Reef-island topography and the vulnerability of atolls to sea-level rise
Low-lying reef islands on the rim of atolls are perceived as particularly vulnerable to the impacts of sea-level rise. Three effects are inferred: erosion of the shoreline, inundation of low-lying areas, and saline intrusion into the freshwater lens. Regional reconstruction of sea-level trends, supplementing the short observational instrumental record, indicates that monthly mean sea level is rising in the eastern Indian and western Pacific Oceans. This paper reviews the morphology and substrate characteristics of reef islands on Indo-Pacific atolls, and summarises their topography. On most atolls across this region, there is an oceanward ridge built by waves to a height of around 3 m above MSL; in a few cases these are topped by wind-blown dunes. The prominence of these ridges, together with radiocarbon dating and multi-temporal studies of shoreline position, indicate net accretion rather than long-term erosion on most of these oceanward shores. Less prominent lagoonward ridges occur, but their morphology and continuity are atoll-specific, being a function of the processes operating in each lagoon. Low-lying central areas are a feature of many islands, often locally excavated for production of taro. These lower-lying areas are already subject to inundation, which seems certain to increase as the sea rises. Tropical storms play an important role in the geomorphology of reef islands in those regions where they are experienced. Topographical differences, as well as features such as emergence of the reef flat and the stability of the substrate, mean that islands differ in terms of their susceptibility to sea-level rise. Further assessment of variations in shoreline vulnerability based on topography and substrate could form the basis for enhancing the natural resilience of these islands.