Scientists Believed These Islands Will Vanish, But Instead They Expanded

Low-lying tropical island nations were predicted to be early victims of rising sea levels.

Scientists Believed These Islands Will Vanish, But Instead They Expanded

Scientists are still unravelling the reasons behind this phenomenon.

Imagine a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, a remote speck of land accessible only by plane and boat. Turquoise waves lap against the pristine beach, the only sound breaking the stillness of a scorching afternoon. These idyllic tropical islands seem almost unreal, existing at the edge of the vast ocean. Humans have somehow managed to carve out a life here, in these most marginal of environments.

For years, when climate change rose to global prominence, these low-lying islands, formed on coral reefs called atolls, were seen as doomed. Rising sea levels threatened to swallow them whole, erasing these geological quirks from the map.

But a surprising discovery emerged. Researchers analysing aerial photographs noticed something unexpected, according to a report by the New York Times. Across hundreds of islands, the shorelines had shifted - some areas eroded, while others grew. Remarkably, the overall landmass hadn't shrunk. In some cases, the islands even expanded as sea levels rose.

Scientists are still unravelling the reasons behind this phenomenon. Recently, a team descended upon a Maldivian island, transforming it into a scientific hub with instruments and cameras. Their purpose? To understand how the constant interaction of waves and sand shapes the coastline, both sculpting and extending the land. 

However, their ultimate goal goes beyond mere physical processes. They want to answer a more profound question: what does the future hold for these atoll nations if complete submergence isn't their immediate fate?

Having a future doesn't guarantee a secure one. If some islands become uninhabitable while others remain viable, atoll governments will face agonising choices. They'll need to decide which islands to protect and which to relinquish. On the ones they save, long-term planning will be crucial - securing freshwater supplies, creating jobs, and establishing essential services like education and healthcare. In essence, they'll have to craft the best possible future with limited resources.

Perhaps, after all, atolls aren't such anomalies. Upon closer inspection, they begin to resemble many other places on Earth, facing a future fraught with uncertainty but also with the potential for adaptation and resilience.

Beyond the idyllic image of swaying palms and pristine beaches, atolls hold a deeper fascination for scientists. Their unique geological history, marked by volcanic origins and subsequent coral reef development, creates a diverse array of island shapes and sizes. 

Tectonic plate movement and volcanic subsidence allow corals to colonize the submerged flanks, building upwards and eventually forming a ring-shaped reef surrounding a lagoon. Wind and waves then deposit sand and debris on the exposed reef, creating the characteristic islets found on many atolls.

Their appearance depends on the stage of development, resulting in the distinct atoll morphologies observed in French Polynesia, the Maldives, and Micronesia. Notably, some Micronesian atolls even retain towering volcanic remnants as a testament to their geological past.

The scientific community is actively studying atoll dynamics. Researchers are utilizing aerial and satellite imagery to assess changes in island size and shape over time. A recent study of 184 Maldivian islands revealed a complex picture: nearly half exhibited erosion, while a similar proportion remained relatively stable. Interestingly, some islands even showed growth, with human intervention contributing to land expansion in a few cases.

Dr Kench's work in the Maldives serves as an example, with his on-site observations revealing contrasting erosion and accretion processes occurring simultaneously on different sides of the same island. This ongoing research is crucial for predicting future changes and informing atoll management strategies.

Researchers studied aerial and satellite imagery of 184 islands to see how they had changed in recent decades, the New York Times reported. Nearly 42 per cent of the islands had lost ground to erosion. But a similar proportion, 39 per cent, were relatively stable in area, even as they shifted in shape. And 20 per cent of islands grew, a few of them because humans had created new land.