Global warming in Tuvalu

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Global warming is a concern in Tuvalu since the average height of the islands is less than 2 metres (6.6 ft) above sea level, with the highest point of Niulakita being about 4.6 metres (15 ft) above sea level. Tuvalu could be one of the first nations to experience the effects of sea level rise.[1] Not only could parts of the island be flooded but the rising saltwater table could also destroy deep rooted food crops such as coconut, pulaka, and taro.[2][3]

Climate systems that affect Tuvalu

Location of Tuvalu

Tuvalu participates in the operations of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP).[4] The climate of the Pacific region at the equator is influenced by a number of factors; the science of which is the subject of continuing research. The SPREP described the climate of Tuvalu as being:

Sea surface temperature anomalies in November 2007 showing La Niña conditions. Blue=temperature below average; red=temperature above average

The sea level in Tuvalu varies as a consequence of a wide range of atmospheric and oceanographic influences.[6] The 2011 report of the Pacific Climate Change Science Program published by the Australian Government,[7] describes a strong zonal (east‑to-west) sea-level slope along the equator, with sea level west of the International Date Line (180° longitude) being about a half metre higher than found in the eastern equatorial Pacific and South American coastal regions. The trade winds that push surface water westward create this zonal tilting of sea level on the equator. Below the equator a higher sea level can also be found about 20° to 40° south (Tuvalu is spread out from 6° to 10° south).[8]

The Pacific Climate Change Science Program Report (2011) describes the year-by-year volatility in the sea-level as resulting from the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO):

The Pacific (inter-)decadal oscillation is a climate switch phenomenon that results in changes from periods of La Niña to periods of El Niño. This has an effect on sea levels. For example, in 2000 there was a switch from periods of downward pressure of El Niño on sea levels to an upward pressure of La Niña on sea levels, which upward pressure causes more frequent and higher high tide levels. The Perigean spring tide (often called a king tide) can result in seawater flooding low-lying areas of the islands of Tuvalu.[9]

Measuring climate change effects in Tuvalu

Ocean side of Funafuti atoll showing the storm dunes, the highest point on the atoll.

In 1978 a tide gauge was installed at Funafuti by the University of Hawaii. It has measured a sea rise of 1.2 mm per year over 23 years—a figure consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) global mean estimate of 1 to 2 mm per year over the 20th century.[10] The 40 cm rise in sea level predicted by the IPCC by the end of the 21st century (not including potential increases in sea level rise from dynamic ice sheet behaviour) could have significant effects for Tuvalu.[11] However the uncertainty as to the accuracy of the data from this tide gauge resulted in a modern Aquatrak acoustic gauge being installed in 1993 by the Australian National Tidal Facility (NTF) as part of the AusAID-sponsored South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project.[12]

The highest elevation is 4.6 metres (15 ft) above sea level on Niulakita,[13] which gives Tuvalu the second-lowest maximum elevation of any country (after the Maldives). However, the highest elevations are typically in narrow storm dunes on the ocean side of the islands which are prone to over topping in tropical cyclones, such as occurred with Cyclone Bebe.[14] In March 2015 the storm surge created by Cyclone Pam resulted in waves of 3 metres (9.8 ft) to 5 metres (16 ft) breaking over the reef of the outer islands caused damage to houses, crops and infrastructure.[15][16] On Nui the sources of fresh water were destroyed or contaminated.[17][18]

Tuvalu is also affected by perigean spring tide events (often called a king tide), which raise the sea level higher than a normal high tide.[19] The highest peak tide recorded by the Tuvalu Meteorological Service was 3.4 metres (11 ft) on 24 February 2006 and again on 19 February 2015.[20][21] As a result of historical sea level rise, the king tide events lead to flooding of low-lying areas, which is compounded when sea levels are further raised by La Niña effects or local storms and waves.[9] In the future, sea level rise may threaten to submerge the nation entirely as it is estimated that a sea level rise of 20–40 centimetres (8–16 inches) in the next 100 years could make Tuvalu uninhabitable.[22][23]

The atolls have shown resilience to gradual sea-level rise, with atolls and reef islands being able to grow under current climate conditions by generating sufficient sand and broken coral that accumulates and gets dumped on the islands during cyclones.[24][25][26] There remains the risk that the dynamic response of atolls and reef islands does not result in stable islands as tropical cyclones can strip the low-lying islands of their vegetation and soil. Tepuka Vili Vili islet of Funafuti atoll was devastated by Cyclone Meli in 1979, with all its vegetation and most of its sand swept away during the cyclone.[27] Vasafua islet, part of the Funafuti Conservation Area, was severely damaged by Cyclone Pam in 2015. The coconut palms were washed away, leaving the islet as a sand bar.[28][29] The effect of Cyclone Pam, which did not pass directly over the islands, shows that Tuvaluans are exposed to storm surges causing damage to their houses and crops, and also the risk of water born disease as a consequence of contamination of the water supplies.[15][30][31]

Gradual sea-level rise also allows for coral polyp activity to raise the atolls with the sea level. However, if the increase in sea level occurs at faster rate as compared to coral growth, or if polyp activity is damaged by ocean acidification, then the resilience of the atolls and reef islands is less certain.[32]

There is further contention as to whether saltwater encroachment that is destroying the gardens for pulaka, taro and coconut palms is the consequence of changes in the sea level;[33] or the consequence of the fresh water being extracted from the freshwater lens in the sub-surface of the atoll or the consequence of the creation of the borrow pits, which are the result of the extraction of coral to build the runway at Funafuti during World War II.[34] The investigation of groundwater dynamics of Fongafale Islet, Funafuti, show that tidal forcing results in salt water contamination of the surficial aquifer during spring tides.[35] The degree of aquifer salinization depends on the specific topographic characteristics and the hydrologic controls in the sub-surface of the atoll. About half of Fongafale islet is reclaimed swamp that contains porous, highly permeable coral blocks that allow the tidal forcing of salt water.[36] Increases in the sea level will exacerbate the aquifer salinization as the result of increases in tidal forcing.

Estimates as to changes in the sea level relative to the islands of Tuvalu

The uncertainty with the pre-1993 sea level records from Funafuti meant that records over a longer period were needed, so that the 2002 estimates of sea level change relative to the islands of Tuvalu was presented to acknowledge a degree of uncertainty as to the conclusions made from the available data.[12]

Part of the uncertainty relates to the impact of El Niño events which (as described above) can actually result in sea levels falling by 11 inches (28.4 centimeters) as compared to the sea level during a La Niña events.[34]

The 2011 report of the Pacific Climate Change Science Program of Australian concludes: "The sea-level rise near Tuvalu measured by satellite altimeters since 1993 is about 5 mm per year."[37]

There are observable changes that have occurred over the last ten to fifteen years that show Tuvaluans that there have been changes to sea levels.[38] Those observable changes include sea water bubbling up through the porous coral rock to form pools on each high tide and flooding of low-lying areas including the airport on a regular basis during spring tides and king tides.[39][40][41]

2011 report of the Pacific Climate Change Science Program

The 2011 report of the "Pacific Climate Change Science Program" of Australian concludes in relation to Tuvalu that over the course of the 21st century:

• Surface air temperature and sea‑surface temperature are projected to continue to increase (very high confidence).[37]

• Annual and seasonal mean rainfall is projected to increase (high confidence).[37]

• The intensity and frequency of days of extreme heat are projected to increase (very high confidence).[37]

• The intensity and frequency of days of extreme rainfall are projected to increase (high confidence).[37]

• The incidence of drought is projected to decrease (moderate confidence).[37]

• Tropical cyclone numbers are projected to decline in the south-east Pacific Ocean basin (0–40ºS, 170ºE–130ºW) (moderate confidence).[37]

• Ocean acidification is projected to continue (very high confidence).[37]

• Mean sea-level rise is projected to continue (very high confidence).[37]

National response to the challenges faced by Tuvalu

Tuvalu faces challenges which will be exacerbated by climate change, those challenges are:

i) Coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion and increasing vector and water borne diseases due to sea level rise;

ii) Inadequate potable water due to less rainfall and prolonged droughts;

iii) Pulaka pit salinisation due to saltwater intrusion; and

iv) Decreasing fisheries population.[42]

National Adaptation Programme of Action & National Advisory Council on Climate Change

In a speech on 16 September 2005 to the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Maatia Toafa emphasized the impact of climate change as a "broader security issue which relates to environmental security. Living in a very fragile island environment, our long-term security and sustainable development is closely linked to issues of climate change, preserving biodiversity, managing our limited forests and water resources."[43][44]

Tuvalu’s National Adaptation Programme of Action describes a response to the climate change problem as using the combined efforts of several local bodies on each island that will work with the local community leaders (the Falekaupule). The main office, named the Department of Environment, is responsible for coordinating the non-governmental organizations, religious bodies, and stakeholders. Each of the named groups are responsible for implementing Tuvalu’s National Adaptation Programme of Action, the main plan to adapt to the adverse effects of human use and climate change.[45] The threat of climate change to the islands is not a dominant motivation for migration as Tuvaluans appear to prefer to continue living in Tuvalu for reasons of lifestyle, culture and identity.[46]

Tuvalu has said it wants all its energy to come from renewable sources by 2020.[47]

In 2013 Enele Sopoaga, the prime minister of Tuvalu, said that relocating Tuvaluans to avoid the impact of sea level rise "should never be an option because it is self defeating in itself. For Tuvalu I think we really need to mobilise public opinion in the Pacific as well as in the [rest of] world to really talk to their lawmakers to please have some sort of moral obligation and things like that to do the right thing."[48]

‘The Economics of Climate Change in the Pacific’ 2013 report of the Asian Development Bank estimates the range of potential economic impacts of climate change for agriculture, fisheries, tourism, coral reefs, and human health in the Pacific region; with agriculture production, such as taro, particularly vulnerable to the effect of climate change.[49] The Pacific countries are projected incur economic losses in the range of 4.6% to 12.7% of the region’s annual GDP equivalent by 2100, with the degree of severity changing with different CO2 emission scenarios.[50]

On 16 January 2014 Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga established the National Advisory Council on Climate Change, which functions are "to identify actions or strategies: to achieve energy efficiencies; to increase the use of renewable energy; to encourage the private sector and NGOs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to ensure a whole of government response to adaptation and climate change related disaster risk reduction; and to encourage the private sector and NGOs to develop locally appropriate technologies for adaptation and climate change mitigation (reductions in [greenhouse gas])."[51]

At the 20th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2014 at Lima, Peru, Sopoaga said "Climate change is the single greatest challenge facing my country. It is threatening the livelihood, security and wellbeing of all Tuvaluans."[52]

Tuvalu's role at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference 2009

In December 2009 the islands stalled talks at United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, fearing some other developing countries were not committing fully to binding deals on a reduction in carbon emission, their chief negotiator stated "Tuvalu is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, and our future rests on the outcome of this meeting."[53] When the conference failed to reach a binding, meaningful agreement, Tuvalu's representative Ian Fry said, "It looks like we are being offered 30 pieces of silver to betray our people and our future... Our future is not for sale. I regret to inform you that Tuvalu cannot accept this document."[54]

Fry's speech to the conference was a highly impassioned plea for countries around the world to address the issues of man-made global warming resulting in climate change. The five-minute speech addressed the dangers of rising sea levels to Tuvalu and the world. In his speech Fry claimed man-made global warming to be currently "the greatest threat to humanity", and ended with an emotional "the fate of my country rests in your hands".[55]

Climate change leadership and the Majuro Declaration 2013

In November 2011, Tuvalu was one of the eight founding members of Polynesian Leaders Group, a regional grouping intended to cooperate on a variety of issues including culture and language, education, responses to climate change, and trade and investment.[56][57][58] Tuvalu participates in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which is a coalition of small island and low-lying coastal countries that have concerns about their vulnerability to the adverse effects of global climate change. The Sopoaga Ministry led by Enele Sopoaga made a commitment under the Majuro Declaration, which was signed on 5 September 2013, to implement power generation of 100% renewable energy (between 2013 and 2020). This commitment is proposed to be implemented using Solar PV (95% of demand) and biodiesel (5% of demand). The feasibility of wind power generation will be considered.[59]

Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak presented the Majuro Declaration to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during General Assembly Leaders’ week from 23 September 2013. The Majuro Declaration is offered as a "Pacific gift" to the UN Secretary-General in order to catalyze more ambitious climate action by world leaders beyond that achieved at the December 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15). On 29 September 2013 the Deputy Prime Minister Vete Sakaio concluded his speech to the General Debate of the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly with an appeal to the world, "please save Tuvalu against climate change. Save Tuvalu in order to save yourself, the world".[60]

2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21)

Commitment under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 1994

On 27 November 2015 the Government of Tuvalu announced its intended Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in relation to the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs) under provisions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which became effective on 21 March 1994:

Tuvalu's COP21 goal of global temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels

Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) that the goal for COP21 should a global temperature goal of below 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, which is the position of the Alliance of Small Island States.[62][63] Ms. Pepetua Latasi, the director of the Department of Environment, was the Chief Negotiator for Tuvalu.[64] Prime Minister Sopoaga said in his speech to the meeting of heads of state and government:

The participating countries agreed to reduce their carbon output "as soon as possible" and to do their best to keep global warming "to well below 2 degrees C".[66] Enele Sopoaga described the important outcomes of COP21 as including the stand alone provision for assistance to small island states and some of the least developed countries for loss and damage resulting from climate change and the ambition of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century.[67]

External links



Documentary films about climate change and Tuvalu:

  • Paradise Domain – Tuvalu (Director: Joost De Haas, Bullfrog Films/TVE 2001) 25:52 minutes - YouTube video
  • Tuvalu island tales (A Tale of two Islands) (Director: Michel Lippitsch) 34 minutes - YouTube video
  • The Disappearing of Tuvalu: Trouble in Paradise (2004) by Christopher Horner and Gilliane Le Gallic
  • Paradise Drowned: Tuvalu, the Disappearing Nation (2004) Written and produced by Wayne Tourell. Directed by Mike O'Connor, Savana Jones-Middleton and Wayne Tourell
  • Going Under (2004) by Franny Armstrong, Spanner Films
  • Before the Flood: Tuvalu (2005) by Paul Lindsay
  • Time and Tide (2005) by Julie Bayer and Josh Salzman
  • Tuvalu: That Sinking Feeling (2005) by Elizabeth Pollock from PBS Rough Cut
  • Atlantis Approaching (2006) by Elizabeth Pollock
  • King Tide | The Sinking of Tuvalu (2007) by Juriaan Booij
  • Tuvalu (Director: Aaron Smith, ‘Hungry Beast’ program, ABC June 2011) 6:40 minutes - YouTube video
  • Tuvalu: Renewable Energy in the Pacific Islands Series (2012) a production of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and SPREP
  • ThuleTuvalu (2014) by Matthias von Gunten, HesseGreutert Film/OdysseyFilm


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