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ARISE project: Will coral islands survive rising sea levels?

In an ambitious move to understand the impact of climate change on some of the world’s most vulnerable environments, an international research project has been launched to study the potential for low-lying coral atoll islands to withstand rising sea levels.

Islands on the front lines

The ARISE project, financed by UK Research and Innovation’s Horizon Europe Guarantee programme, has set its sights on the coral islands scattered across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. 

Often regarded as the front lines in the battle against climate change, these islands have been previously deemed likely to become uninhabitable by the mid-21st century, based on existing hydrodynamic models.

The initiative will be led by the University of Plymouth‘s Coastal Processes Research Group, renowned for challenging the narrative of inevitable island submersion.

Focus of the research 

Gerd Masselink, professor of Coastal Geomorphology at the University of Plymouth, is the project’s principal investigator. 

“The rise in sea levels as a result of climate change is going to place many coastal communities under threat. Within that, it has largely been assumed that these coral atoll islands could just disappear,” said Professor Masselink.

“Our previous research has suggested that is not a foregone conclusion, and this project will establish the processes at play and as well as supporting the communities that call these islands home by identifying and evaluating adaptation strategies.”

Rigorous fieldwork 

Starting in January 2024, the five-year ARISE project will conduct rigorous fieldwork in the Maldives and the Pacific, employing cutting-edge coastal process research tools and autonomous survey equipment. 

A complementary component will take place in the Delta Flume at Deltares in the Netherlands, where researchers will perform laboratory experiments to examine the islands’ resilience and their reaction to overwashing.

Extensive datasets 

This research initiative is designed not only to observe but to act, with teams ready to analyze atoll island systems’ responses to extreme events such as cyclones. 

By generating extensive datasets, the team aims to develop a suite of numerical models to predict both immediate and long-range responses of these islands to the threats posed by sea level rise.

Community engagement 

Working with local governments and institutions like the Maldives Government, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, and the Maldives National University, the project will prioritize community engagement. 

This partnership strives to empower island nations with adaptive strategies for continued habitation, merging Indigenous knowledge with scientific insights.

Survival of atoll islands 

“Atoll islands have been created over hundreds to thousands of years by ocean waves, and their future is intrinsically connected to it. The ecology of the reefs they sit on is also under threat, but their survival is critically important to the island’s survival,” said Professor Masselink.

“The big question is whether all of that can keep up with sea level rise, and answering that is crucial for both the islands and the people who live on them.”

In addition to academics and technicians from the Coastal Processes Research Group, and a number of international partners, the project has recruited six PhD candidates. Together, they will delve into the numerous processes affecting the islands’ viability and investigate adaptive measures.

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