A recent study has raised concerns about the fate of more than a dozen strategically vital coral islands in Australia, as they face an imminent threat due to climate change. Rising sea levels, marine heatwaves, intensified weather patterns, and ocean acidification are all contributing to the perilous situation.
Dr. Tommy Fellowes from the University of Sydney led the comprehensive study, which assessed 56 low-lying coral islands in Australia. The assessment took into account various factors, including their susceptibility to inundation, storms, sea-level rise, and the impact of marine heatwaves on the coral reefs that help stabilise these islands.
The islands were categorised into five risk levels, ranging from low to very high risk. Notably, three islands in Western Australia’s North West Shelf—Scott, Clerke, and Imperieuse reefs—were identified as “very high risk” and most vulnerable to the changing climate.
Furthermore, 11 islands located in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland were classified as facing a high risk of disappearing due to the aforementioned environmental pressures, such as storms, sea-level rise, and heat stress.
The primary threat to these islands is the rising sea levels, with some of them situated in areas where sea-level rise is occurring at a faster rate than the global average.
While the risk assessments were based on current conditions, it is evident that climate change is likely to exacerbate factors such as marine heatwaves, rising oceans, and more frequent storms in the future. However, the study did not provide specific time frames for when these islands could vanish, and this remains a focus for future research.
These coral islands play a crucial role in extending the maritime jurisdiction of Australia, granting the country rights over fisheries and resource exploration in their vicinity. The resilience of these islands is of strategic importance for Australia and the wider region in terms of coastal management.
Dr. Frances Anggadi, an expert at the University of Wollongong’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, highlighted that the loss of islands could necessitate a revision of Australia’s laws regarding maritime zones. Currently, Australia extends its maritime zone 200 nautical miles from the low tide mark. However, if islands disappear, a fixed coordinate system might be employed to determine the maritime zone.
Internationally, there is growing support for a change under UN processes that would designate exclusive economic zones based on coordinates, ensuring that economic rights are retained even if the land is submerged. Nonetheless, the issue remains complex and may still lead to disputes, as border disputes are influenced by sovereign interests and political sensitivities.
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Fellowes, T.E., Vila-Concejo, A., Byrne, M., Bruce, E. and Baker, E. (2024). Risk classification of low-lying coral reef islands and their exposure to climate threats. Science of The Total Environment, [online] 912, p.168787. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.168787.