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South Pacific climate change

The Third SPREP Meeting on Climate Change and Sea Level Rise was held in Noumea, New Caledonia, from the 18th to the 22nd August 1997. The meeting was organized by the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and the ORSTOM Research Institute. More than 123 participants from 30 countries and territories in the Pacific and around the world attended the meeting.

The following report is an edited account of the Chairpersons’ summary of findings and future needs for the region. The Chairpersons for the meeting were government representatives and administrators of American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Samoa and Vanuatu.

A review of scientific information and understanding in the Pacific regarding climate change and sea level rise drew on information from a range of sources. Temperatures have been increasing by 0.1°C per decade in the region and sea levels by 2 mm/yr. It is recognized that the Pacific region plays an important role in understanding global climate change.

Modelling, scenario development and vulnerability assessments will play key roles in helping the Pacific respond to climate change and sea level rise. Models currently suggest a doubling of carbon dioxide concentration will increase sea-surface temperatures by 1°C and increase rainfall intensity in the central equatorial Pacific. Although the Second Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did not reveal a consensus regarding tropical cyclones, research has indicated a possible intensity increase of 10-20 per cent with a doubling of carbon dioxide.

Vulnerability assessments have shown Pacific Islands countries to be highly vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise with a low capacity to respond. The response capability needs to be strengthened through regional and international cooperation and education, training and awareness raising. Countries also need to be encouraged to perform integrated impact assessments in addition to sectoral ones.

The National Tidal Facility, established by Australia at Flinders University in 1989 (see Tiempo, Issue 21, September 1996) as a service to Australia and the region, operates eleven sea level monitoring sites in the South Pacific. Most stations are showing accelerated sea level rise with increases of up to 25 mm/year. This is more than ten times the trend this century. The findings have been validated by satellite data showing 20 to 30 mm per year rises in a region from Papua New Guinea southeast to Fiji. The cause and duration of this variation is unknown, but is likely related to the ENSO phenomenon.

The New Zealand Meteorological Service has supported a number of Pacific Island countries’ meteorological services since around 1940. Research shows that surface air temperatures have increased by 0.3°C to 0.8°C this century, with the greatest increase in the zone southwest of the South Pacific Convergence Zone. Records also indicate that rainfall has increased in the northeast and decreased in the southwest of the Pacific. Interannual variations in temperature and rainfall were found to be associated with the Southern Oscillation Index and the research also found an eastward movement of the South Pacific Convergence Zone had taken place. The changes observed were considered to be consistent with anthropogenic activity.

To ensure a maintenance of long-term, high quality data, Pacific Island governments need to ensure that financial support for national meteorological services is maintained, that there is ongoing training and capacity building and that appropriate technologies are used for the purpose.

A great deal of international effort has enabled the identification of seasonal and interannual trends in oceanic conditions, but scientists are not yet in a position to identify long-term trends in temperature and salinity. More oceanographic observational work is needed to understand the mechanisms that govern climate in the region.

Carbon dioxide exchanges between the ocean and atmosphere in the equatorial zone east of the international dateline resulted in 1000 million tonnes of carbon being exported to the atmosphere as a result of upwelling. This figure would be considerably higher were it not for biological processes which re-use carbon brought to the surface by upwelling in the eastern Pacific. Results from the ORSTOM Research Institute in Noumea, New Caledonia, also indicated that during El Niño events atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations tended to increase less rapidly and during La Niña carbon dioxide measurements indicated a more rapid increase in atmospheric concentration.

The Pacific ENSO Applications Centre in Hawaii, USA, provides information to a number of Pacific Island countries regarding ENSO. Currently experimental climate forecasting is being carried out. Climate forecasts will be of considerable assistance in planning agricultural production, fisheries, human health and civil defence activities. While for some locations and for certain seasons a high degree of skill can be obtained in forecasting ENSO-related climate conditions, in other areas prediction is more difficult.

Communications in the Pacific region are badly in need of significant improvement for a better tropical cyclone warning system. Although meteorological services are doing their best, the error in predicting the locality to be hit by a tropical cyclone is quite high. For example, if a warning is given 12 hours ahead, the error is 122 km. Due to this high error, it is likely that an unprepared area may be hit by a tropical cyclone. Media reports on tropical cyclones are not as accurate as is desired and such reports were criticized.

Changes in frequency, area of occurrence, time of occurrence, mean intensity and the maximum intensity of the tropical cyclone cannot be predicted by present numerical models. Based on the present records, no two tropical cyclones are the same. During an El Niño event, a cyclone has more than a 40 per cent chance of being a severe one.

Climate change and its impact on human health is a new area of research. We do not know enough about what might happen in the future, highlighting the importance of integrated assessment models for assessing impacts on health. Cholera incidence is on the rise and there have been reports of malaria incidence in areas which previously did not have malaria — for example, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Future work should include: identification of vulnerable populations; development of indicators and response strategies; and development of early warning systems. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the South Pacific Commission are in the process of collaborating on work related to health indicators and ENSO-related events.

Climate impacts on tuna fisheries in the Pacific Ocean have been studied by the South Pacific Commission. Some 70 per cent of tuna catches come from the Pacific Ocean. The tuna resource is very closely linked to positions of warm pools. This is an area of low primary production. The result is surprising as tuna need to consume ten per cent of their body weight each day. Conclusions based on simulation studies indicate that secondary production (upwelling) enables the concentration of tuna in otherwise poor productivity areas as a result of the convergence zones. The impact of ENSO is clearly established; zonal movements include east-west movement of primary production and tuna levels.

The IPCC assessment of the social and economic dimensions of climate change has little reference to Pacific Island countries. The focus is mitigation. The IPCC report uses models which are mainly for developed economies. All islands are treated as if they are the same.

The social and economic dimension of global climate change has a number of implications for Pacific countries: Pacific Island countries make a small or negligible contribution to greenhouse gas emissions; they are among the countries which are most impacted; and knowledge of relevant parameters is very low.

Pacific Island countries should take precautionary approaches to the climate problem, acquiring more understanding and knowledge about causes and more about mitigation . Understanding effects and adaptations is essential in the political arena and thus public awareness is important to the Pacific region.

Most Pacific Island governments are aware of climate change, but they wish to know what they have to do to address the problem. The cultural dimension involves the environmental influence on both people and culture. For example, the larger islands with more resources would influence class structure and culture of communities living in them. Traditional knowledge has governed activities and survival of people in the region both in the past and present. The socio-economic dimension has indicated a change from subsistence to dual economy. Issues that need to be addressed include: population concentration and location infrastructure; food security; culture; and related activities.

The response options that have been, and will continue to exist in the region, include migration, resettlement and decentralization. All these need planning as they have policy implications. Thus, the future direction will have to be researched so that some response strategies can be planned and recommended for future adaptations.

Papers presented during the meeting and subsequent discussions identified the following needs.

At the national level

  • Implementation of locally-based "coping/sensitivity" studies taking into account social and economic consequences of such phenomena as droughts, floods, cyclones, abnormal tides and storm surges, coastal erosion, outbreaks of cholera and failure of food supplies.
  • Development, validation and application of integrated (that is, multi-sector) national-level impact assessment models (for example, CLIMPACTS) which meet the requirements and challenges of producing meaningful results for Pacific Island countries.
  • Development and validation of seasonal forecasts of key national indicators, including rainfall anomalies, wind anomalies, tropical cyclone frequency and intensity and sea level variations and change.
  • In-country assessments of local adaptation and mitigation strategies, including assessment of their technical effectiveness, economic effectiveness, cultural and social acceptability and links with traditional methods.
  • Public awareness raising, including such activities as translation of technical information into local languages, songs, plays etc, briefing of decision makers and policy makers, information exchange, and education, including curriculum development and preparation of resource materials of local relevance.
  • Non-targeted (that is, generic), in-country training to empower decision makers, planners and community organizations in such skills as consensus building, priority setting and conflict resolution.
  • Targeted, in-country training to equip key individuals with technical skills to use locally and internationally derived information (for example, the Pacific Islands Climate Change Assistance Programme in-country training activities).
  • Capacity building, including strengthening of national meteorological services and port authorities.

At the regional level

  • Regional assessments of environmental changes.
  • Development and dissemination of guidelines for coastal protection and management.
  • Development and dissemination of technical guidelines for such procedures as storm surge calculations.
  • Regional assessments of mitigation and adaptation strategies.
  • Preparation of materials for public awareness raising.
  • Training of trainers.
  • Capacity building.

At the sub-regional level

Needs at the sub-regional level involve similar activities as those undertaken on a region-wide basis, but with a sub-regional focus bringing together those island countries with common needs, settings and backgrounds.

At the international level

  • Technical support to the Alliance Of Small Islands States (AOSIS) and Pacific Island country negotiators, by establishing a Technical Support Network.
  • Input to IPCC activities, including responsibilities of Pacific Islanders as lead authors and contributors to reports.
  • Sector-based, regional studies of consequences of environmental changes.
  • Technical support for sustainable development of Small Island States.
  • Global awareness raising through such activities as a Pacific Island countries’ Home Page on the Internet.

Further information

South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, PO Box 240, Apia, Western Samoa. Fax: 685-20231. Email:

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