Previous article

Return to Tiempo index

Next article

Sea level and education in the Pacific

Than Aung of the National Tidal Facility describes the current work of the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project, discussing recent trends and the availability of relevant educational materials.

The author is training coordinator and oceanographer in the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project based at The Flinders University of South Australia.

In April 1989, the Australian Prime Minister gave an undertaking to the Forum Island Countries of the South Pacific to monitor greenhouse-related rising sea levels on their behalf. The South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project is believed to be the major task force developed as an Australian response to concerns raised by members of the South Pacific Forum Countries over the potential impacts of the greenhouse effect on climate and sea levels in the region. In 1991, the National Tidal Facility of The Flinders University of South Australia was awarded the contract to undertake management of the project.

As a result of the Prime Minister’s commitment, there developed an array of climate and sea level observatories ranging from the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean to the Cook Islands in the central Pacific. The observatories are capable of measuring sea level every six minutes with an accuracy of one millimetre. At the same time, data is telemetered along with meteorological observations on a daily basis to the National Tidal Facility at The Flinders University of South Australia.

Eleven monitoring stations were planned to provide wide coverage across the Pacific Basin. Participating countries are: Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. All stations were operational by October 1994.

Although Niue and the Federated States of Micronesia are member countries of the Project, monitoring stations have not yet been established there. After recent approval from AusAID, however, plans are underway to set up a station in the Federated States of Micronesia. The latest member of the South Pacific Forum is Palau. At the moment, it is not a project member country although, as of 1999, Palau does take part in our information and training programme.

The project aims to help Pacific Island countries and their governments understand the scale and implications of changing sea levels and climate. The task is challenging since climate is only one part of the problem of changing sea levels. Others include movement of the Earth’s crust due to movement of continental plates, active volcanoes, and earthquakes, all of which occur in the region.

From the geodesy and surveying component of the project, the latest results of vertical land movement of our monitoring stations in the Pacific region are presented in Table 1. In the table, + indicates rising and - sinking land. As we are aware, sinking land can have the similar effect as sea level rise.

Sea level and climate change problems are complex. No-one expects that significant information about the response of sea levels to global warming will be forthcoming in the short term. The monitoring programme clearly cannot reveal much about longer term phenomena as yet, but it can target all features which fall within the interannual to decadal time scales. Given that El Niño events occur apparently randomly, but typically one or two times in any decade, these fall within the brief.

As records lengthen, the programme aims to be able to make informed statements regarding sea level rise in the Pacific on a time scale of twenty years plus, thereby placing a premium on a secure archiving facility. Any estimate offered on a shorter time scale would clearly be at risk of major distortion from El Niño events.

Within its monthly reports to the Pacific Island Countries, the trend to date is provided, as is indicated in Table 2. It should be noted that almost every atoll in the Pacific ocean is low-lying and all are seriously threatened from sea level rise. For example, the sea level trend value for Fiji in Table 2, which is almost zero, is only for the main island where our station is situated. Fiji has many small outer islands already experiencing sea level rise problems.

Some values listed in Table 2 are extreme, both + (rising) and - (falling) in some areas. These divergences would be alarming if not carefully explained. According to our records, the large positive trends associated with the period up to October 1997 are believed to be associated with a recovery from a major El Niño phase so that sea levels in the western Pacific are seen to be returning to their more normal higher levels associated with the return of the warm patch to the region west of Papua New Guinea. Anomalously negative trends would be expected to be occurring at the same time elsewhere.

Fortunately, there is a means of checking this conjecture by accessing the results of satellite remote sensing of the sea surface from the Topex/Poseidon satellite. In this manner, sea level measurements under our project, using a geoidal reference frame, are compared and contrasted with the satellite measurements which use a geocentric reference frame and so both systems receive reinforcement.

Another major activity of the project is educational. Responsibility for presenting the most authoritative scientific forecast of the risks of global warming to the Pacific Islands has led to a series of courses held at the National Tidal Facility and at other Pacific locations and the development of a curriculum for Pacific schools covering both the physical science and the social impacts of climate change.

Until recently, information on climate change and its consequences was rarely available in educational materials in the South Pacific region. The review report of the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project, Phase I, recommended that a specific effort should be made to produce appropriate teaching materials on sea level and climate change issues for schools in the Pacific region during Phase II of the Project.

There are some outstanding projects related to climate change in the Pacific region. All of these programmes have mandates from their funding agencies to engage in the dissemination of scientific information and to improve educational and teaching material. The need to integrate the information from all these programmes is imperative so that a more complete and understandable message on climate change and sea level can be delivered to the Pacific region.

As a first stage, a four-day meeting for the development of curriculum modules for the Pacific Island countries was held in October, 1995 at the National Tidal Facility. The necessary guidelines were laid down by personnel from the National Tidal Facility, the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement programme of the United States. Based upon the decisions made during the above meeting, as a second stage, a two-week long workshop on curriculum development on climate change and related effects was successfully held in June 1996 at Apia, Samoa. Fourteen participants from 11 Pacific Island Countries took part in the workshop along with a six-member resource team from the National Tidal Facility, SPREP, the Samoa Teachers’ College and Schools of the Pacific Rainfall Climate Experiment.

As a substantial outcome of the workshop, a draft of eight curriculum modules on climate change and its impacts was produced, mainly targeted at upper primary and lower secondary levels of schools in the Pacific. Subsequent compiling, reformatting, rewriting and editing of the above eight modules were carried out by the Training Coordinator of the National Tidal Facility and the Climate Change Officer of SPREP simultaneously in Adelaide and Apia. Further discussion took place in Noumea during the Third SPREP Meeting on Climate Change and Sea Level Rise in the Pacific in August 1997. It was decided to produce two parts in text form for both teachers and students: Part One: Physical Science, and Part Two: Social Science.

The Curriculum Modules for the Pacific Schools on Climate Change and Sea Level cover the following topics:

  • in Part One: Physical Science, module one covers the atmosphere; module two covers weather and climate; module three covers the ocean and ocean circulation; and module four covers perspectives on climate change and sea level variation; and,
  • in Part Two: Social Science, module one covers evidence of climate change; module two covers causes of climate change; module three covers the possible impacts of climate change on the physical environment; and module four covers the impacts of climate change on society.

The National Tidal Facility published Part One and Part Two of the curriculum modules in 1998. In June of that year, the Australian Ambassador for the Environment officially launched the books at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, during the Pacific Regional Conference for Environmental Education and Training.

The books were well received by more than 150 educators from 18 Pacific island countries. More copies were later distributed to project member countries. In November 1998, the first curriculum implementation workshop for teachers was conducted in Nauru by the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Project and the National Tidal Facility. In May 1999, the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Project took the initiative to run a similar curriculum implementation workshop for teachers in Papua New Guinea. A second workshop took place in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea and a third was conducted in Port Moresby, both with great success.

Greater effort is necessary to involve local communities in coastal area management through helping them develop the necessary awareness and understanding of their environment. Greater effort is also needed to develop awareness programmes on the subject of climate change and sea level. Appropriate programmes of continuing community education are highly recommended. Publication of a series of “state-of-the-art” papers incorporating new developments, made easily available and written in a reader-friendly manner would be extremely useful. Skilled scientists and teachers who are good communicators should be encouraged to write and produce educational packages such as books, teaching manuals, videos, etc, particularly information relevant to specific regions which succeeds in satisfying the needs of both the specialists and the generalists.

The Information and Training Component of the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project is currently playing a vital role for capacity building in this context.

Further information

Than Aung, National Tidal Facility, The Flinders University of South Australia, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA 5001, Australia. Fax: 61-8-82017523. Email: Web:

Previous article | Return to Tiempo index | Next article