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Coffee House

Why the Maldives aren’t sinking

3 December 2009

2:52 PM

3 December 2009

2:52 PM

The President of the Maldives recently held a Cabinet meeting underwater, saying his islands may be submerged. In an open letter, taken from the climate change supplement in the latest issue of the The Spectator, Nils-Axel Mörner assures him his country is safe:

Dear Mr President,

You are obviously very concerned about the effect that sea level rises may have on the Maldives. Your Cabinet has been photographed meeting underwater, and you have even declared that ‘we are going to die’ if the climate change summit in Copenhagen fails. I am now writing with what I hope will be some good news. The scientific side of the situation is quite different to that which you imagine. You are, in fact, not going to die.

Before I continue, I should perhaps state my credentials. I have been a sea-level specialist for 40 years. I launched most of its new theories in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. I solved the problem of the gravitational potential surface, the theory that it changes with time; the rotation of the earth, how it affected the redistribution of the oceans’ masses — and so on. Last year, I was awarded a prize from Algarve university for my ‘irreverence and contribution to our understanding of sea level change’.

We both know that the 1,200 islands of the Maldives are all low-lying with the highest point only some 2.5m (8ft) above sea level. Hence, your nation is vulnerable to extreme storms, tsunamis — and, of course, any possible sea level rise.

The IPCC vision is a rise that by the year 2100 may amount to between 30cm and 50cm. This is based on model calculations. Our figure is a 5cm rise, plus or minus 15cm. In a newspaper article, you have suggested that sea levels may rise by between one and eight metres. Those figures, however, do not concur with the physics and known rates of ice melting. So those figures must be dismissed as impossible.

I have been on no fewer than six different field expeditions to the Maldives. We worked in the lagoon, we drilled in the sea, we drilled in lakes, we looked at the shore morphology — many different environments. We have always found the same thing: a total stability for the last 30 years, preceded by a 20cm drop in sea level in the 1970s.

We have presented a detailed documentation of the sea level changes in the Maldives over the past 4,000 years. The record of the last 500 years may be of special interest to the situation of your islanders. It shows:

The people of the Maldives had no problems surviving the 17th century, which was 50cm higher than now. Nor the last century, where it rose by 20cm. This bodes well for their prospects of surviving the next change.

I recently visited Bangladesh, a country cursed by floods. In the Sundarban delta, I documented very strong coastal erosion despite zero changes in sea level. So, even here, there is no global sea level rise going on today — just as in the Maldives, in Tuvalu and in Vanuatu, to mention a few famous sites claimed already to be in the process of becoming flooded.

By the end of this century, sea level may have risen by between 30cm and 50cm according to the various IPCC scenarios. Our records suggest a maximum of 20cm. Neither of those levels would pose any real problem — simply a return to the situation in the 17th and the 19th to early 20th centuries, respectively.

So why the scare-mongering? Could it be because there is money involved? If you inhabit a tiny island and can convince the world that its very existence is under threat because of the polluting policies of the West, the industrialised nations will certainly respond. The money is likely to flow in more quickly than the ocean will rise.

This is the fourth time I have written to you. Unfortunately, I think there is a problem with your email service because so far I have not received an acknowledgement. For this reason, I have decided to write this open letter in the pages of The Spectator.

So, Mr President, you and your ministers in the Maldives really don’t need to worry about a future life beneath the waves. You should pass on this message to the people of the Maldives. It is high time to release them from this terrible psychological burden.

Yours,
Nils-Axel Mörner

A former lead reviewer for the IPCC, Nils-Axel Mörner was head of Geodynamics at Stockholm University until his retirement in 2005.

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