When Hysteria is More Important than Science

This is a picture of the Maldives cabinet meeting that took place on October 17th, 2009. (click for credit)

Sea levels have been rising since the early 1800s, and while satellites have only been measuring them since 1992, satellite measurements indicate that they have been rising at a fairly constant rate of 2.8 millimeters per year. This is concerning to many people, especially the ones who live in countries like the Republic of Maldives, which is, on average, only 1.5 meters above sea level. In fact, the country is so concerned about the rising seas that in 2009, the nation’s cabinet held a meeting underwater, where they signed a document calling on all countries to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. After all, it is thought that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere warm the planet, which in turn causes sea levels to rise. If sea levels rise too much, the Republic of Maldives will be lost.

Now, of course, that kind of reasoning makes sense, but anyone who studies science should understand that things which make sense are not necessarily true. A lot of Aristotle’s notions (such as the idea that objects prefer to stay at rest) made sense, but science has demonstrated them to be false. In the same way, a lot of our modern theories (like quantum mechanics and relativity) make little sense, but experiments strongly support their conclusions (see here and here, for example).

Rather than giving into the hysteria, then, it is best to see what the data indicate. Interestingly enough, the data say that while the idea that rising sea levels will destroy countries like the Republic of Maldives makes sense, it is almost certainly not true. I first wrote about this three years ago, when a group of researchers decided to study some of the islands around the Funafuti Atoll, which holds the island nation of Tuvalu. They found that contrary to the hysteria, the majority of the islands they studied have grown since 1897, leading to a net increase in the amount of land available. Well, the same research group has completed a more extensive study, which confirms their previous conclusion.

They have now examined all 101 islands that make up the nation of Tuvalu, and they show that overall, the island nation has gained 735,000 square meters of land during the past 40 years of sea level rise. 74% of the islands in the nation grew, while the rest shrank. This is despite the fact that the tide gauge in the area indicates that the sea level there has risen faster than the global average (3.9 millimeters per year as opposed to 2.8 millimeters per year).

Now please note that this is not because people are fighting the rising seas. As the authors note, only 11 of the 101 islands have permanent residents, and even on those islands, there are very few projects related to sea level rise. As a result, they are confident that natural processes are responsible for the growth of land area in Tuvalu. They also note:

Results challenge perceptions of island loss, showing islands are dynamic features that will persist as sites for habitation over the next century, presenting alternate opportunities for adaptation that embrace the heterogeneity of island types and their dynamics.

Based on the data, then, island nations should not be worried about being lost to the rising seas. Instead, they should learn how their islands are changing and adapt to that change.

Does this mean we should ignore rising sea levels? Of course not! We need to study them as closely as possible, so we can avoid the hysteria that is so common in the public arena. The more we focus on the data, the less important political shenanigans such as the one pictured at the top of this post will become.


  1. Bruce Rennie says:

    Good afternoon Jay,

    When I was a child (around 8 and beyond), i used to read a lot of books that talked of natural things happening around the world. Some of the stories that were told were about islands rising up from the sea bottom and within a few short years had a decent plant coverage. Other stories were about islands that sank bank into the sea and disappeared under the waves.

    There are all sorts of strange (to our way of looking at things) happenings that occur with our oceans and the interactions with land masses. I have seen the high tide mark that were at a distance 15 to 30 metres from the treeline when I was a child end up being over a kilometre further out. Funnily enough my father used to tell that the same area for him as a child used to be even further out.

    As far as the sea-levels rising, is it a case of sea-levels rising or land-levels falling? From our perspective, they appear to be the same, but the underlying causes are very different.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I do think it’s sea levels rising, because land levels falling would be different in different parts of the world. We know that land also rises, so we wouldn’t see a steady trend around the world. The satellites see a steady trend, which implies that either all land masses are falling (hard to understand) or sea level is rising. One would also expect if the land were falling at 2.8 mm/yr, there would be some serious tectonic evidence.

  2. Alaska Nivanuatu says:

    That’s very interesting, because I’m actually in the Pacific Islands right now. Do you know of any other similar studies done in other island nations?

    Climate change is a big concern here in the Pacific, not so much because of the rising sea levels but because of all the cyclones. Cyclone Gita tore up Tonga and Samoa pretty bad a couple weeks ago.

    Speaking of climate change, apparently, “It’s never been harder to be a climate scientist,” since Trump was elected:

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I don’t know of any other detailed studies like the ones carried on by this research team. I find it amusing that the climate scientists are screaming about being silenced. After all, climate change alarmists have been trying to silence the skeptics for a couple of decades now. Some have even suggested jailing climate skeptics. While I am against silencing any scientific argument, I find it hard to feel sorry for these people since they are just getting a taste of their own medicine.

  3. Daniel A. says:

    I just discovered this blog and have already learned so much; really looking forward to following this 😀

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