Sea level study distorted by journalists

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

mthly sea levels 1992 - march 2016

— Click to enlarge —

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


  1. The headline says the paper blames climate change but it actually assigns no cause at all.
  2. Statements in the article that climate change is causing coastal recession do not occur in the paper.
  3. Statements in the article that houses and five islands have drowned because of climate change do not occur in the paper.

Kind regards,

Richard Treadgold.

Views: 252

152 Thoughts on “Sea level study distorted by journalists

  1. Andy on 13/06/2016 at 11:51 am said:

    Simon opines at HT

    Here is an article in the NBR from the ‘expert’ that Andy wants in the panel.
    I fully support academic independence but I struggle to see how someone like de Lange can have tenure when his views are so divorced from established science. There is a complete disregard of the many papers that show that sea level rise is accelerating. They are turkeys at Thanksgiving, because there is no prior evidence they assume it can’t happen. Future models of sea level rise are based upon what we believe is happening to ocean temperature and ice melt, but the authors categorically reject them as false, even though it is outside of their area of expertise.

    Maybe Simon can waft by and provide us with evidence that NZ SLR is accelerating

    We are of course familiar with Church and White

  2. Richard Treadgold on 13/06/2016 at 12:10 pm said:

    “provide us with evidence that NZ SLR is accelerating”
    That’s all we need. It’s called science. Simon, please stop the pontificating. Turkeys at Thanksgiving? Give us a break — that’s not science, it’s an insulting attempt at humour.

    “There is a complete disregard of the many papers that show that sea level rise is accelerating.” That is because no tide gauge time series, and no satellite-based altimeter time series, shows acceleration. The only papers that show acceleration wrongly stitch the two records together, which is not science.

    You would more accurately state that “Future models of sea level rise are based upon what we believe will happen to ocean temperature and ice melt,” because it’s certainly not happening now (just look at the tide gauge records — many places show sea level falling). Your belief is firmly attached, but would then be seen to be firmly attached, not to reality, but to unverified climate models that so far are deeply unskilled.

    You can perhaps test this yourself, by asking (in the privacy of your own thoughts) when the acceleration in sea level rise might begin to show up in the tide gauge records. It had better get on with it, for nothing has happened so far.

  3. Andy on 13/06/2016 at 2:33 pm said:

    The RSNZ paper cited in the NBR, the one that claims one metre of SLR by 2100, has as co-author, John Hannah of Otago Uni whose own research shows no acceleration of SLR in NZ

  4. Richard Treadgold on 13/06/2016 at 3:05 pm said:

    There seems to be a discordance there. Who is singing out of tune?

  5. Andy on 13/06/2016 at 4:10 pm said:

    The RSNZ paper is here

    page 1 states

    Sea levels have risen throughout the Twentieth Century
    Tidal records from many sites around the globe provide
    clear evidence that sea levels have risen over the last
    century by an average of 1.7 mm/yr (± 0.5 mm/yr).6 Over
    the period of satellite observation, altimetry and tidal
    records confirm that the rate has increased, as shown in
    Figure 1. The rise over the past fifteen years has been 3.3
    mm/yr (± 0.4 mm/yr).7

    The tide gauge records do not show 3.3mm/yr.

    I can only assume that this is the work of criminal con-artists. I certainly can’t see how any self-respecting scientist could put there name to this, when it is clearly a false statement

  6. Andy on 13/06/2016 at 4:34 pm said:

    Contributors and Reviewers
    Dr John Beavan, Dr Rob Bell, Dr Robert Bindschadler,
    Dr John Church, Prof John Hannah, Prof Keith Hunter,
    Assoc Prof Paul Kench, Dr Andrew Mackintosh,
    Prof Martin Manning, Prof Tim Naish, Doug Ramsay,
    Richard Reinen-Hamill, Dr Andy Reisinger,
    Dr James Renwick, Zach Rissel, Prof Caroline Saunders,
    Dr David Wratt, Dr Dan Zwartz

    I’m pretty sure most of these are not experts on sea levels.

  7. Richard C (NZ) on 13/06/2016 at 5:47 pm said:

    We have the PSMSL TG data from around NZ, the 50 yr trend analyses of long running TGs, the Pacific satellite SL study, the global TG study, all of which are referenced and linked upthread. No “acceleration” in any of them. No sign of an anthro “fingerprint” in the Pacific (have to wait “decades” if that is ever to emerge from natural fluctuation).

    They’ve got the RSNZ paper.

    I prefer our position from an evidential point of view.

  8. Andy on 13/06/2016 at 8:52 pm said:

    The RSNZ paper that the NBR article links to is dated Sept 2010. I presume that this is outdated and it should refer to a more recent paper.

  9. Andy on 14/06/2016 at 8:47 am said:

    Thomas opines at HT

    One must assume that the directors of the National (party) Business Review are not really interested in scientific accuracy but in distributing business friendly propaganda. And behold, adjusting to the coming climate change problems is not a “good news story” lightly spun. Especially when a significant element of the NZ in-crowd is cashing in on rebuilding ChCh despite the long term issues with the location

    Yes that’s right Thomas, it’s the in-crowd cashing in by spreading lies and propaganda.
    Oh, and we all think the world is 6000 years old, dinosaurs didn’t exist and everyone, including unborn babies, should have guns ….

  10. Simon on 14/06/2016 at 11:29 am said:

    I find it peculiar that you all categorically reject satellite estimates of sea level rise but whole heartedly endorse satellite estimates for temperature. Satellite altimetry has proven to be extremely accurate and yet satellites have no means for directly measuring surface temperature.

  11. Andy on 14/06/2016 at 12:02 pm said:

    I don’t personally reject satellite measurements. I reject the technique of splicing satellite data to the end of tide gauge data and claiming an acceleration exists, when neither individual data source shows an acceleration.

  12. Richard Treadgold on 14/06/2016 at 1:04 pm said:

    Simon, it’s not as you say. We’ve never rejected the altimeter record, but the practise of appending an altimeter record to a tide gauge record. This is the only way to produce an apparent acceleration, because neither the tide gauges nor the altimeters, on their own, show acceleration. But, as you know, it means you’ve got apples at the beginning of the series and bananas at the end. Quite unscientific. I’m sure this has been explained several times.

    The other point is that altimeters measure the whole ocean surface, meaning that every surface bulge and hollow is converted to an average altitude compared with a theoretical geoid. The tide gauges don’t do this, but measure local sea level over time. The only valid comparison between them is the amount of temporal change in sea level. Though you must still bear in mind there’s no part of the ocean that constantly experiences the average change in sea level, so the exercise is a bit useless.

    The actual sea surface varies from the theoretical geoid by up to 100 metres. I have read that sea level can vary in places by up to many metres at the same time, but just now I can only verify about 0.6 m, cited here by NASA.

    Satellite-borne microwave detectors directly measure the temperature of atmospheric oxygen molecules, which is converted into atmospheric temperature at different altitudes. After teething problems were resolved, it’s become a reliable proxy for atmospheric temperature covering every part of the globe—and two rival teams are doing it, so they keep each other honest.

  13. Richard C (NZ) on 14/06/2016 at 3:00 pm said:


    >”I find it peculiar that you all categorically reject satellite estimates of sea level rise…..”

    You are DEAD WRONG Simon. We EXPLICITLY ACCEPT SATELLITE estimates (and see Andy’s reply).

    However, “perculiar” yes, if you don’t follow the thread and don’t comprehend what we are saying. Look just upthread, I said:

    “We [CCG sceptics questioning IPCC-centric SLR] have the PSMSL TG data from around NZ, the 50 yr trend analyses of long running TGs, the Pacific satellite SL study. No “acceleration” in any of them.”

    “Pacific satellite SL study” is this paper referenced upthread (more than once):

    ‘Is anthropogenic sea level fingerprint already detectable in the Pacific Ocean?’
    Palanisamy et al (2015)

    Vast areas of sea level FALL in the Pacific (see Fig 1). The finding was “NO”, an anthropogenic sea level fingerprint is NOT already detectable in the Pacific Ocean and that we would have to wait “decades” if it were ever to emerge from natural variation.

    In other words, Pacific SLR is a non-issue but may become topical again in around 30 years time if the IPCC speculation is revisited – if anyone is still interested then.

    And what you are effectively looking at in Pacific satellite sea leval (see Palanisamy et al Fig 1) is Indo-Pacific Warm Pool (IPWP) skew. There is NO typical satellite SLR rate in the Pacific. How can there be when much of Pacific satellite sea leavels are FALLING, and in some areas at a statistically significant of MORE THAN -4 mm/yr?

  14. Andy on 16/06/2016 at 9:52 am said:

    Church and White (2011) report a statistically significant acceleration of SLR since 1990 of 0.009 ± 0.004 mm year−2

    If you assume that “global” SLR is now 3.4mm/yr, and has increased from 1.7mm/yr in 1990 (for sake of argument) then the acceleration since 1990 is (3.4/1.7) / 26 = 0.077mm yr-2

    This is 6 times the acceleration reported for the rest of the 20th C

  15. Andy on 16/06/2016 at 3:30 pm said:

    Judge Shonagh Kenderdine is heading the Tonkin and Taylor peer review process in Christchurch

    This article isn’t exactly complimentary about her:

    “The Turitea wind farm corruption, fraud and aftermath”

    Paul Stichbury

  16. Richard C (NZ) on 16/06/2016 at 4:26 pm said:

    Kenderdine’s NOT a judge:

    “Attorney-General Finlayson who had permanently removed Kenderdine’s warrant on 6 August 2010.”

    But she’s been carrying on as if she were.


  17. Andy on 20/06/2016 at 9:28 am said:

    James Renwick has a piece in the NBR about sea level rise

    He makes this assertion:

    Where satellite and tide-gauge measurements overlap (approximately the past 20 years), the agreement on the rate of sea level rise is excellent. There is no unexplained discrepancy. Based on the known physics of ice melt and thermal expansion of ocean water, the rate of sea level rise is bound to keep increasing as greenhouse gas concentrations rise

  18. Andy on 20/06/2016 at 9:41 am said:

    He might be citing this paper (link taken from Hot Topic)

    Trends and acceleration in global and regional sea levels since 1807, Jevrejeva et al, Global and Planetary Change, 2013

  19. Richard C (NZ) on 20/06/2016 at 9:42 am said:

    James Renwick should aquaint himself with some TG data around the world starting with the Pacific. Same for Satellite data.

    Then he wouldn’t make an idiot of himself.

  20. Andy on 20/06/2016 at 10:09 am said:

    from the paper I just cited

    We estimate an acceleration of 0.02 ± 0.01 mm·yr−2 in global sea
    level by the conventional method, defining the acceleration as the
    second derivative of sea level with time (twice the quadratic coeffi-
    cient), measured in mm·yr−2

    This rate is approx. 10 times the rate quoted in Church and White 2011. I wonder why this paper isn’t cited more often?

    Taking the upper bound of their claimed acceleration, SLR would be 1.5 metres above the secular trend by 2100

  21. Andy on 20/06/2016 at 11:28 am said:

    Actually the acceleration is only 2.5 – 3 times that of Church and White

    The 1.5 metres is correct though (.03 * 10^4 / 2)

  22. Andy on 20/06/2016 at 11:43 am said:

    Sorry, I’m having a bad maths day.

    150mm = 15cm, not 1.5 metres

  23. Richard C (NZ) on 20/06/2016 at 2:32 pm said:

    TG data in Figure 14 and Table 1 of Jevrejeva et al (2013) make a mockery of their “acceleration” claims.

    Compare the swpacific graph (rise) to sepacific (flat) in Fig 1 for example.

    Similarly Table 1: Linear trends for 14 regions since 1970 [1970–2008]

    Basin, Trend (mm·yr−1)
    Antarctic 4.1 ±0.8
    Arctic 3.6 ±0.3
    Balticb 1.7 ±0.6
    Cpacific 2.2 ±1.4
    Indian −0.1 ±1.3
    Mediterr 2.7 ±0.5
    Neatlantic 0.9 ±0.6
    Nepacific −0.7 ±0.3
    Nwatlantic 1.6 ±0.3
    Nwpacific 2.7 ±0.6
    Seatlantic N/A [rise – see Fig 1 graph]
    Sepacific N/A [flat – see Fig 1 graph]
    Swatlantic 1.0 ±0.8
    Swpacific 1.3 ±0.6

    There’s no way they can claim “an acceleration of 0.02 ± 0.01 mm·yr−2 in global sea level (1807–2009)” from that lot. Especially given the Indian rate (−0.1 ±1.3 mm/yr). The Indian is a major ocean basin where rising ocean heat content overwhelms the entire global OHC metric but basin SL is flat.

    Then they have the contradictory problem (except Nepacific −0.7 mm/yr in Table 1) of all the satellite measured Pacific sea level FALL (blue areas but at rates much greater than −0.7 Nepacific) in Fig 1a of this paper:

    ‘Is anthropogenic sea level fingerprint already detectable in the Pacific Ocean?’
    Palanisamy et al (2015)

    Jevrejeva et al started out with real data and ended up with the usual “Global Average Illusion” – as planned I suspect. A bogus result in other, less charitable words

  24. Andy on 20/06/2016 at 2:50 pm said:

    From the same paper

    Furthermore, we calculate time variable acceleration using variable
    windows (from 10 to 190 years), starting from 1807 and sliding the
    windows year-by-year along the observation period, in order to see
    the evolution of acceleration depending on the data span and size of
    the window. Fig. 15 reveals that during the past 203 years there are
    several time periods with positive and negative sea level accelerations,
    suggesting that a wide spectrum (from 10 to 100 years) of variability
    influences estimates of sea level acceleration, and this leads to uncertainty
    in the quadratic fitting of the GSL depending on the time period
    selected. Fitting a second order polynomial to the GSL12 for the period
    1880–2009 gives an acceleration of 0.001 mm·yr−2
    , which is much
    smaller than the 0.009 mm·yr−2 reported by Church and White
    (2011) for that time period. Fig. 15 shows that, at periods longer than
    100 years, global sea level reconstruction is characterised by a positive
    acceleration of 0.02 mm·yr−2 over the full period of 1807–2009

    I remain unconvinced …

  25. Andy on 20/06/2016 at 3:11 pm said:

    They claim that the acceleration for the period 1807-2009 is 0.02mm yr-2
    and for 1880-2009 is 0.001mm yr-2

    So the case for anthropogenic acceleration of SLR would appear to be falsified by this paper.

    The apparent acceleration occurred before 1880, and curve fitting a quadratic also appears to be an invalid approach, as also demonstrated in the paper

  26. Richard C (NZ) on 20/06/2016 at 3:53 pm said:

    >”So the case for anthropogenic acceleration of SLR would appear to be falsified by this paper.”

    Yes, it appears so.

    Also, it’s not an attribution paper. They are explicitly equivocal on that in 4. Discussion, page 10 pdf:

    “It is debatable whether acceleration of sea level rise in the 20th century is due to anthropogenic climate change.”

    When data prior to 1880 determines the greater acceleration, anthropogenic cause is immediately ruled out. This is corroborated by attribution papers, aforementioned Palanisamy et al (2015) in particular, that find no human “fingerprint” in satellite era Pacific sea level data at least. 19th century TG data is not the missing clincher.

  27. Andy on 20/06/2016 at 6:14 pm said:

    This seems like a fairly haphazard paper, in that it uses a quadratic formula to calculate acceleration and then states that the quadratic is very sensitive to start and end points, i,e it is not a quadratic relationship (are we surprised?)

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