New study finds coral islands may not “drown” amid climate change

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June 15, 2020

A new study co-led by Simon Fraser University Dean of Science Paul Kench has found that coral reef islands globally may be capable of adapting naturally to sea level rise in the face of global warming.

The study, published today in the journal Science Advances, suggests that these islands, thought to be at risk of “drowning” and becoming inhabitable due to increased flooding within decades, may be adaptable due to a process by which beach sand transfers during flooding to the island’s surface, building up the island's elevation. Previously it was thought islands did not change as sea levels rise.

Researchers developed a new model that enabled them to predict how the islands will change over the next century. “Such a model is critical to support small island nations to develop improved adaptation strategies,” says Kench, who has studied coral reef islands for the past two decades. Nearly one million people live on low-lying reef islands.

Kench’s early work developed some of the first attempts to evaluate the physical response of islands to sea level change. Previously there had been little knowledge of the processes that control island formation and change. His work includes numerous field-based investigations in the Pacific and Indian oceans investigating how islands have formed in response to sea level change and environmental variability.

Kench collaborated on the study with Gerd Masselink from the U.K.’s University of Plymouth.