Pacific Magazine, February 2002
Is Tuvalu Really Sinking?
By Dr Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon
Environmental activist Lester Brown, of the Earth Policy Institute, has
been accused of many things throughout his career, but poor taste had
never been one of them. That was, until America suffered the worst
terrorist attack in history.
Just 24 hours after the World Trade Center morphed instantly from a
thriving center of commerce to a harrowing mass grave, Brown claimed that
rising sea levels from human-caused global warming are "a potential for
disaster that could make what happened in New York yesterday look small".
Civilization is being trapped between expanding deserts and rising sea
levels - two forces of our "own creation." Brown had in mind the nine tiny
atolls that comprise Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean. Situated between Hawaii
and Australia, Tuvalu is the country with the worldıs fourth smallest land
area and compares in size to one-tenth the area of Washington, DC. Touting
the claim that the ocean is swallowing Tuvalu, Brown says: "The leaders of
Tuvalu have conceded defeat in their battle with the rising sea,
announcing that they will abandon their homeland." In 1997, a Tuvaluan
official, Toaripi Lauti told international delegates to a climate change
convention that "the impacts of global warming on our islands are real and
are already threatening our very survival and existence." And Leo Falcam,
President of the Federated States of Micronesia, expects massive
population relocation as the only option for relocating the world's "first
climate change refugees".
Brown and other environmental activists now consider 10,000 Tuvaluans the
world's first refugees of human-made global warming - blamed, in their
view, on the United States' gluttonous energy consumption that generates
greenhouse gases that warm the planet and cause the seas to rise. Sounds
serious enough. So what's going on? The coastline of Tuvalu is, indeed,
changing. The atolls of Tuvalu rest on sinking volcanic rock atop which
new coral grows to replace the coral die-off that occurs as the volcanic
rock subsides deeper into the ocean where coral does not survive. Such
island growth is slow. And it would certainly be too slow to keep pace
with forecast sea level rise attributable to global warming. Brown has
been quoted as saying that the oceans rose 8 to 12 inches in the last
Brown avers: "My sense is sea-level rise is a reasonably well-established
Check the Science
Well, rather than rely on Brown's "sense" of sea level rise, let's check
the instruments. As it turns out, estimates of globally averaged sea level
rise in the 20th century are irrelevant since Tuvalu's local sea level
change is very different from the globally averaged change. There are
three estimates of sea level changes for Tuvalu. The first is a satellite
record showing that the sea level has actually fallen four inches around
Tuvalu since 1993 when the hundred-million dollar international TOPEX/POSEIDON
satellite project record began. Second comes from the modern instruments
recording tide gauge data since 1978. There the record for Tuvalu shows
ups and downs of many inches over periods of years. For example, the
strong El Nino of 1997-98 caused the sea level surrounding Tuvalu to drop
just over one foot. The El Nino Southern Oscillation is a natural - as
opposed to man-made -future of the Pacific Ocean, as areas of the Pacific
periodically warm then cool every few years, causing significant sea level
rises and falls every few years in step with the co-oscillations of the
ocean and atmosphere. The overall trend discerned from the tide gauge
data, according to Wolfgang Scherer, Director of Australia's National
Tidal Facility, remains flat. "One definitive statement we can make,"
states Scherer, "is that there is no indication based on observations that
sea level rise is accelerating." Finally, there is the new estimate by
scientists at the Centre Nationale dıEtudes Spatiales who also find that
between 1955 and 1996 the sea level surrounding Tuvalu dropped four
All these measurements show that Tuvalu has suffered, at worst, no sea
level rise. So much for Brown's sense of sea level trends for Tuvalu.
That said, there are some local problems that have changed the coastline
of Tuvalu and mimic sea level rise. Sand is excavated for building
material on Tuvalu. The excavation for building material has eroded the
beach, thus giving the impression of rising sea to the casual observer.
"The island is full of holes and seawater is coming through these,
flooding areas that weren't normally flooded 10 or 15 years ago,"
according to Tuvalu environmental official, Paani Laupepa.
It is likely that the beach erosion and building on the island caused the
sea flooding of areas over the last decade. And that is a true
environmental concern. But it is a local, man-made problem that will not
be solved with massive cuts in carbon dioxide emission.
An environmental official of Tuvalu, Elisala Pita, is concerned with the
alarmism of western eco-imperialists. In an interview in the Canadian
Globe and Mail on November 24, Pita says that, "This [coastal] erosion is
caused by man-made infrastructure. Tuvalu is being used for the issue of
climate change. People are telling all these lies, just using Tuvalu to
prove their point. No island is sinking. Tuvalu is not sinking. It is
still floating." These small atolls have few natural resources, including
fresh groundwater. Catch basins or desalination plants form the only fresh
With such limited resources, the alarmism of western environmentalists
will do nothing to help Tuvaluans. Only the scientific facts will.
Dr Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon, are co-hosts, Tech Central Station
and Associate of the Harvard College Observatory.