Sea level rise isn’t a distant threat: It’s already swallowing islands, according to a recent study.
The study, published Friday, found that sea level rise and coastal erosion has caused five low-lying coral atolls in the Solomon Islands to disappear into the ocean. These islands were vegetated — once densely-so, the Washington Post reports, with palms, oaks, mangroves, and other trees — but weren’t populated.
The researchers looked at 33 islands along the barrier reefs in the Solomon Islands, which comprises more than 900 islands northeast of Australia. They gathered historic photos of the islands dating back to 1947, and compared them to current satellite images. They found that five islands had “been totally eroded away in recent decades,” leaving “dead tree trunks resting on hard reef platform.” In addition, six more islands had lost more than 20 percent of their area since 1947. In two locations, the researchers note, shoreline recession “destroyed villages that have existed since at least 1935, leading to community relocations.”
Sea level rise in the Solomon Islands is higher than average. Worldwide, sea levels have been rising at about 3 millimeters (about 0.12 inches) each year ince 1993, the IPCC reported in 2007. In the Solomon Islands, however, levels have been rising by about 7 to 10 mm (0.27 to 0.39 inches) per year since 1994, the study notes.
“Coastal erosion in the Solomon Islands over recent decades is causing unprecedented threats to the biota on these fragile islands and the subsistence communities who inhabit them,” the researchers write. “The isolation from predators that these offshore islands provide makes them critical nesting habitats for many endangered sea turtles and birds. The south Pacific’s largest rookery of Hawksbill turtles on the nearby Arnavon islands has been threatened in recent years due to substantial beach recession.”
The study is the first to look at how the shorelines of the Solomon Islands have changed in recent decades. But it isn’t the first to examine sea level rise’s impact on coastal and island communities. One town on the Solomon Islands’ Taro Island began planning to relocate its population in 2014, due to sea level rise that threatens to swallow the island, which sits 6.6 feet above sea level. The president of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati purchased land in 2014 on on of Fiji’s islands, which it says it will use to relocate its residents if seas get too high. And a study earlier this year found that the world’s coastal cities will be doomed if we don’t take major action against climate change.