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Climate Change to Erase an Estimated 11,000 Islands Off the Face of the Earth

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Nov 14, 2013 12:10 PM EST
Agrihan island
NASA Space Shuttle image of Agrihan island in the Northern Mariana Islands. (Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

Islands are especially vulnerable to climate change -- a problem given that 20 percent of the world's biodiversity can be found on them.

Such were the findings of researchers from the University of Paris Sud who looked at three possible scenarios ranging from the best to worst outcomes. Published in the journal Nature Conservation, the results underscore the threats facing the biodiversity refuges.

Previous studies have estimated that sea levels will rise between 0.5 meters and 2.3 meters by the end of the century. In the very worst case scenarios characterized by ice sheet melting and sliding, these numbers jump to between 4 meters and 6 meters.

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Many of these scenarios would mean the complete wiping-out of self-contained ecosystems and those who call them home, the researchers warn.

The researchers included 1,269 islands that France harbored in the study. From these, New Caledonia and French Polynesia were found to be most vulnerable to sea level rise.

The French maritime domain, the scientists note, is ranked second most important in the world given their monopoly on much of the world's biodiversity. They estimated that 5 percent of the islands could be permanently inundated should sea levels rise just 1 meter. This number jumps to 8 percent in the case of 2 meters and 11 percent in the case that sea levels rise 3 meters.

In the case that the French islands are representative of those worldwide, an estimated 10,800 islands could be erased off the face of the globe should levels rise just 1 meter.

"Losses of insular habitats will thus be relatively important in the future, probably leading to a major impoverishment of insular biodiversity," co-researcher C. Bellard said in a statement. "Given the implications of these results, decision makers are required to define island conservation priorities that accounts for sea level rise following climate change."

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