Falling Sea Level Upsets
Theory Of Global Warming
By Mark Chipperfield in Tuvalu and David Harrison in London
The 11,000 inhabitants of a tiny Pacific country that was predicted to vanish under water because of the effects of global warming have been given a reprieve because sea levels have begun to fall.
In the early 1990s, scientists forecast that the coral atoll of nine islands - which is only 12ft above sea level at its highest point - would vanish within decades because the sea was rising by up to 1.5in a year. However, a new study has found that sea levels have since fallen by nearly 2.5in and experts at Tuvalu's Meteorological Service in Funafuti, the islands' administrative centre, said this meant they would survive for another 100 years.
They said similar sea level falls had been recorded in Nauru and the Solomon Islands, which were also considered to be under threat. The release of the data from Tuvalu, formerly part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, will renew scientific debate about climate change and its impact on ocean levels. The island's scientists admitted they were surprised and "a little embarrassed" by the change, which they blame on unusual weather conditions caused by El Niño in 1997.
Hilia Vavae, the Metereological Service's director, said: "This is certainly a bit of a shock for us because we have been experiencing the effect of rising oceans for a long time." Although their country has been saved from imminent engulfment, not all islanders are happy about the change in Tuvalu's fortunes. Residents who once worried about their homes being flooded are now complaining that the lower tides are disrupting their fishing expeditions, making it difficult to moor their boats and navigate low-lying reefs.
However, scientists both on and off the island believe such concerns will be short term because the sea level falls are coming to an end and the oceans will soon resume their inexorable rise. The Tuvalu government, a vocal critic of the industrialised world at environmental conferences in Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro, has said that the result of its research is a "blip" and it is expected to make climate change a major issue when it joins the United Nations next month.
Low-lying coral islands such as Tuvalu and the Maldives are among the countries most vulnerable to rising sea levels. Most of the world's leading scientists agree that the earth is warming up, caused by carbon dioxide emissions from petrol and the burning of coal.
Last month a study by Nasa, the US space agency, found that sea levels were being pushed up by the addition of 50 billion tons of water a year from Greenland's melting ice sheet. Professor Patrick Nunn, head of geography at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji and an expert on island formation, said last week that the figures from Tuvalu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons were based on inadequate research.
He said: "It is a nonsense to try to make predictions about climate change from a data base of only seven years. You need data over a minimum period of at least 30 years. A lot of these sea gauges have been slowly falling over the last five years but that is a short-term trend. Island countries such as Kiribati and Tuvalu remain incredibly vulnerable to sea change. These low-lying islands are between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. They only formed because sea levels fell, allowing a build up of sand and gravel. Now it could go the other way."
Ms Vavae is also pessimistic about the future of her country, which last year signed a £34 million deal to license its domain name - - to an American internet company. She said: "There is no doubt about the impact of climate change on Tuvalu. We already have difficulty planting traditional crops. We've seen more frequent tropical cyclones, more severe droughts and alarming sea level heights during spring tides.
"We are still facing the daunting prospect of being one of the first countries to be submerged by sea-level rises related to climate change."

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