- 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 - tv.com - 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
- "We are still facing the daunting prospect of being
one of the first countries to be submerged by sea-level rises related to
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