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Analyzing How Coral Atoll Islands Could Adapt to Climate Change

A significant international research initiative is set to investigate the viability of low-lying coral atoll islands in withstanding the anticipated sea level rise.

Analyzing How Coral Atoll Islands Could Adapt to Climate Change

Image Credit: University of Plymouth

These islands, commonly situated in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, are widely recognized as some of the planet's most susceptible environments to the effects of climate change.

Many projections currently suggest that a significant portion of these islands will become uninhabitable by the middle of the 21st century. However, these forecasts rely on relatively basic hydrodynamic models.

A research project known as the Natural Adaptation of Atoll Islands to Sea-Level Rise, offering opportunities for ongoing human occupation (ARISE), is receiving £2.8 million in funding through the UK Research and Innovation's Horizon Europe Guarantee program.

The primary goal of the program is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the factors that pose threats to and safeguard the island nations. Additionally, it aspires to play a role in the development and implementation of climate change adaptation strategies.

The research project is under the leadership of the Coastal Processes Research Group (CPRG) at the University of Plymouth, which has previously conducted studies suggesting that the phenomenon of island “drowning” may not be as predictable in the context of rising sea levels as previously thought.

The rise in sea levels as a result of climate change is going to place many coastal communities under threat. Within that, it has largely been assumed that these coral atoll islands could just disappear. Our previous research has suggested that is not a foregone conclusion, and this project will establish the processes at play and as well as supporting the communities that call these islands home by identifying and evaluating adaptation strategies.

Gerd Masselink, Professor, Coastal Geomorphology and Principal Investigator, ARISE Project

In this five-year project, cutting-edge coastal process research instrumentation and autonomous survey equipment will be employed. The project will involve a series of extensive field tests conducted in the Maldives and the Pacific, commencing in January 2024 and extending through 2027.

In addition to the field tests, laboratory experiments are scheduled for the spring and summer of 2024. These experiments will take place in the largest wave flume at Deltares in the Netherlands.

The comprehensive tests will provide researchers with valuable insights into the effects of overwashing on the beaches of these islands and the natural mechanisms that enhance their resilience.

Additionally, research teams will be prepared to journey to atoll island systems to assess their reactions to cyclones and other severe wave events.

The data produced from these tests will be instrumental in the development, calibration, and validation of a set of numerical models. These models will be employed to assess how these islands may respond, both in the short and long term, to the rising sea levels.

The Coastal Processes Research Group (CPRG) has primarily focused its previous efforts on communities in the Maldives, and this new research project expands this collaborative approach to the Pacific region.

They will work closely with the Maldives Government, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, and the Maldives National University.

The scientists are also engaged in partnerships with communities and government organizations in these island nations. This collaboration allows them to help implement adaptation strategies that enhance the likelihood of sustained habitation, benefiting the local populations.

Atoll islands have been created over hundreds to thousands of years by ocean waves, and their future is intrinsically connected to it. The ecology of the reefs they sit on is also under threat, but their survival is critically important to the island’s survival. The big question is whether all of that can keep up with sea level rise, and answering that is crucial for both the islands and the people who live on them.

Gerd Masselink, Professor, Coastal Geomorphology and Principal Investigator, ARISE Project

Apart from academics and technicians from the Coastal Processes Research Group and several international partners, the project has employed six Ph.D. candidates. They will be working with the scientists to discover several methods impacting the islands, and the ways to implement them.


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