The dynamic response of reef islands to sea-level rise: Evidence from multi-decadal analysis of island change in the Central Pacific
Low-lying atoll islands are widely perceived to erode in response to measured and future sea-level rise. Using historical aerial photography and satellite images this study presents the first quantitative analysis of physical changes in 27 atoll islands in the central Pacific over a 19 to 61 yr period. This period of analysis corresponds with instrumental records that show a rate of sea-level rise of 2.0 mm yr - 1 in the Pacific. Results show that 86% of islands remained stable (43%) or increased in area (43%) over the timeframe of analysis. Largest decadal rates of increase in island area range between 0.1 to 5.6 ha. Only 14% of study islands exhibited a net reduction in island area. Despite small net changes in area, islands exhibited larger gross changes. This was expressed as changes in the planform configuration and position of islands on reef platforms. Modes of island change included: ocean shoreline displacement toward the lagoon; lagoon shoreline progradation; and, extension of the ends of elongate islands. Collectively these adjustments represent net lagoonward migration of islands in 65% of cases. Results contradict existing paradigms of island response and have significant implications for the consideration of island stability under ongoing sea-level rise in the central Pacific. First, islands are geomorphologically persistent features on atoll reef platforms and can increase in island area despite sea-level change. Second, islands are dynamic landforms that undergo a range of physical adjustments in responses to changing boundary conditions, of which sea level is just one factor. Third, erosion of island shorelines must be reconsidered in the context of physical adjustments of the entire island shoreline as erosion may be balanced by progradation on other sectors of shorelines. Results indicate that the style and magnitude of geomorphic change will vary between islands. Therefore, island nations must place a high priority on resolving the precise styles and rates of change that will occur over the next century and reconsider the implications for adaption.