sea level climbs by an average of 5.77mm annually”

    From: And not a drop to drink – The Economist


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